I’ve been doing that thing where I rotate through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram like a bored kid opening and closing the refrigerator, not expecting for things to change so much as seeking reassurance in the ongoing sameness of its contents. I think some people use social media with the opposite impulse, wanting to be shocked, to be gripped by the shoulders and shaken to death or at least into an adrenaline-infused stupor, but it all feels a bit more passive than that, like there’s some dull, dark part of us seeking pleasure but wasting its resources by threading out through all the dark soil of our lives, and upon coming across some kernel of agita, it latches on for dear life. It’s how habits form, around ever diminishing returns of pleasure, more inertia than anything else.
Instagram is the one site where it feels possible to get a printout of your own obsessions in more or less real-time. I first noticed this months ago when I opened my Explore Tab and found a bunch of muscled white men in ugly tight-fitting pants and felt like I needed to get my life together. The Explore Tab had been reading the steady output of taps and engagement from my phone, transmuting it into action. It showed me content it thought I wanted. But I didn’t want it. I found the sea of overly tan male torsos kind of grotesque, actually. And the pants were, and I cannot stress this enough, so ugly that it wounded me.
I more or less understood that I had been shown these men because I had interacted with content that designated me homosexual and male, and so it filtered my suggestions accordingly. It was kind of offensive to me, this idea that my imagination was dominated by the meat market and by men. I found it all really tiresome. So I clicked on all of the pictures in the screen one-by-one, and marked the option that was like “Show me less of this.” All told, I spent about three or so hours unfollowing every muscular model I had passively followed and marking pictures of muscular men in ugly clothes as undesirable content. I then spent an hour or so liking pictures of plants and architecture and art catalogs. Sure enough, when I opened my explore tab the next day, it was a fucking rainforest.
But the men have begun to creep back in. My friend and I exchange pictures of Jake Gyllenhaal( a chaotic prince with emotional top energy) and Henry Cavill and James McAvoy in our Instagram DMs. So between pictures of gorgeous spider plants and stunning photos of cottages on the edge of cliffs, there’s a photo of Jake Gyllenhaal in a perfect sweater looking like he’d choke you or cry or cry while choking you or James McAvoy’s glinting smile, not so much emotional top as like emotionally destructive top. It’s a dynamic system, I guess, the self. We’re always constructing and deconstructing, and eventually, we settle into new schemas of passive engagement and filtering until we come face to face with who we are and feel revulsion and horror. Then the cycle begins anew. Active remodeling fading to passive filterfeeding.
But if Instagram provides a portrait of your own innermost self, it also goes full chaotic neutral in offering you the opportunity to surveil you’re the people you’re following. The notifications window tells you when someone interacts with your posts. If someone likes or comments on something you’ve posted or if they tag you in a photo, you get a little red blip. But then if you click the Following tab, the window switches over from showing the interactions with your content to showing you what all of your friends have been liking and commenting on and who they’ve followed.
if you study this screen long enough, you find out just what they’ve been looking at in the middle of the night. I came across this information entirely accidentally. I had no idea what I was looking at. It was disorienting, a sea of names and posts I didn’t know or hadn’t seen. But then I saw that this poet who I thought was gay had been liking photos of Russian lingerie models, and someone whom I thought was a perfectly ordinary straight man was liking photos of sex-positive bears. It was horrifying, a grotesquerie of a different sort. I think whenever you’re confronted with the pure, animal brain of someone else, it’s startling, alarming, and the first instinct is to look away. I absolutely looked away. I deleted the app, turned off my phone, and withdrew from the world for a few days. It plagued my dreams.
It wasn’t that people were doing what they were doing—I have absolutely nothing but love for sex-positive bears and Russian lingerie models. I love that social media is a platform for people to engage with what thrills them. That is explicitly not what drove me from my phone. Instead, I felt like I had seen too much. I felt like I had seen something private. It was that I had this premonition that they had been seeing what I was doing too. We were doubly exposed. Everyone was going around seeing everyone else’s naked human body but were pretending they weren’t. I had this awful and sudden apprehension that we were all in an elaborate play. It’s like when you see someone pick their nose and wipe it on the seat next to them, and everyone pretends it didn’t happen. Or when you hear someone fart and you all just go on like you didn’t hear it. I’ve always been so affected by moments like that because it feels like I’m the only one who notices, and I feel so so so alone. But what I’ve come to understand is that in fact everyone notices, and my problem is that I struggle with letting it go, pretending not to have noticed.
Sometimes, I lie awake at night wondering if there are people in the world who are truly chaotic enough to enjoy using the Following tab of the likes screen. I wonder if there are people who are able to look at that unvarnished, naked information about the quirks, kinks, and passive browsing of their fellow humans with glee or with anything other than cringing horror. I am an extremely online person, but I actually want to know very little about people. I feel like knowing little about the people I interact with on a daily basis is what keeps this whole machine running. Imagine. If you knew the personal pain of every person you had to interact with, you’d never survive it. You would never get through the day. Our anonymity is what insulates us.
