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Haley and Harling Discuss Instagram’s Most Underrated Upside
08.24.18

Sometimes it feels like everyone is doing two things: Complaining that Instagram makes them feel like shit and scrolling vigorously through Instagram. As these two realities grow increasingly severe and in direct contrast with one another, I’ve been wondering: What’s the missing link between the two? Why are we still using something if we think it’s terrible? I had a suspicion we weren’t giving ourselves enough credit.

Below, Harling and I explore this idea via email. If you’re as into psycho-analyzing Instagram as we are, please add your own thoughts to this conversation down below. If the mere idea of this dialogue exhausts you more than a particularly long Instagram-binge, I recommend a nice stroll outside and a call to your favorite woman over the age of 50. Either way, I support you. -Haley Nahman


On Fri, Aug 17, 2018 at 11:32 AM, Haley Nahman wrote:

Q for you. I get so many pitches about how damaging Instagram can be (and have even written about it myself), and I’m starting to feel like…what’s the new angle here? Because no matter how much we pull apart its downsides, no one is stopping! When we go back to it over and over, are we really just junkies? There has to be more to it than misguided masochism. I think there are some redeeming qualities about the platform that don’t get enough credit. You recently mentioned you’d never give up Instagram, which I loved, because no one says that!!!! Why did you say that?

On Fri, Aug 17, 2018 at 11:37 AM, Harling Ross wrote:

I stand by that! I have no plans to go on an Instagram cleanse, now or ever. There was a period of time when I entertained the idea because it seems like everyone is doing it (hence all those pitches you’re getting, probs), but after thinking about it I came to the realization that my experience using the app is loaded with far more positives than negatives. It really democratizes access to having a platform for your words and your thoughts and your SELF, and as a result it’s connected me to a lot of people I would never have known about otherwise — many of whom I’ve subsequently been able to feature on Man Repeller in some way.

On Fri, Aug 17, 2018 at 11:53 AM, Haley Nahman wrote:

Yes, true. I particularly like your point about democratizing access to the self. Because although the “connection” point is made a lot — about Instagram and all social media platforms — to the point that it’s become eye-roll-inducing, the idea of what you’re connecting to is often glossed over.

I think I’m drawn back to Instagram because it gives me an opportunity to share and shape myself free of the barriers that make that harder to do in real life. There is a lot of pressure to transmit who I am in-person through clothes, body language, saying the right thing. On Instagram, I can have a more thoughtful hand in presenting what feels true to me, without anyone interrupting me, or judging the way I’m standing, or being distracted by the the greasiness of my hair. In other words, I can more freely express myself. Day-to-day life often doesn’t allow for that.

In Instagram, I think a lot of people have found an outlet to share who they are and how they feel where their professional or social lives might not allow for it. People often accuse all of Instagram as being fake — but is it really? Maybe it depends on who you follow, but I don’t see as much my-life-is-perfect posturing as a lot of “Instagram is evil” essays might suggest.

On Sun, Aug 19, 2018 at 4:43 PM, Harling Ross wrote:

I completely identify with that. I’m an introvert, so navigating social situations where I don’t know people very well can be a challenge. My favorite parts about who I am (like my sense of humor) aren’t necessarily evident the first time you meet me, or even the second or third times (I’m like an osso buco! My personality needs time to braise!), so Instagram acts as somewhat of a sanctuary for revealing more intimate aspects of my identity in a way that doesn’t trigger any social anxiety.

In sum, contrary to the “Instagram is fake” stereotype, I’ve found it to be a conduit for my “real” self in many ways. Sure there’s plenty of opportunity for posturing on Instagram, but you could say the same about life in general. It’s interesting we’re having this conversation right now though given that Instagram just rolled out new features to help people mitigate the amount of time they spend on the app. Have you ever gone on an Instagram cleanse? Do you feel better when you spend less time scrolling?

On Mon, Aug 20, 2018 at 7:59 PM, Haley Nahman wrote:

I think that’s so interesting — that Instagram in some ways allows you to communicate parts of yourself that you don’t feel always come through in real life. I really connect with that too. It reminds me of that Ask Polly column Amelia always cites about how often we don’t give people enough credit for their layers: When we chat with them in a bar or run into them on the street, their complexity may not always reveal itself, and we then make false assumptions about how “surface” they are as a result. I think Instagram allows a lot of people to kind of reshape their image in the way they’d like to be seen — it gives them a chance to show their layers. Sometimes I feel like looking at someone’s Instagram can tell me so much more about that person than spending five minutes with him/her in person.

