Why I quit Instagram: breaking the cycle

Txus Bach
10 min readDec 5, 2018

Last week I quit Instagram for the second — and hopefully last — time. I see this as the inevitable finale to a thought process that has been taking shape in my mind for a few years now. The difference between this time and the last time I deleted my account is that now a lot more people around me showed their support, while a lot fewer showed rejection or surprise.

Today, people have a stronger intuition that there might be something fishy about the way we build and use social media. To understand why, let’s have a look at how social media has recently evolved. (This is an account of my personal experience, and it’s only as exhaustive and objective as I can.)

Social networks: from users to algorithms

The first social network I remember using was Fotolog, launched in 2002. This was sort of a Spanish Tumblr where you could only post a picture once a day, and people would leave comments. About one year later, Myspace would launch and it would quickly catch like fire among my friends.

These networks were centered around a user’s wall. You would visit your friend’s profile and see what they posted, maybe leave a comment or two. It was a simple analogy to the previous generation of websites — people have to go to your website or blog to see your content. The wall embodied a user-centric approach to social networks.

One year after Myspace, on 2004, Facebook launched, although I wouldn’t discover it until 2007. Since around 2006 it changed the paradigm with the advent of the news feed. Suddenly you didn’t have to click around to visit your friend’s walls — you would have all the content conveniently aggregated into a single stream of posts, ordered by the time when they were created. But the composition and sources of the news feed would soon change.

This is where algorithms came into the game. Before, what you saw depended on who your friends were and what they posted. It wasn’t too different from visiting each of your friends’ profile every day. After algorithmic feeds were introduced, it was Facebook who decided what you see and when you see it. This represented a new lever that Facebook could tweak to induce changes in the users’ behavior, and it would quickly become a textbook technique among other advertisement companies.

The power of behavior modification

In 2014, a scandal broke out: a paper called Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks was published. It was based on a psychological experiment done in 2012, where Facebook altered the number of positive and negative posts in a random sample of 700.000 users’ news feeds without any form of consent.

What they found is that moods are contagious: people who were exposed to more negative posts ended up writing more negative posts themselves, and vice versa. The scandal broke out because the experiment manipulated users’ emotions on a large scale, unbeknownst to them, and as the very research revealed, with strong ripple effects. It was rightly argued that people struggling with depression or anxiety may have seen their symptoms aggravated, while oblivious to the fact that they had been targeted by this experiment.

While advertising companies such as Facebook actively exploit behavior modification to reach their bottom line goals (get users to see and click on more ads), this technology has proved extremely useful for other actors, such as political think tanks.

Earlier this year (2018), another much bigger scandal broke out: Cambridge Analytica (a shady think tank headed by alt-right leader and Trump’s campaign CEO Steve Bannon) harvested millions of Facebook profiles to successfully sway the US election in favor of Trump. They were also allegedly involved in the Brexit Leave campaign.

Christopher Wylie, the organization’s technical pioneer, blew the whistle and told everything to the press. He called what they built a psychological warfare tool. (The Guardian published a comprehensive guide on how it all unfolded.) While Facebook initially denied any knowledge of this, Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook’s COO for the last decade) told the press that they had known about it for a year before the Trump election.

As we‘ve seen in recent times, the power of shaping our behavior at an unprecedented scale is something to think about, to say the least.

Reward systems and behavior changes

There is another type of behavior modification that emerges naturally from the reward systems in social media, rather than being directed or exploited by an organization. Let’s look at Instagram for this example, as it is greatly maximized there.

Instagram has a simple reward system: users post pictures, and they receive likes and comments, or not (we’ll get to why that is the key in a bit). Every like and comment we get causes our brain to release dopamine, which makes us feel good. Conversely, when there are fewer likes or comments than we expect, our brains release cortisol (the stress hormone), which makes us feel anxious.

The variability and unpredictability of these likes and comments is the key to the addiction, and it is a well known technique in product and game design called variable rewards. It is the reason why gambling is so addictive (and profitable for the gambling companies!), and is guaranteed to keep us hooked in the platform. When we get a reward, our brain wants us to do that thing more (post more pictures! Get more likes!), and when we get stress from a lack of rewards, our brain wants us to turn the lever one more time (post more pictures! Maybe the next one will get us likes!). Unfortunately, this cycle resonates all too well with social media users nowadays.

As soon as we have a reward system in place, we have emergent behavior modification (by ourselves!) because our brain wants to maximize pleasure. When we posted that picture on the beach having a good time, we got 100 likes, but when we posted the picture on a rainy day explaining we lost our backpack, we got only 11 likes. No one likes a downer! We’ll make sure to post more pictures on the beach (which incidentally leads to us going to the beach more often).

The algorithms that put content in front of our friends are shaping where we go, what we do, and most importantly, what we want people to think we do. Our choices become a commodity that we want to exchange for our audience’s approval, and ultimately, for that precious shot of dopamine.

On top of that, platforms like Instagram exploit our dopamine/cortisol cycles with techniques such as like withholding (releasing likes to your photos slower than they happen, especially from the people you interact the most, to keep you anxious and coming back to check more often). If we understand the bottom line goals of these social networks, this is to be expected.

Active and passive relationships

There is no doubt we think we are more connected with people on social media, but the truth is that the nature of these relationships becomes passive. We stop reaching out to friends directly — we check their Instagram stories to see how they’re doing. And usually they seem to be doing pretty fine, although what we are seeing is their brand persona, not how miserable everyone is when they have had a terrible day.

