This message was brought to you by: the serotonin transmitters in your brain.
Roughly a year ago, mine were working overtime in response to the prospects of a changing world. Ah yes, #hotvaxsummer. For just 2 doses of your local Moderna, Pfizer or AstraZeneca (Johnson & Johnson available at the special price of 1 dose) COVID-19 vaccine, you could receive everything that the virus snatched away from us 18 months ago. Crowded, sweaty nights screaming away your favourite tunes, lush, tranquil days spent recovering by the beach, but most importantly, the opportunity to flex on social media.
In a way, COVID-19 was the great equaliser as far as Instagram stories were concerned. The only opportunities available to one-up each other were constructing elaborate latte art during the era of #whippedcoffee, shoving handfuls of chocolate chips or (God forbid) pistachios in home-baked banana bread or completing complex jigsaw puzzles or nonograms if you’re masochistic. Whilst one might argue that it was impossible to feel left out when we all had no choice but to be confined to our households, that element of #fomo still existed amongst those who were unable to be with their families, who suffered financial hardships or who dealt with hostile domestic environments.
Confined to my bedroom with nothing but time, I started questioning why I felt the need to announce my presence at the trendiest Philadelphia restaurants. Eventually it occurred to me that that the above was the primary reason for my obsession with posting: the need to one-up my followers. I’ll say it shamelessly, there is nothing that really motivated my serotonin transmitters like the heart reacts, the “OMG that looks AMAZING” story replies and the “Ugh jealous” comments. Knowing that I was there whilst someone else was missing out was purely gratifying.
Setting the self-importance aside, we have a tendency to assume that the beaming smiles staring at you through your Instagram feed are accurately representative of how the poster feels. She’s smiling whilst lounging on a beach chair in Cabo: she must be happy. I’m loafing in the same sweats I’ve been wearing for 3 days in my room in Philadelphia watching other people live their best Instagram lives: I’m miserable and wasting my life. Naturally, the only solution is to spend months working in the gym, pack a suitcase with your best bikinis and book a ticket to an exotic location. Then I’ll be happy. I’ll tell you right now before you capitalise on that Barry’s special discount, it doesn’t work like that. Well, it didn’t work for me at least.
Nearly a year ago now, I received an irresistible job offer: spend 12 weeks teaching a college summer program that would be based out of the 50th state: Hawai’i. That’s 12 weeks where I was expected to spend no more than 4 hours teaching per day, with the rest of the time being mine and mine alone to waste. That’s 12 weeks to go surfing, hiking, snorkelling, adventuring, living, laughing, loving in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Not to forget, the content. The potential for aesthetically pleasing photos and videos is endless. The perfectly posed waterfall photo could work wonders for your engagement, think of all the new followers! How could I resist?
Beneath the surface lay truths that couldn’t ever be published to Instagram. I hate the beach and can’t stand the idea of spending several hours stretched out on the sand – I was often only there long enough to take the picture before I left. Smoothies, smoothie bowls and juices are liquids that I would never order of my own volition – didn’t stop me from publishing the photos of the gorgeous spirulina colours. Getting my hair wet is top 2 and not 2 on my list of pet peeves (my fellow friends in Afro can relate) – but either way Instagram would see the photos of my snorkelling adventures!
The issue with focusing on getting the world to pay attention to you is that you stop paying attention to the world around you. It’s hard to appreciate the beauty of a sunset when you spend those precious 2 minutes when the sun is dipping its head below the horizon trying to take the perfect photo of it – or rather the perfect photo of you in front of it. Moments weren’t appreciated as they occurred but rather after I had received feedback from my adoring online fans about how cool it was that I went here and ate there and did that. I wasn’t present for the events that were occurring in the physical world because I was preoccupied with how the online world would react to them.
My absorption into the digital scape was further accelerated by how isolated I felt in the real world. I graduated from college the week before I left for Hawai’i and this elicited a a plethora of emotions from elation at having achieved a long time goal to graduate from an Ivy league school to apprehension over what the next ‘big thing’ in my life would be. Lurking under this was the heartache of losing my friend group. I’d experienced this once before when I left the school I had attended for 13 years in Harare for Philadelphia, however, this time would be different as I wouldn’t have the the safety of shared classrooms or extracurricular activities to make new friends, it would require more effort on my part. Moving by myself and struggling to form connections, it felt easy to pretend I wasn’t lonely and desperate by posting as if I were having fun. I was living my best Instagram life but reclusive and miserable in real life.
