Notes from the swamp: on quitting Instagram

After a long monsoonal spring, a burst of sunshine. The swampy gardens are full of white moths, sapphire damselflies, giant carnelian dragonflies. The ground is strewn with fallen jacaranda petals and the bees move from one to the other with a conscientious particularity. Their efforts are important. They are making a difference.

The council lawnkeepers have been unable to keep up with all this relentless wet weather, the flood damage around suburbia. Muloobinba is flourishing in a way I’ve never seen: untidiness, overgrowth, long grasses, jubilant bird life. A corner of the sporting field has been submerged for so long that it has formed a kind of wetlands habitat. Nobody can play cricket there now; the lawn is a drenched mirror of the sky, patrolled cautiously by grey herons and white ibises.

I start to wonder what suburbia might look like if we all just suddenly stopped cutting our lawns and just let things grow into their full shape.

I imagine dank bungalows half submerged in the reeds, crickets and cicadas calling, snakes under the letterbox. Primordial dreams. Sunken nightmares. Lichen on the bricks. Moss on the steps. A scent of compost and flowers.

I’ve been aware of a certain swampy feeling in myself since quitting Instagram two weeks ago. I have, after all, forsaken access to a community of lights – a vibrant, never-boring, effervescent cosmopolis, where pure colours and sharp angles generate new kaleidoscopic patterns every second of every day and night. Everyone is there, dressed to the nines, lavishing compliments on each other, happy to meet you. And what life have I chosen instead? What quiet, wet, earthen, lukewarm, insect-infested, mould-ruined, rotting life is here for me now?

I look at my hands. They hold a felt-tip pen, drying out; they write on a page made of rotting paper; they hold a coffee getting cold. My old pen. My old paper. My old cup. My old hands. I want an excuse to touch my smartphone again, to caress its aluminate glass and indium surface, but there are no notifications to call me forward. I feel crestfallen.

I know that I quit Instagram, but I feel like I’ve been fired.

Like I’ve stopped getting invited to the royal court. Like I’m not good enough.

~

I want to write about the danger of social media, but I don’t want to be boring.

And somehow, the subject has always been boring. Come to think of it, warnings about the dangers of the internet were boring before we even had the internet. How is that possible? Was the topic never fresh?

Even before I had a dial up modem, I remember middle aged melancholics on radio and TV counselling caution, each one a Polonius with a polyester-clad paunch. If they were experts in technology, I wrote them off as out-of-touch Academics. If they were not experts in technology, then they were clearly just cowards trying to rationalise their own ignorance. Either way, they were standing in the way of the revolution.

Boring.

And since then, every warning about the internet has been boring in exactly the same way. If it’s expressed online, I write it off as hypocrisy. If it’s expressed offline, I write it off as jealousy and nostalgia.

It occurs to me now that maybe this concept of “boring” as that which should be ignored represents part of the foundational ideology of the internet. Maybe “boring” is a technology too, one whose operating instructions were distributed across the cities and suburbs to prepare the way for modems and smartphones.

It makes sense that the internet would have to redefine “boring” in order to take hold the way it has. After all, anything becomes boring if you look at it for too long. Even a sunset or a forest becomes boring if you stare at it long enough. Your body gets tired and uncomfortable. Your mind wanders.

Even people get boring if you look at them too continuously. That’s why celebrities have to reinvent their image. That’s why royal and ecclesiastical propaganda is released only in small doses. That’s why couples in secure relationships don’t stare at each other day; they are able to face the world together in parallel.

The internet should have been boring by default: it required us to stare at the same screen, the same small cluster of applications, hour after hour, day after day. So it found a way to redefine “boring” not as a natural consequence of staring, but as anything that prevented us from staring. We started to think ourselves as curators in a vast encyclopaedic enterprise, making crucial and urgent choices all day long about what was and wasn’t interesting.

I wondered for a time if the internet had attacked my sense of object permanence, but this didn’t seem quite right. After all, it was very rare for me to look at anything twice on the internet. In fact, there was an unhinged and disproportionate rage that seemed to rise up inside me any time I was forced to look at the same joke, the same cat picture, the same selfie, the same sunset, the same political meme. I could handle remixes and variations and mutations – that still felt novel – but any repetition was just too boring to countenance. The permanence of objects was vexing.

Once I was deeply addicted to social media though I realised that the internet had attacked not my sense of object permanence, but my sense of subject permanence. Did I still exist if I wasn’t paying attention? Was I still someone’s friend if we stopped interacting online? Am I only noticeable when I’m noticing?

