Social Media Diet: Recognizing Instagram as a rat lever

This week I'm sharing three posts originally written for my personal blog about my social media diet, which doesn't include using Facebook or Instagram socially.

Originally written January 2012

Illustration courtesy of Anne Emond
Illustration courtesy of Anne Emond
I committed Facebook social suicide last year, and now I've decided to officially make the switch from Instagram back to Flickr. I have very strong feels about Flickr, and have a sense of needing to give it one last chance. And if I'm going to abandon it, it's NOT going to be for Instagram. I'm also embarrassed at how shitty my photography has gotten over the six months I've been using Instagram.

I'm also trying to recognize and remove the "rat levers" in my digital life. These are those repetitive, mindless digital behaviors that give some sort of reward, that I repeat over and over again habitually, like one of Skinner's rats. Ultimately, I'm starting to recognize that the habituated, mindless, crack-like behavior isn't worth the small rewards… and that I need to find more direct ways to get the rewards I'm clearly looking for.

Facebook was the rat-lever I recognized last year, and removed as an option. In thinking about what rewards it was delivering, it boils down to:

  • Judging: tracking people without actually keeping in touch, usually looking at them and having various judgmental thoughts
    (downside: I do not need encouragement to get my judgey hat on)
  • Quick-hit connection: easy way to get a blast of social interaction with large group of people with very low effort
    (downside: relatively meaningless, no one has control over who shows up when, so FB controls who I'm connecting with which is weird)

Instagram was an especially effective rat-lever, because its photography culture not only permits but encourages GPOYs, a narcissistic habit I thought I'd mostly shaken off that suddenly flared up again because not only was it ok — the GPOYs get the most hearts! And suddenly, all the people who I'd missed seeing on Flickr (and then Facebook) were ALL over Instagram. THAT'S where they all went! And it was on my phone, so I could hit the lever any time I wanted! The rewards it delivered were:

  • Narcissism: me, me, meeeee! Look at me! And how awesome my life is! MEEEEE!!!
    (downside: I have more wrinkles in my face than ever, but am acting even more adolescent than I did 10 years ago? Emotional backsliding!)
  • Connection: great way to keep tabs on real life friends. (downsides: none)
  • Photo sharing: how I have missed the good times we used to have on Flickr! Everyone is posting photos again! Yay!
    (downside: the photos are low-resolution, shit quality, and over-processed in ways that I'm already embarrassed about.)

In removing these rat levers, I cannot tell a lie: sometimes I miss them. Or, I should be clear: I really miss Instagram. I know for a fact that I am not keeping up as closely with the friends who just had a baby, or the friends who just moved to San Francisco, and the other real life friends who are living their lives and doing things I like to know about. I miss it. I really miss it. Facebook I do not miss in that same way because I didn't use it as much to keep up with real life friends… but I totally miss the distraction.

What I'm recognizing is that the reason I hit almost ALL these rat levers is usually because I'm bored and/or lonely. I've run out of stimulus, so I reach out for the closest lever I've got. Even if I didn't actually much enjoy the hit I got from the lever, at least it was a hit of something. Evidently when I'm bored enough, it'll do as a distraction from being alone.

And so, what's the new thing that I'm trying? Rather than hitting a lever, I'm trying to recognize when I want to hit the lever and instead I contact a friend directly. One-on-one. Via text or even (get this!) long-winded email. I might even sink to (clutch your pearls) calling on the phone! If the rat lever is on a certain level looking for connection… I might as well skip the digital social media lever and go straight to the source: ACTUAL PEOPLE I ACTUALLY CARE ABOUT.

I realize this is not an earth-shattering realization. But it feels like a good small step toward a few goals. (Including getting better about remembering birthdays… it's all part of connecting in ways that matter to me with the people who matter to me.)

Coming tomorrow, the conclusion of my Social Media Diet series: two years later, it's still hard.

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  1. Wow. Just had the (totally obvious) realization that every time I reach for my phone to check Facebook, it's because I'm bored and totally understimulated. I constantly reach for my phone when watching TV. I'm clearly failing my brain by not giving it anything to do but wonder what acquaintances are doing at any given moment (and, yes, judging. Hate reading is a wasteful hobby of mine).

    I'm going to try (once again) to shut off my data and Wi-Fi when I get home from work each day, and anytime I find myself craving a peek of social media, I'll think about whether it's due to habit or boredom, and go find something more interesting to do.

