Keyi Cui

During one of Laurie Santos’ “Psychology and the Good Life” lectures she challenged her students to quit social media. She said something to the effect of: just uninstall Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat! The research shows that it is bad for your life and doesn’t actually make you happy!

A few of us chuckled nervously. We avoided eye contact with each other.

But you can’t do it, because these applications have gotten you hooked, she said. We all looked at the ground silently, our phones buzzing in our pockets. Most of us knew she was probably right. After I walked out of the lecture hall I couldn’t help but think about what Professor Santos had said for much of the day; that I just couldn’t do it, that I couldn’t uninstall my Facebook and Instagram. As my next class was ending, I decided to give it a go. I would uninstall Instagram. I made a temporary note on my profile that I would be gone for awhile and went straight up to the app store, and uninstalled the app.

That night I felt strangely light. Without scrolling through Instagram it felt like there was suddenly more time.

The next morning was different. Throughout the day I took out my phone and scrolled through the menu only to find Instagram wasn’t there anymore. The emptiness I felt astonished me; it was like a close friend had been expelled from school and his desk was now empty. No amount of staring could bring that friend back. There were in-between moments that I found myself with nothing to do: walking from Timothy Dwight College to Linsly-Chittenden Hall, in the 5 minutes before class started, at a traffic light where I had to stare ahead and let my mind wander.

That first day was interesting. I ended it by sending a picture of a sunset to my mother in the quiet of my single room. When was the last time I sent a picture to my mother?

I found myself sending more photos onto group chats, to my family, to my friends. I never usually did this but for the next few weeks that was what I was doing to preface any conversations we had. “Hey look, I did this over the weekend.” I’d send a photo. I’d actually describe what I was doing to an individual person rather than an abstract collective of friends and acquaintances. It was cumbersome at first but then I realized that there wasn’t any social media platform to share any of my experiences on. I don’t have a Snapchat account, my Instagram account was already haphazardly uninstalled, and I only used Facebook to lurk and tag my friends in Memes as a cry for help. The outlets that commodified my experiences through statuses and stories were cut off, the responsibility and the rigor of keeping in touch with others was now truly mine.

On top of that I knew almost nothing about what was happening back home in Singapore. Valentine’s day came around and I had to ask my friends how it went for them. Chinese New Year reared its questionable head and I had no way to see what people were wearing or what their thoughts were about the occasion. Every well-filtered photo, carefully curated Instagram story and essay-length caption did not reach my eyes. Instead, I read through every word of my extended family chat, watched the video of the momentous “lou hei” (traditional Chinese salad tossing). My parents called me and I talked to them and asked them how things were. I asked people to send me pictures of the occasion, and was surprised that the pictures they sent were often unfiltered, untinged with that Melbourne filter I’d become so used to. Unfiltered because it was just me and the person, no one else to put up your best side for.

When I had conversations around campus I couldn’t start with a “I saw on your Instagram that you did this or that…” I had to reference a previous conversation, or a previous shared experience, like that ski trip in Vermont or the last time we had dinner. I was forced to share my experiences from the start, and not begin from where my Instagram account ended. Could this be how our parents conversed?

Of course, I’m not saying that we can’t be more attentive in our conversations with people, or be present in our friend’s lives while still being active on social media. I just think that being excessively present on social media makes it that much harder. To focus on someone’s stories and experiences requires a kind of attention and presence that I think many of us aren’t used to anymore. But how can we, when we’ve already exhausted ourselves by looking at hundreds of our friends’ curated lives through memes, Instagram stories, Snapchat profiles and Facebook albums? We do all that in a short span of time when our minds were designed to focus on only one conversation at a time, one person at a time. It’s no wonder that when we find ourselves in an actual conversation we have less to say, or when the phone rings we hesitate before picking up. Everything that needs to be said is already on our profiles.

But when you think about it, Instagram isn’t to blame for this the same way a knife cannot be blamed for a murder. It’s our over-reliance on it that’s the problem, and from my experience, uninstalling Instagram only invites other convenient substitutes like Facebook and Youtube (just try it, you’ll find yourself using other platforms more). The mind tends towards the most convenient outlets to be stimulated, and media companies have all the potential to satisfy our needs. It took quitting Instagram for a month to realize this.

The better solution is to form solid relationships and conversations (real life ones) with those around you. To be able to look at an amazing sight and not instinctively reach for your phone. To look your own mother in the eyes when she talks to you behind your screen. In other words, to strive to be more present.

Last weekend I went on skiing trip to Vermont and as I sat on the ski lift the view of the mountainside painted on dark blue skies was breathtaking. I took a quick photo of the layers of mountains etched on the sky but didn’t have anywhere to post it on. I put the phone back in my pocket (carefully) and took in the view. There was no caption to think of, no comments to be made or no photo to be liked, no validation that it was in fact a beautiful view. It was just me, and the view. And to my surprise, I was okay with that.

Justin Ong | justin.ong@yale.edu