~

The glass screen that conducts electricity from our fingertips. I would rather be touching your skin. I would rather you feel the electricity of my embrace. The touch that is not instant, the connection that is not an instance.

~

It was a still, humid night last night, and the tawny frogmouth owls talked to each all night, bass and infrasound, plutonic song. I was woken up by the changing of the avian guard, as the magpies woke and called the warm dawn into being. I stood up naked and exhausted and looked at myself in the mirror, and saw a paunchy, middle-aged melancholic, knowing I was going to write about the internet today. It had come to pass. I had become the very person I used to disregard.

I wondered if I would look good in a photograph. My skin was looking okay. My chest hair looked good. My beard was in good shape. But I was altogether too chubby, and my shoulders needed to be a different shape. My eyes looked too old – maybe I could crop them out so the people looking could imagine I had better eyes?

And while I was standing there, I asked myself: am I only complaining about Instagram so I can make other people hate it as much as I do? So I can feel right? Am I just trying to be viral, to infect and infest other people with my own emotions, to distract me from the reality of my own failure to captivate, to scintillate, to transfix, to seduce? Because I wasn’t photogenic or quotable or popular enough?

This is my reflection reflex, you see. If I see my reflection, I wonder if I should upload it. And if I detect a neurosis, I wonder if I should publish it.

I usually do, too.

~

Sometimes I think the internet has grown over our bodies like a tumour cocoon. I feel horrified and disgusted by it, like it’s a wet membrane that has encased us and released its enzymes to break our bodies down. As if it were forming us into new shapes through which the internet can flow without friction. It dissolves us and metamorphoses us so that we no longer interrupt the flow of power.

~

I knew when I left Instagram that nobody would miss me much. This is something I had come to understand experientially during my time there, as I had seen other people come and go from the network, and I didn’t feel any pain at all. When they left, there was no gap in my feed of posts. Nor was there any noticeable change in the number of my notifications. The disappearance of a friend was almost completely undetectable. Out of sight, out of mind.

The only place that I could notice it – when I did notice it – was when somebody had deactivated their account very soon after having a DM conversation with me. In that case, when I went to my messaging section and opened my list of recent DMs, I might sometimes notice that one of my friends no longer displayed a profile picture and a username, but instead had a mere placeholder image and the name “Instagram User.” That meant a deactivation. It could sometimes be a struggle to understand who this was at first glance. People came and went all the time. Even opening up the conversation and reading the last nine or ten messages from that person did not solve the case straight away because there is no tone of voice, no handwriting, and little variation in register in the DMs. We write the same, and we say the same things, so in the absence of an avatar we can all seem indistinguishable. To layer disappearance upon disappearance, when a DM conversation is no longer recent, it sinks beneath the recent conversations, into the reeds, tracelessly.

And so I understood what other people would see of my digital remains when I left. They wouldn’t see anything. For all the footprints I’d left, I might as well have been flying.

Instagram is structurally prophylactic against missing the absent. Everything you need is always here. The only thing we can’t bear to be apart from is the app itself.

Now that I am gone, I know that my conversations will be marked with that placeholder image and that placeholder name, “Instagram User”.

But here’s the thing: even before I had left, I had already come to think of myself as a placeholder, as replaceable, an iteration, a type. This had deterred me from leaving. I knew that I would miss the app, but would the app miss me? Of course not. It was essential; I was surplus. It benefited me; I did not benefit it. There were millions more to take my place and there always would be, but there was only one Instagram.

Instagram does not mourn our separation, but I do. They call this the “Principle of Least Interest”: whoever cares least has the most power.

Of course, I suppose the other word for it would be exploitation.

~

This is what happened to my body when I quit Instagram.

For the first week, my body carried on with its digital rituals and social media reflexes as if I had never left – or as if I was about to return anyway, so there was no point in adapting. And who can blame my body for thinking that? I had quit and returned so many times before. So my hand kept reaching for my phone – fishing it out of my pocket, picking it up from my desk where it always sat within my eyeline. My fingers kept opening the lock screen. I still took my phone everywhere – to the bath, to the toilet, to the kitchen. I was dressing for selfies. I was keeping an eye on the lighting at all times. I was photographing paragraphs in the book I was reading so I could share it on social media. It was like the prosthesis was fully attached.