    10 agree
    • Dude, it IS a totally obvious realization… and yet I continue to have to remind myself almost daily. "The sense of emptiness I'm feeling right now? It would better be filled by very personally reaching out to a loved one to say I'm thinking of them, rather than by refreshing my Twitter stream for the 100th time." Every day I have to have this "obvious" realization anew.

      I use social media to fill crevices that I could be filling with one-on-one connection that feels so much more meaningful to me than ambient social media.

      11 agree
  2. Great points!

    I've found the same is true with reading. If you're bored and want to read something, it's very easy to surf the web. (Let's be honest, it's mostly boring once you're done with this site, haha.) But it's so much more fulfilling to actually read a book about something rather than skim multiple articles online. For this reason, I try to read books on my ancient e-Reader that doesn't have the internet rather than my tablet because it keeps me focused on the book without email popping up to distract me. Real paper books also work surprisingly well 😉

    12 agree
  3. These articles come at a good time because I just deleted the Tumblr app off of my phone. I look at Facebook everyday and would never delete it because I have family and friends all over the world who I would not be in contact with if not for Facebook, but it takes five minutes and I don't spend nearly as much time on it as I used to. But Tumblr… that's been eating up a lot of my time. I follow art blogs and as an artist I justify it to myself as research and promotion, but really I don't get many hits on my website from Tumblr and most of what I look at on there is Doctor Who and cats. I'm an insomniac and scrolling through Tumblr for hours in the middle of the night meant that I could be awake and not have to get out of bed, but I think it's been making my sleeping problems worse. I also miss reading before bed, but mindlessly scrolling through pictures is less work than reading. It's not as satisfying though and feels like junk food for my brain. I still have a Tumblr page and can access it from my computer, but I think I'll leave that as a Saturday morning treat and set a timer so I don't crack out too long.

    2 agree
    • I'm no sleep doctor, but I will say that my sleep got SO much better when I stopped looking at back-lit screens for an hour before bedtime (and avoided them completely while in bed). S

      Staring into a light (which is essentially what all computer and mobile screens are) is a great way to stay awake… reading a book or a kindle (which are NOT backlist) helps me sleep so much better. My mind doesn't get all monkey-brainy.

      4 agree
      • Seconding the book or Kindle before bed instead of screens – and add (physical) journaling in there as an option as well! For me, I find it has the extra benefit of letting me take my swirling thoughts and channel them onto the paper, rather than ruminating or trying to sort them out when I should be sleeping. (YMMV.)

        2 agree
    • You had me at "Doctor Who and cats". Facebook serves my needs, but it's horrendously flawed because it dictates what I see rather than being able to filter my own preferences. Where's the social network that responds to a user's needs?

  4. Ouch, what a realisation for the 1st of January.
    As a new mum (ish – LJ is now 9 months), I find myself desperately jumping on Facebook at nearly every opportunity – because I need that social connection.
    Someone scathingly suggested "join a coffee group" when I admitted on one online forum that I found parenthood lonely – but thats only a couple of hours once a week, its not the Monday – Friday 8-6 grind of my husband being away at work. It been isolating this year, and Facebook has become SUCH a crutch.
    And I'm a snob – I've never been a fan of what Instagram does to photos, so have stuck with Flickr instead. That said, I should go back there for some of my social interaction, some of the groups I am in are far more entertaining than whats not happening on Facebook!

    2 agree
  5. I never got into Instagram, but I do use Facebook as a reward-lever. I'm bored? Check Facebook. It has literally gotten to the point where my browsing habits go like this:

    >bored/distracted/work-avoiding
    >open new tab, go to Facebook
    >see nothing has changed
    >close tab
    >open new tab, go to Facebook

    Almost no downtime between "close tab" and "open Facebook" AGAIN – and I realize what I'm doing, and I'm ashamed, yet STILL DOING IT. I made the decision a few days ago to log out of Facebook on my browser and uncheck the "keep me signed in" box – if I *REALLY* want to check Facebook, I have to log in, and then LOG OUT when I'm done. While part of me would like to excise the book of faces from my life, I recently moved 2500 miles from friends and family (yay grad school), and it is the easiest way of keeping in touch with everyone and seeing what they're up to. I just don't see dropping it any time soon – but I'm trying to wean myself off of suckling at the tit of social media every time I am bored/lonely/anxious/depressed/flighty – which happens a decent amount!

