The summer before the 2016 election, I came to the conclusion that I needed to delete my facebook. It was for several reasons, including misinformation and overwhelming unsolicited information regarding the ongoing presidential campaign. It was also because I had been working at a startup where I was, amongst many other things, involved in their use of facebook ads. Being a part of this process led me to learn about the world of facebook pixels, third-party advertisement companies, facebook demographic segmentations, and above all else, that there is “no such thing as a free lunch”. It really broke my naivety about the ways in which our data is extracted for profit.
A little over four years later, a major historical event in social media history takes place. President Donald Trump is suspended from twitter. I watched warily as liberals rejoiced. For me, this moment was terrifying. It was not a triumph over Trump but rather a message that Twitter is in many ways more powerful politically than our government.
Prior to this event, I had already been slowly experiencing increasing censorship on social media. Like many others may have noticed, during the presidential race, if you posted anything on Instagram relating to the presidential election, and specifically any negative information about Joe Biden (even in irony or satire), your post was marked with a warning stating “See why fact-checkers say this is false” and you may have even gotten shadow-banned.
As an example, here's a screenshot of my partner’s somewhat distasteful finsta account:
Now, I’ll be clear here: I voted for Joe Biden. I’m not making an argument against that. What I am making an argument against is the notion of disinformation online being a pathway to censorship. This meme, however blunt or on-the-nose it may be, does hold some truth. And so it is deeply troubling that this was flagged as fake news. It is also deeply troubling that it was flagged upon posting, which signifies to me that perhaps there is some sort of automation happening behind the scenes.
Memes are contextual. I would imagine it would be extremely complex and advanced for a machine learning algorithm to be able to deduce satire.
Case in point, the Brad Troemel satirical Biden Ad getting people kicked off of twitter (I’m not even a fan of Troemel btw):
It's kind of funny but it does make me worry about how these censorship methodologies will affect what we see or more importantly, what we do not see online.
Instagram is owned by Facebook. I’m not going to get too much into why Facebook is bad because there is so much information about that out there already. But I still have to remind myself that my commitment to creating content for Instagram means that I support Facebook as a company.
I may know that Facebook is bad, I may talk about how Facebook is bad, but if I’m still using their platforms, I’m still supporting their business.
I think a lot about the unpaid labor of content creation. I know there is “no such thing as a free lunch” and that this, along with my extracted data is the price I pay for using a platform. But then I question, is it worth it? Am I getting a good deal here? I think about the collective hours I've put into creating posts, surfing the feed, commenting, writing, editing. What would I pay myself to do this labor? What should I expect from a platform in exchange for this labor and does Instagram meet those expectations?
I don’t believe Instagram is as invested in me as I am in it. I don’t have any guarantees or guidelines around shadow-banning. This, to me, is like the ultimate form of social-media gaslighting. Instagram denies the existence of shadow-banning and yet I’ve seen its effects. I of course, wouldn’t have any reasonable way of proving that I am being shadow-banned, and I also don’t have any input or insight on what constitutes a shadow-ban-worthy offense.
Instagram also has an atrocious level of technical support. If you’ve run into any snafus and tried to contact support, you know what I mean. Its radio silence all around. I think of the other (albeit smaller) companies I interact with online through work and leisure and if they had the same lack of support, I’d drop them in a heartbeat.
Instagram claims to allow you to download your data (see my steps below). But when I tried several times to request my data, I was never sent anything. I reached out to support on several occasions explaining this and unsurprisingly never received any help or explanation.
By the way, if you are wondering if I gave up on downloading my data, you’d be incorrect. I put a lot of time into my account, and so yes, I manually downloaded the majority of my stories and posts. And yes, it took me several hours if not days. And I may be crazy (in fact, I am clinically depressed), but I felt that these images and videos documented a time in my life I will want to remember in the future. That in itself made it worth it. If you are considering deleting your Instagram, I would strongly implore you to get your data in any way possible first. Even if you think you don’t care about your content, your future self may thank you later.
Life after Instagram:
It’s been only a short time since I’ve deleted Instagram. And so the following notes are inconclusive, gestural, and open-ended. But they have felt important nevertheless.
My relationship to others
Before I deleted my Instagram, I had made a post announcing that I was going to do so. A friend in a different part of the world reached out lamenting that she had felt like she’d been about to keep in touch through watching my stories and posts. I admit that I’d felt like this too. But her message made me think about it on a deeper level. And the truth was I had no idea what was going on in her life beyond what I was seeing in short snippets. We hadn’t had a conversation in probably over a year. And this kind of gets at the crux of my issue with what it means to keep in touch through social media. We feel like we are connected because we know what’s going on in our friends and families lives through passive consumption of their social media content. But I would argue that active, intentional, and thoughtful communication is what we really crave. Not having Instagram has forced me to be more intentional about reaching out to people. I’m sure I will lose touch with many people in my life through not having social media. But I already feel more fulfilled with the intimacy of the intentional communication I’ve already been engaging with more. It’s much more fun to hear about my friends’ lives first-hand from them than from an Instagram story.
