Willpower vs algorithmic feeds — how I challenged Instagram and what I learned from it.
I’m about to share something I’m not proud of. Don’t judge me.
In the last couple of months my use of Instagram got out of hand. I’ve never been much active in posting pictures (my last post was from 6 months ago), but I’ve always been a moderate consumer of content. Until recently, when I noticed I was spending always more and more time scrolling through the infinite feed of Instagram.
And the stories. Oh the stories. When I didn’t have meetings in the morning I’ve often found myself laying in bed going from an alarm snooze to another, looking at what friend X or VIP Y got for lunch. Without realizing, maybe half an hour had passed.
The disturbing things are two:
- I consider myself a pretty productive person. I’m building a business, handling clients, working until late at night, working out, studying new things, and I hate when my time passes without doing anything useful. Spending 30min/morning looking at lunch pics doesn’t fit with my personality.
- I honestly don’t give a fuck about other people’s lunch.
So basically, IG’s feed was making me behave not like…me.
I started thinking more about this after seeing a video with Chamath Palihapitiya, who led growth at Facebook in the early years, and Sean Parker, ex Facebook’s president. The two talk about their regrets for what they’ve done with the social network. They talk about algorithmic feeds beeing tuned to make our brain release dopamine and get us hooked up. I’ll post the link in the end of the post.
I imagined Instagram’s AI algorithm, who’s goal is probably to adjust a set of variables (aka content) in order to maximise the time we spend on the platform. I started fantasising how this algorithm in its latent features could have learnt some representation for dopamine production: a mapping between pictures of lunches and the chemical production of my brain.
So exactly two weeks ago I decided to test it myself, and started an experiment:
I was going to stop opening the app for 2 weeks, and observe my brain’s reaction.
My work usually demands a lot of focus, so when I feel tired and notice that I start writing shitty code is the sign that my brain needs a break.
The first day, when I needed a break I literally unlocked my phone and looked for the IG app. Automatically. While staring at the IG icon, my willpower kicked in and made me resist from clicking on it. It was kind of easy the first time, but at the next break, in the same situation, I felt the need to click that icon. Notice the wording: need.
I call that feeling dependency. My brain wanted that rush of dopamine that the IG feed provides it. I’ve never been dependent from substances, but I guess the feeling would be similar.
Still, I resisted.
Day two and three.
I got up and the power of habits made me want to unlock my phone and start my waste-of-time session on the app. I felt the same feeling of need from the day before but I resisted and turned to reading Hacker News instead. Less beauty, more useful.
Instagram noticed I was playing against it, and started to counterattack. I received a notification:
“Your friend X posted a story. Come check it out”.
He was my best friend, and I felt that need of checking what he posted. I resisted again, so the next day Instagram passed to heavy artillery:
Your friends X, Y and Z posted a story. Come check it out before it’s gone
X was still my best friend, Y my ex-girlfriend, and Z another good friend of mine. Fuck you Instagram, fuck YOU. I definetely wanted to know what they posted, but the fact that IG learned who are the persons I care about the most and used this information to exploit my need and curiosity to use the app, made me even angrier and determined. I wasn’t going to open the app, no matter what. Fuck you again.
End of first week
As Instagram started to understand its efforts were going wasted, reduced the amount of notifications I was getting. And with that, also my feeling of need for opening the app. It was getting easier and easier not to look for that colorful icon and just turn to more productive activities in moments of relax — taking a walk, reading a book, watching a TED talk.
I felt I didn’t need anymore to have that icon there. I slaved the giant. After a week, I was clean and my willpower won. So I took this screenshot as trophy, and deleted the app.
No app, no distraction, no temptations. I started feeling lighter not knowing anything about how Chiara Ferragni’s pregnancy is going or my friends had for dinner.
On the other hand, a good book called “PostCapitalism” replaced some of my break times, so I don’t know anything about other people’s diets but I know more about world economics. That’s a good replacement, right?
It feels weird to admit it, but I came to the conclusion that Instagram actually made me develop some sort of addiction, at a chemical level, for contents I didn’t care about, and didn’t add anything to my life.
It’s kind of similar to cigarettes. They objectively smell and taste bad, and lower your QoL. There’s no rational reason to smoke them, the only reason people do is because they started in the first place, and now depend on them.
On the other hand, I don’t think IG is all thrash. There are plenty of profiles that post interesting content, and artists that produce incredible work. I honestly don’t miss these things at the moment, but I don’t exclude that I will come back to the app with a cleaner selection of accounts to follow, avoiding the bullshit-posting/dopamine-generating accounts that frankly don’t add much to your life.
I think what should be taken home from my experiment is that algorithmic feeds are powerful, and have way more control over our lives than we realise.
So the next time you’ll open this or Facebook or any other similar app, ask yourself:
Why am I spending time on this? Is it my conscious choice, or am I beeing manipulated into it?
And if you think it’s your choice, challenge yourself. Try not to open it for a while, and let me know how it goes :)