    One of the things I did is make myself a list of "Take-A-Break Activities" and post it at eye level in front of my desk, so that I am reminded of things I can do OTHER than check Facebook (and #whatshouldwecallgradschool) incessantly – right now, I have "go for a walk," "Khan Academy," "MIT Open Courseware," "Write a Letter," "Meditate," etc – things that are either better levers (doing math problems? if it's Khan academy, I am ALL OVER THAT) or get me to move or do things that give my eyes a break from a computer screen.

    Oh, and regarding the call/text/email a friend (which I should add to my list) – consider adding writing letters to people to that list? It's something I've started now that I've moved away – snail mail is surprisingly satisfying, if a bit more expensive than emailing. I get to practice my handwriting and also put pretty stickers and a wax seal all over the envelope when I'm done, after writing my thoughts down and sending them to a friend. Bonus: when they write back, you get something prettier and better than bills or junk mail in your letter-box. Oh, and the post office does NOT charge you more if you add a wax seal (if that's your thing; I absolutely love wax seals) – I've handed over the letters at the counter and they only assessed me a regular first-class stamp for the thing. No worries there.

    9 agree
    • Almost no downtime between "close tab" and "open Facebook" AGAIN – and I realize what I'm doing, and I'm ashamed, yet STILL DOING IT.

      This, this, this. I have exactly the same kind of behaviors, and that's where it starts to feel like a rat lever: when I'm able to recognize the weirdness, but then feel powerless over it. "I don't want to do this… OMG I'M DOING IT AGAIN."

      The rat lever behavior freaks me out. It feels addicted and powerless… like a hungry ghost http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hungry_ghost

      6 agree
  6. This is totally right on – and I'm thinking – oh my, how much more actual work would I get done if I don't click on social media every time I'm stressed/bored at work??? My other thought which made me sad and embarassed at the same time – If I don't look at my facebook friends I won't have any friends. Which sensible me realizes is totally not true but that thinking is a huge wake-up call. As if I don't have enough issues with trying to maintain my self confidence – social media is a whole new element I hadn't completely considered.

    3 agree
    • "how much more actual work would I get done if I don't click on social media every time I'm stressed/bored at work??? "

      I was just going to post this. In my case, though, it's not social media I turn to but it's still definitely a rat-lever thing.

      1 agrees
  7. Gosh, that comic is perfect. Every so often (like when I get jealous of friends posting lovely milestones and getting 3-digit numbers of likes!) I try to play that game. It never works. Some people are great at using Facebook, Instagram, and so on to share their lives and post lots of things that lots of people comment on and give virtual love to, and I'm just not willing to really put my time into that.

  8. I'm curious, as a fellow Flickr-Lover, why isn't OBHL actively (somewhat) engaged with Flickr? I don't even see a link to the Flickr group here anywhere, nor solicitations to contribute to the group. Please tell me that Flickr isn't completely useless for your business model, other than to store and curate photos.

    • I don't even see a link to the Flickr group here anywhere, nor solicitations to contribute to the group.

      Oh man, you're breakin' my heart, here.

      On our Submissions page, Flickr is linked as the way to submit photos to us: http://offbeathome.com/submissions

      Megan tries to do a post featuring a photo from our Flickr photo pool each week, often mentioning and linking the pool. Off the top of my head, here are two recent examples:
      http://offbeathome.com/2013/12/last-minute-christmas-tree
      http://offbeathome.com/2013/12/starting-over-christmas-tree

      I suppose I can encourage Megan to be better about ending every post that features a Flickr photo with a call to submit more photos… but as I wrote over here, however, the sad truth is that it's extremely difficult to get people to try Flickr.

      It's an aging platform, and 90% of the Empire's readers would rather post photos on Facebook or Instagram. Over the years, we've done pushes to encourage more Flickr use… but honestly, it's like pulling teeth. As much as I personally DEEPLY love Flickr, I don't know that I have enough pull to get people using the product.

      Even on Offbeat Bride, where people have professional photos that they REALLY want to share, relatively few people submit to the pool.

      If, as a Flickr user yourself, you have suggestions for how we could better encourage folks to use it — lemme know! Honestly, I'm so beaten down by so many years of people abandoning the product that I may not be doing as well as I could be.

      Flickr breaks my heart, almost daily. It used to be such a vibrant community. Everyone was there and it made photo sharing and curating and collecting so fucking easy and awesome.

      • Ok, let me unbreak your heart just a little and elaborate. I've been on Flickr since 2005, so my first inclination was to look for the Flickr logo/link up top right, along with your FB/Twitter/Pinterest/Tumblr icons, and was just surprised it wasn't there. I was just looking for a shortcut to go peruse the group on Flickr, but I did easily find it by searching on Flickr itself. I believe OBF even had a widget that showed the latest in the submissions in the sidebar? But if no one's submitting, I understand.

