Last year, Michaela Coel dared me to write a story that scares me. OK, she wasn’t talking directly to me. Her clarion call to all writers, issued as she accepted an Emmy for limited series writing ― the first Black woman to do so ― invited us all to disappear from a world where “visibility, these days, somehow equates success.” Coel encouraged writers like me to disappear and “see what comes to you in the silence.” I quit Instagram the next day.
I’d been thinking about my constant use of Instagram for several weeks before I heard her speech. During the pandemic’s peak, I spent at least four hours a day glued to my screen. In the morning, I’d consider whether any of my family’s meals or adventures were post-worthy. At bedtime, I’d watch Instastories of friends’ beach vacations, drool over street food posts, or silently judge “friend’s” motivational quotes. I was addicted.
I envy the people who can casually view posts and move on with their day. It seems they benefit from the best of social media. They can connect with family and friends, bridging distance and time, all while strengthening their networks. Good for them. They close the app and avoid rabbit holes. I am not that person. I can’t ignore the bells and whistles and find myself wasting time tracking down something silly like the vegan protein bars posted by Ryan Reynolds’ trainer. I’d often fall asleep to the reassuring scroll, exhausted from teleworking full-time and guiding my daughter through virtual first grade.
I am 45 years old. I joined Facebook in 2007. I quit that platform in 2016, hoping to escape the political vitriol that crept onto my feed that year. Instead, I joined Instagram, reasoning that it’s just pictures and images, right? In total, I have spent over half my adult life carefully curating images and browsing through the lives of family, friends, and acquaintances. Was there a better use of my time?
Quit may be too strong a term for what I did the day after the 2021 Emmys. I didn’t deactivate my account. Instead, I tricked myself into thinking I’d just take a 21-day hiatus ― the amount of time an expert claimed it takes to build a habit (this has been refuted in recent years). I removed the app from all my devices and downloaded Coel’s speech onto my phone. When tempted to reinstall Instagram on my phone, I’d watch Coel, resplendent in her two-piece neon gown, urging me to write, “what makes you feel uncertain that isn’t comfortable.”
I have wanted to write for the better part of two decades. I wrote in college, but my then-boyfriend was the writer in our dyad, and it didn’t seem fair to compete. Instead, I kept reading the books that I would have liked to have written, ”Dogeaters,” “The Namesake,” “Americanah,” and “Afterparties.” I told myself that, one day, I’ll write my family’s story too. That never happened as life ― a civil rights career, motherhood, a pandemic ― derailed my plans for a room of my own. Instead, I posted snippets of family vacations, baking projects, or family costumes. I liked it. My friends “liked” it. I thought I had found a voice.
But, increasingly, I felt muzzled by my own social media audience. Not for the many good reasons others have listed. My profiles were private, and no one trolled me. Instead, I felt encumbered by the safe story I fed to an online world.
I am a proud third-generation Filipina baker. Most of my childhood was spent at the family bake shop in Vancouver, Canada, greeting customers or folding cake boxes at the counter. Pandemic baking helped me process the stress of the lockdown. It also happened to be wildly popular on social media because, really, who can be mad at cookies? On Instagram, with a few select posts, I had a captive audience that swooned when I unveiled a dry ice volcano or an edible lego structure on elaborate birthday cakes.
But my cheery posts didn’t tell the full story. Those homemade ube and kabocha pumpkin spice mooncakes glossed over how I didn’t bake for years, resentful of the time the bakery took away from me and my family. Behind my ability to pipe a perfect Happy Birthday greeting on any surface was the story of how I got there ― an immigrant tween forced to work every weekend and evening alongside her parents. I couldn’t complain because I knew that the bakery hustle ― on top of my parents’ full-time jobs ― allowed me to attend the best private schools. That’s a harder and more nuanced story to tell on the ’gram. It was far easier to regale my online audience with tales of macaron-making marathons.
The “likes” rained down on my culinary posts. I basked in the attention even as I fretted that people assumed baking and family were the most vibrant parts of my life. I bristled when an ultra-conservative guy with whom I’d gone to law school reached out to say hello and relay how happy he was to see that I was spending pandemic time in the kitchen. Gross. I began to sense the limits of social media as a storytelling platform.