My relationship to the web
Not having social media has significantly changed the way I surf the web. I’ve found myself spending more time consuming things that nourish my mind and soul. And perhaps even more importantly, having to actively think about what those things are. I’ll admit, I found it challenging at first to not always have a stream of suggested content at hand. But in having to dig through different websites, think about what I actually wanted to read/watch/listen to, I felt much more fulfilled than I would’ve been letting an algorithm figure those things out for me. It also brings back the idea of serendipity. I can actually stumble upon things (at least sometimes) in a way that we used to be able to before the web was hyper-personalized and hyper-capitalized. And I’ll just quickly note that it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for me without social media. The influence of algorithms is definitely still very much present in search engines, and websites. But I feel it just a little bit less.
My relationship to my work
I am an artist and not having Instagram has really made me wonder: How much does the platform with which I share my work shape my work? Do I subconsciously structure my daily productivity around having something to post, to tease, to share online at the end of the day? Do I subconsciously make work that is more easily digestible in the small ten-image, one-minute-max format of an Instagram post? I’m not sure what the answer is here, but I do believe that the tools we use, at least in part, shape the work that we create. I’ll be glad to be able to focus on my creative process without feeling like I need to produce public-facing content at every step of the way.
My relationship to photos
Not having Instagram has changed the way I photograph with my phone and in turn perhaps the way I choose to remember moments. It no longer feels like I have an audience to perform memories for. I take photos for myself. And I still take photos of things with the intent to share (for example, I’ll photograph things I find silly, or that reference jokes/memes/etc.) but I take those photos with the intent of sharing with a specific individual like my partner, my mom, or my friend across the globe. For that reason, they feel more meaningful to me and hopefully for the other person. I also save my photos in different ways. I no longer rely on Instagram as a repository of memories. I actually back my photos up in multiple places (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe). I definitely sleep better at night knowing that if Instagram were to fold tomorrow (or ban my account) I will still have access to my images and videos.
My relationship to activism
So I should preface this one with the fact that my activism hasn’t substantially changed. It’s more-so that I’ve noticed the negative impact of feeling like I’m doing something when I am in fact doing nothing. I feel the strong urge to make a difference when I hear about issues that frustrate me. But I realize that when I had an Instagram, reposting a diluted infographic about the issue falsely satisfied that urge in a way that is frighteningly unproductive. I might be telling myself that I’m spreading awareness but in reality, I’m just echoing redundant information to my hyper-personalized audience that pretty much shares the same views on this issue as me anyway. And even more frightening is the fact that this false satisfaction is perhaps placating a feeling of helplessness that is significant of the real insurmountable power imbalances that exist in our (U.S.) democracy.
As you may have noticed in one of the screenshots I included, Instagram gives you a (forced) 30-day grace period should you change your mind about deleting your account. This grace period has, as expected, led to torturous thoughts of anxiety and FOMO. Specifically, it has led me to notice all of the instances in which Instagram has crept into my professional life. When applying to grants/residencies/jobs I see that empty field for my Instagram account and think, will this affect my candidacy? I think about all the times Instagram has led to opportunities for me as an artist, educator and programmer. All of the moments in emails where someone has mentioned that they found me through Instagram or have followed my work for quite some time on Instagram, I can’t help but think about all the connections I may be currently missing out on by not being on this platform. And I cannot deny that numbers affect me. I had over 1,000 followers on Instagram. That number felt (falsely) validating.
I also think about my search-ability without Instagram. My name is in some ways hard to search for because it is hard to spell for most non-South-Asian people (especially white people). I often think of a childhood friend of mine who officially changed their name from Athulya to Sarah when we were in high school. When I asked about the change they told me it would help them find jobs and professional opportunities in the future. At the time, I felt a strong sense of defensiveness. I thought, (in a perhaps condescending way towards my friend I’ll admit) that I would never give up my culture, my familial history, because someone else couldn’t take the extra minute or two to learn my name. But even then, I also had a sense of fear that she was right. And I’m embarrassed to say this fear hasn’t entirely left me today. Although I had used my real (first) name on Instagram, it is undoubtedly much easier to find “@aarati_” through Instagram even if you misspell my name than trying to sort through google search results for “Arati Akapedia”.
And lastly, I wonder about the information I’ll miss out on. It frustrates me when institutions and organizations primarily disseminate information about upcoming events, workshops, protests, etc through Instagram. First of all, the feed is not chronological. Even when I had Instagram, I’d often find posts about events after they’d already taken place. Secondly, you need an Instagram to view posts, even if they are public. I understand posting on Instagram because of the large audience. But I wish more organizations would also update their information in other places like their websites or email newsletters.
Right now, as of writing this post, I can say that none of these anxieties are pushing me to reconsider my decision. But they are real concerns that frustrate me and make me think about how much of a monopoly major social media companies have on our lives.