See You In The Real World
If you’re reading this, there’s a strong chance you’ve arrived here via my Instagram profile, or at least what remains of it. A carefully curated chronicle of my existence in the years since 2014, it was until recently populated with more than four hundred posts throughout which one could trace pictorial threads of my relationships, friendships, passions, quirks, and regrettable captions if one so wished.
In addition to creating this catalog of my life, I was convinced for years that preserving long-standing relationships, initiating connections, and following current events comprised the ledger of essential purposes for maintaining an account. Consequently, I reckoned that my profile’s continued existence outweighed the risk of whatever pitfalls Instagram presented, even as the platform evolved to more powerfully exploit the mental and behavioral frailties innate to being human.
My stoicism in the face of Instagram’s increasingly malevolent and manipulative motives was an absolute delusion. I thought I could render myself immune to the attention snares and time sinks built into its system, and I fear it took me too long to recognize what a grievous error I made in insisting as much. For that reason, my clouded understanding of the cognitive toll of years of endless scrolling through forgettable pictures and useless drivel is only just crystallizing, but the symptoms of the damage are all too apparent.
It terrifies me to fail repeatedly to quiet my mind as it cycles through a cacophony of white noise in the absence of a media feed. Equally chilling is the sudden amnesia that follows in the seconds after some idea or concept is mentioned, or the inability to recall words, phrases, and other rhetorical elements that have noticeably atrophied from my vernacular. Scrolling has conditioned me for the momentary retention of mere drops from an immense firehose of stimulus, followed quickly by the expulsion of those drops from memory.
Worse, the kinks and shudders and needle-skipping I experience when absorbing external information only constitute half of what smacks of an eroding mind. The inherent brevity and temporality of social media comments, tags, and captions have slowly repressed my ability to formulate and express complex thoughts, models and ideas, to enjoy moments of silence, reflection and even boredom, and to live in the present moment. In fact, the fatal flaw of any social media is that, no matter how hard its users or software developers try, it can never fully capture or replicate the present moment, only detract.
Neither the most meaningful forms of friendship, love, connection, and closeness nor the grandest sources of beauty, passion, and awe manifest in small blocks of glass and metal and silicon. Rather, rich veins of these transcendent joys can be found, at least in my case, during night drives under city lights, on long and arduous hikes, in raucous and vivid conversation (helped along by a little wine or whiskey), in staring up at the night sky, in the many forms of music, in the eyes of another, in writing and literature, and in moments of complete silence, just to name a few. In other words, they are located in real life, a dominion over which social media, for all its might, cannot truly lay claim.
Going forward, the Instagram account will simply be a distribution channel for my writing. If even one person finds it worth following and my work worth reading, then maintaining the page in its new state will have been the correct decision. To recover from the aforementioned afflictions, I’m counting on a regimen of meditation and good old-fashioned reading to work their restorative powers over the coming years. One of the chief missions of the former practice (among many) is to train the mind to operate free of ambient calculation and clutter, while the latter practice coaxes the mind to patiently gather and analyze information with intention.
But the questions surely remain: What about those benefits, Ethan? What about the news? Will you document your life? How will you nourish that connective tissue between yourself and the people you follow? To state my response simply, Instagram is a very inefficient tool for accomplishing such tasks simultaneously. Paying attention to the news will certainly require a little more involvement and intention on my part, but cultivating such healthy habits will surely be no detriment to me. My iPhone still has a camera, a perfectly capable device for capturing whatever personal history I create. However, I’d like to think (perhaps too romantically or solipsistically) that my life is of more interest to other people when I’m talking to them (over the phone, over FaceTime, or sitting across a table, and ideally with a White Russian in hand) and turning my experiences into spoken stories, or at the very least writing them down.
Therein lies the key to preserving durable relationships and true friendships in the absence of “online community”. Following someone and liking his or her pictures is entirely passive at worst and lip service at best. I’ve found that the sweetest romantic and platonic intimacies are the ones that depend least on the machinations of warped social platforms and most on the quality and vigor and effort of authentic interaction, no matter how infrequent the conversation nor how distant the parties involved. Paradoxically, I suspect that my social ties of this persevering sort will distill or shake out naturally in time, and with little additional perceived “effort” on anyone’s behalf.
I’m eagerly anticipating this overdue escape from the siren song of Instagram. In addition to heightened mental acuity, it offers an opportunity to experience more enduring relationships and a more visceral, authentic, and in a very literal sense unfiltered, life. I’ll see you in the real world.