A vivid orange sunset, a fluffy golden retriever puppy, a colorful breakfast of yogurt and artfully sprinkled fruit.
As disparate as the above three images may seem, each is brought into a collision with the others as they vie for our attention on the social media application Instagram. Marketed as “a simple way to capture and share the world’s moments,” Instagram is one of today’s most widely-used platforms with . It is also one of the most widely misused platforms.
As of 2016, Facebook reported that users spend an average of on Facebook, Instagram and Messenger. As succinctly stated, “This is higher than the amount of time that people spend exercising or playing sports (19.2 minutes), reading for personal interest (17.4 minutes), socializing (39 minutes) and preparing food (35.4 minutes).”
As an entrepreneurial spirit with a penchant for online business, I’ve spent more than $1,000 and hundreds of hours learning the art of selling on Instagram. Behind the scenes, there are communities of enterprisers, influencers and advertisers who are hard at work exploring methods to cultivate the greatest number of likes, comments and follows in order to turn them into profits. As soon as the Instagram team—which has the stated goal of making the app —updates the algorithms that are used to monitor content and curate users’ “feeds,” group chats light up with messages about how to turn this new code to their own advantage.
In a world in which we tend to use technology thoughtlessly, these digital entrepreneurs have a field day turning our down time on social media apps into money for themselves and their businesses. Of course, I do not fault them for doing this. I wonder, however, how we would approach our time spent on Facebook if instead of being enticed with the promise of connectivity and social status, we were told, “Every hour you spend on this app is a donated hour of unpaid labor to Facebook. Please enjoy.”
The problem with many social media platforms, after all, is that we use them thoughtlessly. Like a smoker who instinctively reaches for a cigarette, as soon as we have nothing to do with our hands we awaken our little glowing screens and swipe to update our social media streams. Does posting a picture of an “aesthetic breakfast” really improve anyone’s life? We have become too used to getting on apps like Instagram as an inherent part of our day. When used without a specific goal, any tool becomes useless at best, or a waste of time at worst.
Think about it: would any one of us just pick up a hammer, saw or electric drill and start randomly swinging it around? Of course not, nor would any rational human who fears being seriously maimed by flailing construction equipment. Digital tools can be just as dangerous when used unwisely, though the injuries they inflict are not on our physical bodies but on our time.
On a recent weekend trip down to Georgia, I spent an evening and night wandering the streets of Charleston, S.C. One of the most striking things about the city was the proliferation of art galleries. It seemed that every street corner had at least one broad doorway opening into a series of rooms and alcoves devoted to painting and sculpture. The true and underutilized power of Instagram is to bring those art galleries into our pockets in a highly personalized way.
Instagram is an extremely visual platform. While there are countless pages that simply buy likes, comments and followers from bots programmed in countries far away, there are accounts that create extremely creative and appealing content. What if we used Instagram as a personal art gallery instead of as a hit of dopamine to fulfill our bored craving for stimulation? In his widely-acclaimed 2017 book, "," Canadian journalist and author Michael Harris asks himself and his readers to consider whether their sense of personal “taste” has degraded to the point where they no longer consume media based on personal preference. Instead, he questions whether their consumption depends on the suggestions of an anonymous A.I. that feeds us content based on a vast stockpile of user data.
Recalibrating our individual ability to distinguish “what I like” from “what the computer thinks I should like” can start when we begin to use Instagram in a different way.
My own experiment with this approach is still in progress, but it began when I downloaded the app again a week ago after a 4-month detox and decided that I would use it as a place to go for fitness and business motivation. Having struggled in the past to maintain momentum and to keep my goals in sight, I thought that if my Instagram feed consisted of pictures of super fit models or motivational messages, it could be a place where I go to be inspired.
Technology is not inherently evil. It is purposed as a tool. If a smartphone is a Swiss Army knife, apps are the widgets that pop out in order to cater to our various needs. Finding a specific purpose for each tool in our digital toolbox is a step toward improving our quality of life. Our Instagram use is just one embodiment of a societal phenomenon: we spend too much time on our phones, and it is time spent thoughtlessly.
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Jack Dolinar is a Trinity junior. His column, “AppEd” typically runs on alternate Mondays.