Let’s be honest, we know social media isn’t good for us. Facebook intentionally targets teenagers and children under 13 to grow its consumer base. Instagram has been shown to be disastrous for many teenage girls. Kids’ brains are particularly vulnerable. In its current form, social media bends the arc of the moral universe toward chaos and distortion. Women, Black people, and Latinos are disproportionately harassed online (sadly, the research has not caught up to what it might be like to be Black, Latina, and female in the digital public square, but the intersection can’t be great). We could, as whistleblower Frances Haugen suggests, build the “cultural muscle” of skepticism and critical thinking we need to better consume social media. But I have a radical and simple solution: Quit it all.
I am no stranger to bouts of asceticism. I stopped watching live TV in my early 20s. After reading about Ann Patchett’s year of no shopping, I bought no clothes, shoes, or books for all of 2018. I’ve completed two rounds of the Whole30 diet ― banning sugar, grains, alcohol and what seemed like anything delicious for 30 days. Marie Kondo taught me to thank items for their sentimental value and give them away. Often, the call to purge or cull parts of my life came in reaction to excess: too much reality TV, too many impulse buys on Amazon, too many desserts, and too much stuff. With Instagram, it was the clutter in my mind. The need to keep up with my “friends” and post content took more of a psychic toll than I care to admit. And, in retrospect, it stole valuable creative time.
Quitting my social media audience wasn’t easy. There were moments when I felt like I was the last to know about a friend’s latest accomplishment or family celebrations. I became mildly paranoid that I was missing out on the latest cultural trends or jokes. I shuddered at the thought of becoming my friend, an Ivy League professor who once earnestly asked me, “Who is Cardi B?”
But strange things also happen in the silence of your own thoughts. When Instagram’s algorithm didn’t tell me what to view or like, or buy, I was left to my own devices. Literally. I reacquainted myself with the other parts of my phone. My WhatsApp and Signal text threads kept me connected to the latest friend gossip and I managed to stay conversant in TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram thanks to Roxane Gay’s newsletter, The Audacious Roundup.
Without any packaged reminders of what I or my friends liked, I mined my own memories. I giggled to myself as I built and listened to eclectic playlists ― Moxy Früvous, Boyz II Men, Aerosmith, Digable Planets, En Vogue, and R.E.M. It seems ridiculous to say out loud, but I realized I was better than an algorithm at predicting what I like and how I would enjoy spending my time. Inspired, I recreated the scenes, characters, heartbreaks and triumphs of a Filipina Canadian teenage girl growing up in the northwest in the ’90s. I jotted down ideas for a memoir, short stories, and essays. I regained a creative focus I had not realized I lost.
The day after I quit Instagram, I signed up for a 10-day writer’s bootcamp. Then another. I created a spreadsheet of dream writing residencies or workshops where I could focus on my craft. I won writing scholarships, landed my first residency, and was accepted to three juried writers’ workshops on my list. In my first nine months off social media, I accomplished more than I had in two decades of wishing I had time to be a writer. I should have quit sooner.
It’s no surprise that quitting social media freed up time for me. On average, Americans spend a little over 2 hours a day on social media. Who else could be writing their magnum opus for the time they spend curating posts? Put another way, could maintaining a social media presence be holding you back from writing a play or finishing that novel? Or, maybe it’s none of those things. Maybe you’ve wanted to learn a new language or spend more time with your kids or start taking that 20-minute walk every morning you keep telling yourself that you’ll take. It could be small. It could be anything. But I bet there’s something you’ve always been meaning to do with an extra few hours back in your day.
I’ve snuck back on Instagram a few times. Once because I couldn’t resist seeing my friends’ Halloween costumes and another time to stalk authors after finishing a particularly satisfying novel. Both times, I was shocked at how much I didn’t miss the platform. Sure, there was that pang of guilt from missing out on the lives of friends and family, but I was also eager to sign off, impatient to return to the stories or essays knocking about my brain.
You don’t realize how much social media pervades your life until you give it up.
And, to be clear, I still waste quite a few hours a day on my phone. I peek into LinkedIn and allow Apple News’ algorithm to deliver me articles about civil rights, parenting, food, and what all Parisian women over 40 have in their closets. The difference is that I’m aware that I’m letting an algorithm feed me.
Re-joining social media does feel inevitable if I sell my novel. But when that miracle happens, I’ll figure out appropriate guardrails to curb my tendency to get lost in the algorithm. For now, my main focus is to use the luxury of extra hours in a day to read and make art. Quitting social media afforded me the time and clarity to chase my dreams. How would your life change in a year of Instagram silence?
Laureen Laglagaron is a civil rights attorney and writer. Follow her writing at www.citizenpinay.com.