By adopting the perspective of the Instagram version of himself, can our Editor-in-Chief better understand his toxic relationship with social media?
Sometimes I think about the Instagram version of myself, as if they were sentient, like me. As I watch them grow and develop, I feel like I’ve created and nurtured them, like a parent does with their child. What would they perceive of the things they do, the places they go, the people they interact with? Would they be satisfied with the existence they lead?
It’s a weird thing to contemplate, I suppose, indeed it’s entirely hypothetical. But it’s also weird, even if normalised, now, to curate another version of myself, let alone one that seems able to dictate the way I think, feel and behave. They should remain entirely within my control, but I increasingly worry that, actually, I am the one subservient to them. This becomes ever-apparent when they exact their worrying ability to cultivate parts of my personality that, at first, I didn’t know existed, and I would now rather be oblivious to.
It’s a phenomenon I’m particularly conscious of at the moment, because, once again, I ignored one of my close friends last night. I didn’t deem what they wanted from me good enough. It’d be a waste to acknowledge them. Wasteoftimewasteoflife. Maybe I was presumptuous for doing that. Spiteful, even. They jumped at me out of nowhere though, while I was eating dinner in front of the Sex Education finale, and I’d had enough, I shut them down because I couldn’t be bothered, I just wanted to zone out. Why should they be entitled to my time?
I don’t understand their secluded, private life. They don’t ever show themselves doing anything, and what’s the point if there’s no one there to see? They’re not living, laughing and loving, they’re just living, not proving anything, always in my presence, but only occasionally in my eyeshot, sometimes, that little circle with eyes and cheeks, which is their face! Such a pretty face, yet they do nothing with it. Weirdo. I exposed it to the big wide world last week, removing their invisibility cloak, and I think it humiliated them. They didn’t seem to appreciate it, neither openly scathing nor showing their love, so I assumed I’d messed things up. In the end, I compromised, taking us away from it all, away from that bustling bar with the disco lights in town, as if we were never there.
Why did they choose to come to uni and not be able to face the music? I don’t get it. I only go to things when I look good, so I get on fine. Life is so beautiful, enriching us with all these people we meet by chance and connect with. Someone makes the first move, I reciprocate, and our paths are intertwined just like that, with all the love, hate, joy and envy that ensues. Why waste it? There are some people who don’t waste a moment. Not a word, not a calorie. They just know how to live. They work hard, they play hard, they’re beautiful. I’ll never be like them. I don’t know how I’d describe my relationship with them, because they’re not my friends per se. I can find out loads about them, but they know nothing about me, like the opposite of those therapists in their cold, clinical co-working spaces, who expect you to divulge, while they stare at you and hardly say a thing. These people are better than therapy, because they can speak to me. They make money out of me, but they don’t charge me. Thatcher’s wet dream. They’re helping me, soothing me, influencing me, they’re my medicine.
I love this life I really do, and it’s my medicine getting me through. Medicine never tasted so good, so addictive, so unrestrained. I consume my medicine when I want, which is all the time, and when I consume someone else, I’m instantly reminded that I should be consuming them, instead, because they know what’s right for me.
I love this meritocracy, where people can consume me, too. It’s a level playing field, anyone can thrive, and those that do have truly earned it. I work on myself constantly. I maintain me, because I’m devoted to myself, and care about me. I rearrange myself, removing my face from this life when, upon reflection, it’s looking a bit too chubby. I hate me so I can love me.
I use the worst version of myself to project what I think is the best version of myself. Because I’m self-obsessed and hypocritical, people can see me as a smiley, outgoing social butterfly. I can never falter from perfection because this life, beautifully, gives you second chances. It starts when you want, erasing the years when I was spotty, wore ugly glasses and had no friends. Everything is reversible, so I can reassess, redo. My words have consequences, but I can take them back, instantly, while my omissions are always explainable. I can always make anything ok.
This is important, because I eventually felt bad about how I ignored my friend. I was momentarily imperfect, I eschewed message etiquette. I convinced myself they weren’t entitled to my time, but in the end, my guilt in not acknowledging their existence was more significant to me. I gave them a kiss and put my shades on, I gave them reassurance. They probably thought I was being spiteful for the five days I ignored them, but that’s normal for this existence, which thrives upon assumptions. It induces supposed solutions to our insecurities, but simultaneously makes those insecurities worse. It made me upset one day, because that boy I thought was mine appeared to be someone else’s. I suddenly didn’t want it anymore, I’d been given the wrong prescription, doctor. I said my goodbyes for three months, and pressed delete.
They weren’t the best months of my life, but they weren’t the worst, either. They were delightfully unremarkable. Sometimes I was insecure and anxious, but I also (finally) did Firewater Thursday, and saw Big Joanie live. I saw my friends some evenings, read in bed on others, attended at least some of my seminars, ran this paper’s culture section, and generally kept busy. I was a smiley, outgoing social butterfly.
No one joined me in my act of rebellion. I removed myself from what I believed were the source of my toxic dispositions, but I also didn’t attend exhibitions I would have genuinely enjoyed, or parties I didn’t give myself the chance to be invited to. I got FOMO from things I didn’t know were happening, I removed myself from an existence which is here to stay, stimulating and draining in equal measure, both awful and essential, its content manufactured, yes, but its consequences real and tangible. So I went back, in the end, partly out of necessity for my (offline) personal and professional life, but also because I didn’t want to feel like an outsider, more in tune with my boomer parents than the rest of Gen-Z.
I now think that a lot of us maintain the Instagram versions of ourselves, nourishing and exacerbating a symbiotic relationship, because, perversely, we want to, or at least feel resigned to. Being online has become fundamental to our identity as young people – we know that we’re mentally ill and socially inept, that’s what the headlines keep telling us – and what’s more stupefying than a self-fulfilling prophecy? I was convinced that influencers were my medicine, but they don’t care about you, or me. I said that you always get second chances, but that overlooks the all-powerful screenshot, which put me back in my place when I claimed I wasn’t on my phone. I called it a level playing field, but why does it give some people body dysmorphia and not others? I now know all this deep down, I’m sure you do too, yet I still went back to Instagram after happily living without it, and I continue to uphold the ways in which it deceived and commanded me, perhaps because it’s easier to just do what is expected of us, even if that’s contrary to our best interests.
I failed to survive without an existence whose sustenance is stress, and modus operandi is jealousy, and that makes me scared. Maybe this whole attempt to dissociate me from the Instagram version of myself was so I could deny that I am them, and they are me. I’m trapped, though, there are bits of myself that I don’t like because I am on Instagram, yet I remain on Instagram because there are bits of myself that I don’t like. It gives me little to zero pleasure, so I spend more time thinking about it than actually using it, channelling my surveillance of others to surveilling myself, caught up and paranoid in my own introspection, to which I either pronounce myself a nutcase for not being able to handle it like everyone else, or a narcissist for analysing myself too much. That’s the weird thing about being addicted to social media, it becomes less gratifying the more time you spend on it. The dopamine rushes that get you hooked become irregular, and ever-unsatisfactory, so, instead, you spend time in your own head.
Because my friend and I had largely moved to Whatsapp during my three month digital detox, they didn’t really need to mark my return to Instagram. I hadn’t missed much, apparently, maybe some reels which they don’t remember (like the one I ignored). They spend most of their time somewhere else now, though. It’s great, they say, it’s never-ending, it maximises your quality of life, by judiciously examining every second of what you’ve already experienced. Even the music is sped up, quirky, and high-pitched. There’s no message etiquette, because people don’t even pretend to want to talk to one another there. It’s all about you, it’s made for you. It’s called TikTok.