It’s important to be able to distinguish that Instagram is not at fault here. Instagram, unlike your parents, won’t force you to smile in your holiday photos that must be sent out to friends, family and acquaintances alike. Instagram doesn’t tell you to forgo the breakfast sandwich in lieu of the less calorie dense and more #grammable açai bowl. Most importantly, Instagram won’t ever tell you that your worth is defined by the numbers. These are all things that we have conditioned ourselves to believe as a result of our innate desire for the world to pay attention to us.
My eventual displacement from Hawai’i to San Francisco at the end of the utopic 12 weeks in paradise was the defibrillating shock that jilted me back to the physical world.
The “innovation first” attitude of Silicon Valley has entrenched its way so deeply into the culture of San Francisco that there are coffee shops that won’t allow you order a latte without downloading their app first – even if there is a barista working at the counter. Smart phones were originally conceived to simplify our daily activities as a complement to them, but somewhere along the way we eliminated some of the most pleasantly mundane tasks of everyday life such as chatting about the weather with the barista as they prepare the oat milk chai latte you didn’t even have to order because they know you order the same thing everyday.
As a result, navigating the streets of SoMa sometimes feels to me like traversing a zombie wasteland except the zombies are all glued to their phones. Restaurants are abound with patrons who have their noses glued to cryptocurrency subreddits, grocery stores crowded with Instacart (a grocery delivery service) shoppers nervously taking photos of spinach bundles awaiting approval from their customers and concert goers spend more time watching the performer through their lens of their camera than they do with their own eyes. How was I supposed to make friends when nobody here looks up from their screens? Witnessing the extreme case of electronic dependence woke me up to the reality that my relationship with my phone needed to change.
How the chokehold that technology has on us can cut off our connection:
1. How often do you go back to those concert videos you took?
2. Was that incoming text message so urgent that you needed to cut off your friend as they were recounting their week at work to reply it?
3. Is the 30 second elevator ride so unbearably dull that you need to scroll through your Instagram stories? Now ask yourself that question again considering that there is no service in elevators.
Believe me, I’m grateful for all the wonderful things made possible by smart phones. I’m so grateful for social media that I even work at the largest social media company in the world. I also understand that it’s not healthy to delay getting out of bed in the morning by an hour so I can circulate through Instagram, Facebook, Gmail, WhatsApp and Snapchat before I’ve even brushed my teeth. Evicting my phone from its resting place on my bedside table didn’t feel like enough for me, so I decided to leave it behind whilst I took a solo road-trip 3 hours way to the sleepy coastal town of Mendocino for 4 days.
Freed from the shackles of technology, I found myself considerably less agitated than I had been in the preceding weeks. Early studies on the subject have suggested social media can trigger symptoms of Tourette syndrome (tics) in teenage girls due to the anxiety of constantly being online (read as: judged for how they behave online). This finding seems intuitive when you consider how social media has eliminated the concept of boredom. You’re always occupied: either focused on a task at work/school or on your phone. There are no longer dull moments of stillness waiting for the next bus to arrive or the professor to walk into the lecture hall – those little ‘in-between’ moments are now occasions to quickly check up on that influencer you despise. Over the course of the weekend, my hands stopped itching to flip through Stories at every idle moment and the 15 minute interval between ordering a meal and the waiter bringing the food to the table didn’t feel quite as long.
Perhaps the most rewarding benefit of spending a long weekend alone was being able to think in isolation. It was here that I recognised how much of my own personal validation originated externally. Where I discovered how many of my opinions were not my own, but echoes from someone else who had more eloquently illustrated them on the now notorious Instagram infographics. Where I took stock of the many occasions I had published on social media feigning happiness, knowing that I wasn’t having a good time. It was here that I decided that I didn’t need to document every moment of my life on the Internet.
I decided to stop trying to ‘keep up’ with what everyone else was doing – it wasn’t curing my loneliness nor was it providing an avenue for me to settle in San Francisco and make real life friends. Throughout the last year, I’ve learnt to put my phone down when I’m having a good time to be fully present in the moment, but what became more important was resisting the urge to post something cool if I wasn’t genuinely enjoying it.