But also, I think that might just be me. I have a hard time with Instagram because it reminds me of the time in high school when my history teacher assigned us a project on the Vietnam War. We were forced to make a video documentary. I begged not to do it. I begged to be given a 30-page paper instead. The teacher said no, because we were entering a world where multimedia skills will be very important, so it was a double wound to me as I saw it because, one, I did not want to be on camera, and two, I hated US History so much I could barely contain my rage in my body. Anyway, the documentary was a disaster because it involved lots of us running and flailing, and lots of wooden lines delivered about events I had absolutely no recollection of learning, and to make it worse, I was in a group with a high school boy who fancied himself a cinephile. You can imagine how insufferable it all was. He wanted shots and angles and to loop that again. I wanted to die.
I struggled a lot with my body image and with my existence in general. The usual high school angst. The usual fear of your body changing and society’s expectations of your body changing. I also had a hard time with home and with trauma. I was being assaulted and abused. We were poor and our family was precarious in more ways than one. My life at school and my life at home were starkly separated except both were painful, and the idea of going to a park after school with people--when I didn’t drive and had no way to get home except for the school bus--made me so upset I cried on the way home when the teacher told me there was no other way. It was either do the project or fail.
I didn’t really have an idea of what the video would entail either. I knew that video was different from a photo. But my family had very few photos, and the only videos we had were VHS tapes we’d taped with the VCR. At the time, there were fewer than 6 pictures of me in existence, period. The idea of existing outside of my body in all perpetuity made me queasy. We shot the footage in a chaotic series of shots. The cinephile (who typed his term papers on a typewriter) made us run back and forth flailing our arms over our heads. He shouted, NOW DO VIETNAMESE and we all stopped and looked at him and were confused because none of us spoke Vietnamese and we didn’t really even know what meant by do Vietnamese. Then he said, GET TO DA CHOPPA in an Arnold Schwarzenegger voice, and he said, Yeah, yeah it’s fucking great. I had worn a button-down shirt for this. The other students in my group had coordinated their outfits, drab and dark. The girls wore tunics. The boys wore camo shirts and pants. But here I was pudgy and out of breath and sweating, and dressed in lightwash denim with tattered hems and sneakers. When I think back on this period in my life, I think about how much shit I took from everyone about how I dressed. Either it was too preppy or too urban or both or neither. What I know is that none of my clothes fit, and so I had this sense of always failing somehow. I was gay but couldn’t say I was gay. I miserable. My voice had recently changed a second time, and people kept pointing it out to me as though it were a mystery. That year, I had a second series of disgusting bacterial infections in my lips which required me to sometimes wear medical masks to school. People stole the masks and threw them into the trash, so I had to stand there with swollen lips that hurt, getting light on them when I was supposed to. A guy I didn’t know well followed me down the halls at school and called me Pussy lips, and sometimes tried to sodomize me with the end of his hairbrush. It was not a good time, but it was only the latest in a life of not good times.
The day we were supposed to show the projects in class, I begged my mom to let me stay home, but she was tired from the factory and not interested in my problems. She made me go in, and so the period before that class, I went to the bathroom and made myself sick. But I think I was already on my way to being sick, because all I had to do was open the stall and I was instantly on my knees, puking and wretching. But it was a relief not to have to see myself running around on screen. Jiggling. Bouncing. Making a fool of myself. I thought, at least I was free of having to see that clear illustration of my desperation, of how ugly I was, how clumsy, how weak, how utterly foolish.
I think about this a lot, the feverish hour or so I spent on the floor of the bathroom in the sophomore wing of my high school. The hideous lighting, the cramps, the burn in my throat, the lengths I went to in order to avoid seeing myself or worse, being seen by others, and I find myself perplexed at the person I’ve become, someone who posts pictures of himself on the internet. A person who exposes his most vulnerable thoughts to hundreds and sometimes thousands of strangers daily. Part of it has certainly been about becoming a person who hates himself a little less, finding some comfort in existing in the squishy meatsack that I have. Divesting from the idea that if no one desires me, then I am not a person with worth or value. I think so much of it has just been about caring less about what other people see when they see me, so much so that I’m sometimes startled when a person suggests that they’ve seen me at all.
All of that and more is why I find Instagram such a weird and dissociative dance. It reminds me of the weird tension between the worst part of my life and this new weird pseudoconfidence I feel moving through the world, and it’s a tension I don’t particularly care for, but like a weird toe or a joint that burps gas every time you move, it’s a part of my life so there you have it.