        I just realized (as an RSS reader) I give most attention to the long "story" posts and tend to skim past Decor Porn or short/photo posts where you are likely to solicit Flickr Pool submissions. That's why I missed it. I knew that across the OBE that Flickr was the best way to submit photos.

        Here's I try to convert people to Flickr:

        Unlimited, full-size, uncompressed, photo and video storage forever.

        Why do people want to use Dropbox and Google Drive to share photos, which are not free unlimited storage? They are SO inferior to Flickr in every way. Sharing on Google Drive is a nightmare.

        Anyone with a Yahoo email: "Hey, you're already there! Just sign in!"

        It's basically a free gigantic cloud to backup and store your entire photo and video life on, super easy. Your house could burn down- no worries, Flickr has it!

        Tired of old, crappy photos clogging up your computer? Set them free! Upload to Flickr and then delete them! They'll be floating in the cloud if you ever need them.

        As a photographer, my opinion is that Facebook is the worst place on the web for photos. They're compressed, resized, look awful, and can't even be enlarged or viewed "original" size. I can't speak much for Insta, because I don't use it, because the abundance of awful photos with filters leaves me parched.

        On Flickr, you can batch organize and tag your photos. I can search on "grandma" or "Chicago" or "Christmas" and everything from the last 8 years appears. No more digging for photos of your BFF or your dog and trying to remember when it was taken.

        You can create any account name and participate on Flickr anonymously, if that's something you're interested in. I enjoy interacting with strangers without revealing anything about myself other than my photos. We're all just "photo lovers" with no other specifics applied. I love the even playing ground. And you can go there and observe and collect, you don't even have to take photos! I can't explain why, but it feels like a more honest and polite social scene, despite few using their real names.

        Those are the highlights of Flickr…Ariel, I will die on the Flickr hill with you!

        1 agrees
        • my first inclination was to look for the Flickr logo/link up top right, along with your FB/Twitter/Pinterest/Tumblr icons, and was just surprised it wasn't there. I was just looking for a shortcut to go peruse the group on Flickr, but I did easily find it by searching on Flickr itself. I believe OBF even had a widget that showed the latest in the submissions in the sidebar? But if no one's submitting, I understand.

          Ooh, we can totally get a Flickr logo in that social media section. Great idea.

          And yeah: we used to have a widget, but with the low frequency of submissions… it just wasn't dynamic enough to feel worth it. Plus, over half the submissions to the pool are cell cam photos, which aren't generally the kind of thing I want to feature prominently unless there's a story to go with it.

          I'm 100% with you on all your reasons Flickr is awesome. As one friend recently said, "Everything about Flickr is perfect, except for the fact that no one uses it."

          (Although I will say that Flickr's new iframe photo embedding shift is freaking me out!)

          PS: Flickr cred that will impress no one but you, but that I feel compelled to share: I was Flickr's first Pro user in 2004! So proud. So many feels. http://flickr.com/photos/ariel

          2 agree
          • I'm impressed that you were Flickr's first pro user. I was a pro user for a number of years, but dropped my membership with the recent changes. I do still have an account and really should update my photos there as I am not sharing them anywhere else.

      • Yeah, sadly we've tried suggesting people submit to Flickr before — closing posts with calls for submissions and links, adding little colorful banners, etc — and it just didn't work.

        Basically, people just don't give a fuck about Flickr unless they HAVE to use it to submit profiles etc. 🙁

  9. Could I hear more from people who find calling people on the phone a meaningful method of connection…? It's something I've never really understood. One of the reasons I use Facebook heavily is because I get such a sense of relief from not having to call people on the phone to connect with them. It seems like all the downsides of online communication (no visual context for verbal communication, no shared experience) without any of the upsides (thinking through what you want to say before you say it, easily involving more than two people in a conversation, having "public" conversations that are open to any friend interested in the subject). Is this an extrovert/introvert thing? Tell me more about the benefits of the phone. 🙂

    • I'm a bit phone-shy myself, but there are a few friends I've started mostly calling instead of email/facebook to keep in touch. The benefits involve getting to hear their voice, getting to hear tone of voice (yeah, no visual context, but a lot easier than having to type *sarcasm mode* or something), and hearing real (contagious) laughter instead of seeing "lol." It's hard to arrange sometimes, since it needs to be in real-time (sometimes across time zones), but it can be really nice. Give it a shot!

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