Future Tense

There’s a Better Way to Use Instagram (and Even Facebook)

The platforms won’t do it themselves!

a person wearing a sweater holds a phone that shows an image of an instagram influencer
Photo by Kate Torline on Unsplash

We all know by now that endless scrolling on social media is not very good for us, and that social media platforms seem outright determined to be a-little-to-very evil—facts we are all confronting once again this week, thanks to the Facebook Papers. The documents shared by whistleblower Frances Haugen show how Facebook is perfectly aware of the damage it is doing in other countries, and that Facebook seems more intent on getting eyeballs than the well-being of the people attached to them. For instance, Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, worsens teens’ body image issues, according to the company’s own research, which Haugen leaked to the Wall Street Journal in September.

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Misinformation undermining democracy, the self-esteem of the next generation—these are big problems that in some ways feel kind of unsolvable. But there is one thing that you can do right now, without help from social media platforms themselves, that will make your own experience so much better: restrict your account to private, then drastically limit the number of people you follow and who follow you. Like most people in my millennial age bracket, I do not use Facebook for much, so the rest of this argument is going to be focused on Instagram. But limiting the number of people you follow as a small but meaningful way to make life will work on any platform.

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The right number will vary person to person, though think in the low hundreds. You may have heard of Dunbar’s number, which is the idea that human beings are biologically incapable of having meaningful ties with more than about 150 people, which appears to be roughly true even on social media. While some researchers think that limit is pop psychology bullshit, it seems inarguable that it is foolish to try to keep up with many multiples of it. (Instagram allows you to follow 7,500 people).

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The point is to decide on a cap for yourself and stick to it. That will be hard, because a hard cap means the app is overall less interesting (which is ultimately good). It also forces you to make choices. You make a new friend at work, or find the handle of an endearing pair of animal friends—if you want to keep up with them on the ’gram, a Peloton instructor or a cousin’s cousin has to go. Importantly, a hard cap prevents you from entering into too many parasocial relationships. In my experience, these are the bad ones; they’re the most likely to involve professionals whose job it is to present a certain image on the app, plus you can’t tell when someone you’ve never met is Facetuning away their flaws. Trailing digitally behind a bunch of people you don’t know IRL is often a recipe for why-doesn’t-my-life-look-like-that. The bad-ness of this compounds with the fact that so many of these people are trying to sell things, from vitamins to life coaching courses to “therapy.” Even for a savvy consumer, it can be hard to immediately spot the grift on a social media app that is purportedly about connecting to friends.

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But the friend cap isn’t enough. You also have to stay away from the Explore page and Reels! While individual Reels can be fun (say, those posted by one of the people you have carefully chosen to follow), on the Reels page, Instagram offers up bottomless stream of them. And nothing good ever comes from going down a rabbit hole on Instagram—it always ends with ordering $100 worth of bralettes that will start fraying after a couple months of wear (to provide a totally random example), or staring at photo after photo of your camp crush’s husband’s ex girlfriend’s dog on hikes in exotic locals. Why is your dog not that well behaved? Are your exes’ exes that hot? Did your body do something to cause the bras to be like this? And these are the relatively good outcomes—worse, you can end up with an ear worm (thanks, Reels/TikToks ported onto Reels), or you can stoke an eating disorder.

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Is this “just cut down” advice hard to follow, and am I stating it for myself as much as anyone else? Yes and yes. I spent several minutes last night hitting “unfollow” and “remove” over and over and over in an effort to get my own numbers under 200. I will no doubt do this exercise again at some point when I realize that things have creeped out of control. It would be incredibly nice if Instagram provided a way to instill a hard cap, as well opt out of having access to the explore and Reels pages entirely. Current measures such as making it so users can hide the “like” button are mere fig leaves. The “you’re all caught up” notification that appears in your feed when you’ve seen all the content from people you follow doesn’t mean so much when the app will just start throwing strangers’ posts into your feed if you choose to keep scrolling. But of course social media apps are designed so that you will spend time on them, as the Facebook Papers hammer home once again, not use them in healthy moderation. This summer, Facebook banned a user for creating an app that allows other users to easily unfollow everyone (thus eliminating their news feed, but allowing them to check in on friends’ pages). In this light, even just limiting your feed to a small group is a very tiny act of rebellion.

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Sure, we could disconnect entirely and delete the apps. But Instagram isn’t bad. It is good to see what your friends’ lives: the flora and fauna of their back yards, their minor complaints about work, their larger anxieties about the world posted to their “close friends” list on Stories, what babies look like at different life stages. The Facebook universe gets one fundamental thing right: It is nice to be connected to other people. One major thing it gets wrong: It is not nice to be connected to literally everyone.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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