Maybe that’s why some people hate it. That’s a lot of pressure.

But we all posture all the time, whether we are consciously doing it or not — and on Instagram, we have more control. And the importance of that can’t be underestimated, especially for people who don’t always feel in control of their narrative because something about them doesn’t fit the mold, or makes them feel unfairly judged of marginalized before they so much as speak. I wonder if that’s why Instagram seems to resonate with women in particular.

As for your question, I’ve never gone on a cleanse, but I definitely can feel empty after using it for too long or too often. But that’s not because I think everyone I follow is fake or vapid, it’s because I recognize that it’s simply information overload for me. I wrote recently about feeling like insecurity may be a function of the internet. Some people misinterpreted my words (possibly my fault) as meaning that Instagram makes me feel bad about myself. Someone commented something to the effect of: “Why don’t you just go outside and smell the roses?” I didn’t respond, but I wanted to say: I do go outside and smell the roses! But that doesn’t make this entire new paradigm not exist. The internet in general exposes us to so many human qualities and narratives, and I’m not sure we intellectually know how to handle them all, or if we are even capable of doing so. I personally find that when I’m focusing too much on others, I can totally lose sight of myself, and that’s when I can freeze.

Do you ever feel like that?

On Tue, Aug 21, 2018 at 12:19 PM, Harling Ross wrote:

It’s interesting that you bring up how Instagram seems to resonate with women in particular. I’ve always thought that might be part of the reason why it’s so vilified, and why I prickle at the implication that I should feel guilty for enjoying it so much. Like fashion, Instagram is frequently dismissed as superficial. Like sheepishly ordering a vodka soda at a bar, admitting to spending time on Instagram (much less enjoying it) can feel like an embarrassing confession. I don’t know, maybe I’m reading into it, but I’m sensitive to the reality that women are often gaslit into believing their interests are somehow “less than.”

That being said, I understand what you mean by the risk of losing sight of yourself when you focus too much on what other people are doing, sharing, making, saying and being on Instagram. It’s hard not to compare myself, say, when I see someone I follow spent an entire day outside with friends in the sunshine on a Sunday afternoon and I had no plans so I sat home alone and did laundry, or when I scroll through some of the amazing stuff my work peers are up to and swallow a nice spoonful of imposter syndrome.

But here’s what I ask myself in those instances: Does the pleasure I get from using this platform (staying in touch with friends in faraway places, engaging with people I’ve never met, messaging with Man Repeller community members, discovering new brands, sharing important parts of myself) still outweigh the negative aspects (feeling the urge to compare, occasionally neglecting to smell the roses)? Every time the answer has been yes, and as long as that continues to be the case, I’ll keep Instagram scrolling without shame.

On Wed, Aug 22, 2018 at 11:52 PM, Haley Nahman wrote:

Yes to the risk of losing sight of yourself — and I think that can become particularly relevant in the context of Instagram which, like it or not, is quite focused on aesthetics. (Although, with the rise of essay-length captions and story highlights that actually tell stories, that feels like it’s changing.) I think there is a way to engage with it that isn’t so toxic and that actually enables interactions that would otherwise never occur, it just takes a lot of intentionality, which, of course, we don’t always employ when our minds are idle and scrolling.

I love that you have such affection for Instagram. I like it for a lot of the same reasons — although I admit to sometimes doubting the efficacy of the connections made there. And I don’t like the idea of Instagram usurping the elements of real life that simply can’t be adapted to screens: the feeling of meeting someone or doing something and seeing anything for the first time. When Instagram becomes too central to our social landscape, I think it can start to have too much sway over the physical world (people posing in front of colorful walls they don’t actually care about, or taking photos at parties that aren’t actually fun, etc). That’s when I think people get sick of it and call it toxic.

I prefer when it feels more like a companion piece to identity formation instead of the hub of it. It’s too much pressure otherwise. It’s also just false — I may say that my Instagram helps me express myself in a way I might not be able to in spending five minutes with someone, but it’s still pretty surface. There is so much you might not know about me by looking at my Instagram, and I think that’s something we all need to keep in mind when we use it as a get-to-know-you measure.

I guess what we’re both saying is: It can be toxic, but there are also redeeming qualities. The question is finding out how to navigate the app with both truths in mind.

On Thurs, Aug 23, 2018 at 1:01 PM, Harling Ross wrote:

Also!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Not to get too deep, but selfies are really fun.

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