Then I started getting panic attacks. Some of these woke me up from sleep, lurching into consciousness with my heart racing, my breath short, my eyes unfocussed. I have forgotten to answer my Instagram DMs! Other people will be hurt and offended. They will assume I don’t like them – that I think they are boring! It took a while to slow my heart down, to realise that there were no DMs that I was neglecting. But I realised something about my attitude to the DMs, which is that I felt responsible for protecting other people from feeling neglected. I was partly frightened they would be hurt; I didn’t want to exert a punishing power. But I was also partly frightened of the revenge and retaliation that others might feel entitled to inflict upon me if I ignored them. Strangers had taught me this lesson before; so had people I thought were friends. All this insecurity came into sharp focus through these panic attacks. They started to wear off after only about four nights.

Then the sadness came, and the heaviness too. I stopped smiling. I started eating a lot more. I sighed a lot. I found myself picking my phone up, unlocking it, and looking at it, but not knowing why. What was I checking for? Was I expecting something? I still carried my phone everywhere. I still slept with my phone right next to my head. I knew I wouldn’t be getting any DMs, but I change my behaviour just yet. I refused to turn my phone off.

I started trying to fill the void by participating in other social networks, trying to get a similar fix. I found myself commenting on YouTube videos and Facebook statuses and newspaper article comment sections for the first time in years. I needed to feel like I still existed. I checked back later to see if my comments had received any likes… but there weren’t many. And besides, who were these strangers liking my posts anyway? They seemed as sad and bereft as me. I dragged my feet around the house, enervated and depressed. I went to bed earlier and got out of bed later. I ate more. I drank more alcohol.

Finally, the app started to release me, breaking like a slimy egg, sloughing off like a heavy skin. I started going places without my phone for the first time in ages – just short walks or drives, but still.

Notifications slowed from a flood to a trickle, and the trickle were only emails anyway, annoying deletables. My email inbox felt poignant and outmoded, like some magazine rack in one of suburbia’s remaining immiserated newsagencies, fluorescent lit, no longer necessary, desperately trying to pivot toward giftware. When I was in High School back in the 1990s, we all wanted to be on the cover of a magazine because that was the height of notoriety, of being noticeable, of being worthy of notice. And I wondered if the wish had come true in some perverse way, because now I did feel like I was on the cover of a magazine, but not a 1992 magazine – a 2022 magazine: physical, redundant, rotting, analogue, untidily hoping for attention, creased and scuffed.

My phone usage is still tightly synchronised to my body’s sleep cycle. I guess it’s going to take more than leaving Instagram to break that connection. I guess I had thought that once the fear of punishment associated with the DMs was gone, I would start to experience long and luxurious moments of wakefulness without staying notifiable. But Instagram is not the only form of instant messaging that I use. I am still yoked to the instant.

This is world we are awake in.

~

Did you ever read one of those shareable articles “I quit facebook for a month”? Those articles told stories of a wellness journey that basically promised joy, sex-appeal, vitality, and class mobility all as a result of uninstalling social media. Many of us were inspired to follow their lead in the early days – at least for a few days or weeks. But once you have quit something and returned to it a few times, you lost interest in zealous testimonials for a life without social media. I think the authors of those articles understood this too because they soon changed tack and started talking about a “digital cleanse,” a “social media detox” or a “screen holiday.” The goal changed from giving up completely to a mere temporary break, a crash diet, one that would ultimately reinforce the binge-structure of modern screen use.

I find myself in the embarrassing position of experiencing certain benefits as a result of quitting Instagram and writing about them too. I feel like a clickbait fraud as if I were only living through it for the online attention.

But this feeling is what I’m talking about in this essay: internet ideology promulgates the myth that online attention is the highest goal of any endeavour. One has life experiences only “for the gram,” only so they can be uploaded and leveraged into digital status. According to this myth, we persist in living only so we can be seen, only so we can captivate.

I reject that feeling, and the ideology it betrays.

It is still early days in my recovery, I think. I am still feeling very heavy, joyless, disconnected, slow to laugh, disinclined for sex, mortal, wishing deep down for complete numbness. I feel depleted, used up, some old warlock of the swamp who once knew a spell.

Who once had something to say.

~

They say it will be another steamy and overcast summer this year, mammatus clouds like sacks full of storm drooping over the crepe myrtles, stretching and distending until they can’t hold their water anymore. We know what to expect from La Niña now: more rain, more clouds, more mould, more mosquitos.

