We all have our vices. Singing Mariah songs at karaoke even though your voice is just okay. Pretending to be your twin for extra samples at Costco. Drinking Long Island iced teas when you know better. These bad habits provide a sense of balance to your other life as a responsible adult that is only late to work sometimes and takes a shower almost every day. But sometimes these inclinations get out of control and weave into obsession territory.
When Instagram first hit the scene, I was disinterested. Why would I want to be inundated with a constant stream of amateur photography? Facebook was bad enough. A few stubborn weeks later, I got off my high horse long enough to see the value in seeing the world through my loved ones' eyes. Gazing at some piece of litter made beautiful by a friend across the world made me feel closer to her and provided a sense of communal living that transcended geography and time.
Soon, I was 'gramming every day and even taking part in "throw back Thursdays." Look at my feet in the sand next to a bottle of whiskey! And this photo of me in a Greek costume as a toddler! And this good hair day I'm having! Harmless voyeurism and narcissism! And then things got dark. "Ugh, I haven't gotten to 11 likes yet! What is wrong with everyone?!" I would exclaim, wondering why this view of the SF skyline or that double rainbow wasn't deserving of digital love. Then I would like it myself. A shameful act and a shameless bid to reach an arbitrary milestone that meant validation. My compulsive "like" maintenance was starting to disturb me. I could picture myself as the star of a really boring episode of Intervention.
So how did this fun app full of pretty pictures shape-shift into an ugly addiction? The underlying source is in our DNA; it's human nature to want to be accepted by our community, a characteristic that has been manipulated since Facebook's thumbs-up came into our lives. Even the most confident person is susceptible to placing too much importance on the trade of approval and rejection in the social media world. Whether you admit it or not, there is some sting in getting only one or two engaged comments or likes on an impassioned status update or a photo of your new haircut that you're not comfortable with just yet. In the end, we just want to be approved of by our peers and feel a little less alone.
Paradoxically, social media can sometimes actually put distance between us and our friends or our experiences, under the guise of connectedness. Birthday cards in the mail have become uninspired well wishes on a digital wall. Constantly keeping tabs on friends through their stream takes the place of catching up face-to-face because you already know everything that's been going on with them. And concerts become a battle to capture the moment to prove how amazing it was and how close to Beyoncé you got (speaking of Queen B, she recently had this to say to a fan at one of her shows: "See, you can’t even sing because you’re too busy taping. I’m right in your face, baby! You gotta seize this moment, baby! You better put that damn camera down!"). The Yeah Yeah Yeahs also wagged a finger recently to protect those who would rather not watch a show through the device of the person in front of them. So what ever happened to taking a picture just for yourself, maybe to put into a frame and place on your wall or desk? Or, hell, what happened to just looking at something and enjoying it and having that be enough?
It's these kind of questions that have started a reactionary detox movement based on the idea of unplugging and getting back to basics, one that begins and ends with you being the definitive voice on what is wonderful and worthy about your life, one that barters with the simplest building blocks of life: conversation and adventure. There's the Undo List, which is a tip sheet full of prompts for a weekly 24-hour break from technology. And the National Day of Unplugging. And Camp Grounded, a $350 retreat in Northern California that involves leaving all technology, even watches and talk of age or work, behind for a weekend of "playshops" that promote creativity and connecting with strangers.
Our dependence on technology has gotten so bad that we need to pay other people to keep us away from our phones and tablets. That's a pretty scary reality, but all we can do is be aware of it and know when it's time to step away for a bit to retain some mental calm, to find a place for technology that is proportional to the place we hold for morning walks or conversation over wine or those little windows of time meant for contemplation instead of mindless refreshing.
I did my own form of cleanse by taking a month off from Instagram. That time allowed me to experience things without missing them while grabbing for my phone to document. My eyes felt more open and I felt less crazy. I'm using the app again, which I don't consider a relapse. This world is different than the one our grandparents lived in. We can all move to a commune and pretend this isn't so (not a terrible idea) or we can exist in this new digital age while keeping tabs on what's really important. Everything in moderation, right?
The other day, I posted a double-exposed portrait of my best friends and me enjoying being together and being younger than we will ever be again and tearing through San Francisco full of love for life and each other. I put it on Instagram, but this time it wasn't so that others could validate our glorious day in the sun or our cute outfits. It was to mark that this day happened and these bonds existed, to bottle up all that joie de vivre in an ethereal time capsule to be dredged up later by some yet unborn descendants as a reminder from a past era of what truly matters in the end. Now that's a connection I can get behind.