Even though seeing their posts and stories makes us feel connected to them, the actual chemistry involved in active relationships is absent, and the attachment cannot form, thus making these relationships volatile and shallow.

Active relationships require work: undivided attention, genuine caring, and reaching out. Sitting down with a friend and actually listening to them (the good and the bad news) while sharing a cup of coffee is guaranteed to form a stronger bond than liking their photo on Instagram.

In conclusion, social media is designed to keep us hooked, but its’ power to do so cannot be understood without looking at the physical portals through which we consume it: our phones.

Our phone in everyday life

Most of us carry our smartphones wherever we go (except in the shower). Always at arm’s reach, our phone has become an extension of ourselves, and it exerts a strong pull on our attention, by design (check out this interview with a Silicon Valley insider about why).

Have you ever found yourself reaching for your phone, mindlessly tapping on some app, and finding yourself one hour later scrolling down some feed, wondering what happened? Anthony Ongaro calls this “the twitch”, describing some of our interactions with the phone like an involuntary muscle movement, a twitch. You should probably watch his TED talk, “How to Break the Twitch”.

Leaving the house without our phone today seems like an eccentric idea that only conspiracy theorists would support. But the truth is, when you try it, you realize why everyone’s so adamant about carrying their phone everywhere: our brains crave the endless checking, pull to refresh, scrolling, liking, and back to checking again.

When we’re standing in line at the supermarket, or waiting for the bus, or even while working, the twitch makes us pull out our phone and get our dopamine, or our cortisol until that pull-to-refresh mechanism actually yields novelty and it makes us feel good again.

If we don’t have our phones on us, the twitch makes us reach for nothing. Emptiness in our pocket. Shortly after, another twitch. It feels uncomfortable and stressful. This is exactly what addiction looks like.

Phone addiction is the new normal

We don’t only use our phone when waiting, or in-between moments. We use it at work. We use it in front of our friends when going out for a cup of coffee or dinner. With our families and loved ones, and in bed. It is the new normal.

I have personally witnessed a surprising change in our attitudes regarding using phones when hanging out with someone else: a few years ago, if one of the two people in a coffee shop table was finishing up a message or checking social media, they would apologize (just one minute, I need to upload/check/like/reply to this) and put it back in their pocket relatively quickly. Today, the person not checking their phone is seen as an eccentric, expecting the other people to stop using their phones and engage in face to face conversation or start eating their freshly-instagrammed meal.

Have you ever been sober (and refusing to drink alcohol) at a party full of drunk people? This is how they see you.

The wandering mind

The twitch effectively hijacks all these in-between moments where our minds would otherwise wander or daydream. Mind-wandering has been shown to be crucial to creative endeavors.

If you too, like me, have your best ideas while showering, consider the following: the shower is the only place where you absolutely cannot interact with your phone. While showering, a mindless routine for most of us, our minds are free to wander and discover previously hidden relations between ideas.

And therein lies our next Eureka moment.

Breaking the cycle

Both the mental and physical consequences of phone addiction and the way we use social media are real and painful. But giving up our existing habits and replacing them with healthy ones is painful too.

Fear of isolation

The most predominant fear people have is feeling isolated if they leave social media and stop checking their phone constantly. Losing contact with their friends and relatives, missing out on important things.

While this fear feels very real, in my experience it is mostly a narrative our brains come up with to justify the habit or addiction. By giving up passive relationships we have more time and energy to develop active ones — to finally use our phones to actually message or call our friends and see how they’re doing, or hang out with them if they are nearby.

Step by step

Similarly to how today young people are more aware of the nutritional value of foods and how they can’t eat Burger King every single day of the week if they want to feel good and live a long life, there is a noticeable shift in attitudes towards the role of technology and social media in our lives.

That is why this time far fewer people have reacted negatively to me leaving Instagram, and many more have shown me their support. It’s each person’s own journey, and everyone is on different stages, but the attitudes are changing, and that makes me hopeful.

The short-term benefits

Just like when we decide to start eating healthy and exercising, there are long-term benefits, but there are also very quick short-term benefits: we feel lighter, with a better mood, and more energetic, pretty much from day two or three.

In the same way, the very same day I deleted my Instagram account (it was in the morning), I found myself mindlessly pulling out my phone and tapping where the app used to be, only to find nothing. It felt embarrassing. This particular twitch disappeared the next day.

From the next day, I still pulled out my phone quite often, remembered there is nothing to check, and put it away again. Gradually, I had more time and more attention for everything else I was doing: both daily activities and longer-term projects. Less anxiety from checking, and also less comparing myself to others.

The only thing that made me use my phone more than usual was texting with my friends, having the deep and interesting conversations that eventually led me to write this article.

I’d like to share some resources that helped me on the more practical side of changing my phone habits. These are the two excellent videos by Matt d’Avella: “Break your phone addiction” and “I quit social media for 30 days”, as well as his podcast episode The Ground Up Show interviewing Anthony Ongaro.

Lastly I’d like to thank all my friends and loved ones who prompted me and challenged me on this, as well as sharing with me their own experience with social media. All these conversations have greatly informed this article.

Credits to the header image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/staceycav/36814291390



Txus Bach

Programmer, Codegram founder, music producer, language nerd.