Four hundred and nineteen photos, collected over two years, five months, and four days, disappeared by way of sudden impulse last night. I permanently deactivated my Instagram account, surrendering with it 73 sunsets, 41 images of Gasson Hall, a single sunrise, two proms, one graduation, six football games, and 13 snowy mornings. It was a strange sensation, if only for how unremarkable it felt—I couldn’t tell whether I had lost anything at all.
The emergence of pervasive photography has made habit of a hobby. While apps like Instagram and Facebook appear a lot less destructive than the habit of smoking turned out to be for our grandparents, there are some significant parallels to be drawn here. Just as smoking once played a huge role in American social life—in restaurants, workplaces, schools—smartphone photography has become commonplace in all these same situations.
In the case of non-smokers, especially those of younger generations, taking up cigarettes now strikes them as a foolish proposition. But smoking once was a fine source of immediate gratification—relatively cheap, seeming harmless, and socially beneficial.
The sharing and “liking” of photography has played a huge role in how we seek out social opportunities. Winning the approval of others on social media becomes an incentive to behave in ways we otherwise wouldn’t, leading us to go places we otherwise might not in order to take photos, and shifting our way of photographing the world so as to make our images not be anything particular to us.
The allure of smartphone photography makes a whole lot of sense. The screens around us continue to get larger, and recent innovations like Apple Watch and Google Glass give visual real estate to interfaces that 10 years ago, we could hardly imagine needing, or even wanting, to take up that space in our lives.
The experience of going to a concert in 2014 is a strange phenomenon. Spectators rush to get as close to the stage as possible, only to hold up their smartphones and videotape the entire set. What becomes of all this video, especially when hundreds of others are leaving the concert with more or less the same shot?
The answer is in how our brains are wired, largely by our interactions with social media, to chemically reward us for experiencing an event through our phones. Analyzing how your brain rewards you for a seemingly trivial activity is the first step in understanding the addiction. Unlike smoking or alcoholism, however, the consequences of habitually photographing our lives are not so clearly self-destructive.
But then, there’s nothing trivial about a technology that transforms the way we seek gratification. It’s a soft addiction, with the same degree of seriousness as our dependency on caffeine, and like coffee, our way of consuming photographs can even be beneficial in moderation, particularly in the short term. Once it becomes a mindless habit, though, our relationship to the subjects of the photos we take begins to break down.
The good news is that there are tons of resources available for those looking to reclaim their digital identity. Instaport.me allows you to download all photos off your Instagram if you’re planning to delete an account. The Timehop app for smartphones chronicles your history on social media by year, allowing you to analyze your digital decisions in retrospect.
Rolling back and taking ownership of your digital identity has never been easier. As is the case with most problems created by technology, technology also offers a way out.
As for the deletion of my Instagram account, it is more an experiment than anything else. Resignedly, I must admit I don’t see myself staying away for long. As for the experience of losing an identity I spent over two years building, it was painless, and actually a little exciting.
The sun will still rise, regardless of who’s there to capture it, and it’s refreshing to wake up in the morning knowing you have no one to follow.
Featured Image by John Wiley / Heights Editor