I keep seeing shareable articles online about how the community is going to run out of mould-killer, run out of insect repellent. I find that no sooner has the idea entered my head, that I am obeying it and buying citronella candles and mould cleaner.

Panic buying was the first symptom of the pandemic to affect my body. My partner and I heard an expert on evening radio say the virus from overseas was about to affect all of us. We quietly went to the supermarket at 10.30pm and were among the first to stock up on 2 weeks of provisions. We sent a WhatsApp to my parents advising them to do the same. This was a full week before everyone else did, and the rationing began, and the digital flood of pandemic information began.

The pandemic strengthened an impression that the offline world was an unreliable place, a chaotic place of corpulence and scarcity, excess and delay, but that the internet was a place of orderly abundance that could always be relied upon.

We were encouraged to believe that we couldn’t trust our bodies, but that we could always trust our screens.

~

The word “Instagram” looks like a portmanteau of “Instant Gratification” to me. Or maybe the gram is the drug and the drug is the instant.

Instagram accelerated me by turning all of time into a sequence of competing instances, and I found myself sorting through and ranking those instances the way I compared lenses in an eye test: “one or two?” “three or four?” “five or six?” “one or four?” “one or five?” “five or one?” “about the same?” Everything I saw had to be ranked; every instance was one in which judicious choices had to be made. I didn’t even have to respond consciously regarding pictures I ranked highest; the amount of time I spent looking at them looking told Instagram everything it needed to know. It relayed that data to its masters, the advertisers.

I was exhausted – we were all exhausted by the endless demands of social media, and the ideology of attention that underpinned it. We weren’t tired because we were politically powerless, or politically ineffective, or politically alone. We were tired because we were working for free to turn our lives into a series of shareable instances. The sheer amount of unpaid work that we devoted to social media, only ever seeing our friends, not the corporations that accommodated us and shepherded us.

Every photograph was an instance of the person, the instance of the type, taken in the instant, to be consumed in the instant. We rushed to produce and consume these instances. And the rushing was exhausting.

It might have been captivating, but at least it was never boring.

~

I believe that captivation is the ideology of social media, and boredom is its treason, its heresy. All boring things must be rooted out and cast beyond the city walls. Let them sink into the swamp.

~

I can vaguely remember being a child and playing hide and seek. I grew up in a small but well serviced village built on a saltwater estuary, a place of oyster shells, sting rays, eucalyptus trees and mangroves. I remember finding a hiding place in a field of long ribbon grass, crouching down by the Christmas beetles and the sugar ants, and putting my hands over my eyes. “Can’t see me!” I shouted. As far as I was concerned, I was ensconced in darkness. I can still see some rationale to covering my eyes that way: it would at least stop me giving away my position by suppressing the urge to flinch or react when the one seeking me was nearby. I think children will always spontaneously cover their eyes during “hide and seek” for centuries to come. Let’s say it’s a stupid manoeuvre with a bright future.

That childish part of me endures. I still feel some connection between seeing and being seen.

~

I have struggled for many years now with social media. I have taken seriously the claims from progressives that social media gives a voice to the voiceless. I admit that it has done that. But while giving a voice to the voiceless, it has also deprived them of an attentive audience. Social media has, in fact, completely severed content from context; we simply do not know into what kind of feed, what kind of digital ecosystem, our words and images will be published. We thought that censorship was a question of “out of sight, out of mind,” but on social media it is a question of “flooded sight, flooded mind.” We are drenched in a miasma of anterograde amnesia.

I find myself returning again and again to the symbolism and imagery of the swamp, the wetland. It represents on the one hand everything that is in contrast to the digital world of social media, the unhygienic and chaotic world of fertility and decay. But on the other hand, it also represents the kind of informational inundation and emotional inundation that happens inside us when social media is prosthetised to the human body: we are flooded with cognition and affect. We are immersed.

As a working artist, I have to ask myself: is this the kind of workplace I choose for myself? Is this the kind of artistic destiny I choose for myself in 2 years’ time? 10 years’? 20 years’? Will I still be bent over a screen, scrolling my days away when that future comes? I can’t tell you how futile, how diminishing, how boring such a prospect seems to me.

I pack my things up and step into the little boat at dusk. I row away from the glass city of lights into the marshes where the insects are deafening, where strange things swim in the water, where there are lightning flashes on the indigo horizon. I light my little lamp. I hear distant thunder.

The sound of my oars.

The arcs of my time.


2 responses to “Notes from the swamp: on quitting Instagram”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: