In early quarantine, stripped of our typical distractions, bored by our lockdowns but unable to stop the game of self-comparison, we began to scrutinize one another for sport. I remember getting a text from a friend criticizing someone for documenting their exercise habits on Instagram. Normally she wouldn’t have cared, but now the depictions of their outdoorsy life felt tone-deaf. The exchange made me wonder if my posts were the subject of such texts. I shared a beautiful spread of food, only to take it off my Instagram Stories a few hours later, lest it be seen as insensitive to those who were suffering food insecurity. And even as I was having that thought, I knew it wasn’t just that I was afraid of causing pain directly but also of appearing unaware that some people were experiencing food insecurity. The whole moment triggered one of the first major pangs of distaste I would have with myself (and my self-presentation) in 2020. It was hardly the last. I’d finally caught an extreme case of self-consciousness that I probably should’ve had all along but that the rules of engagement on Instagram had given me permission to override.
To post or not to post was a question I found myself asking over and over as 2020 ticked endlessly on — bad news compounding on worse news, in swells that never seemed to subside. After a decade of being the filter for reality, redefining our relationships with our friends, our bodies, our aspirations, and our favorite people, Instagram was suddenly one of the main portals to the rest of the outside world, and it simply wasn’t adequate for expressing the range of emotional experiences we were going through.
This year, it seemed like no matter who you are, whatever you posted, you had a high chance of getting it wrong in some way, because many of the values we’ve come to expect (and enjoy) on Instagram feel incorrect for this moment: Narcissism, flexing, even the forgivable human cry for validation seem crass in the face of so much social discord. Being so flagrantly, publicly self-involved just feels extra-weird and inappropriate right now. There’s no way around that. The alternative, using Instagram to constantly blast out political messages (especially if you’d never posted that kind of material before), can also feel disingenuous, however well intentioned. This kind of tension could spell doom for a social network built on projections of pleasure and success.
In the parallel reality of Instagram, this year saw an abundance of apologies, self-immolations, and defections. Demands for justice, action, silence, and space proliferated. Mass grief happened in real time. Some of the platform’s popular personas became embroiled in accusations of racist incidents, self-banished for periods of time, and returned only when they could craft the mea culpas they hoped would inoculate them from further criticism. Sometimes the apologies worked, sometimes not. Authenticity—who has it, who fakes it well—has always been one of the intangibles of Instagram. Still, many non-famous regular users I talked to could not deny that, at many points in 2020, it felt better to simply stop posting altogether.
Thor Shannon, a director at David Zwirner gallery in New York, has about 6,000 followers and felt as if he’d reached an inflection point after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “I went on this last blissful bike ride and arrived where I was going and was met with an onslaught of texts. I had a visceral dread of all the prognosticating I would see on Instagram. I couldn’t deal with it,” he told me recently. Rather than look at a million somber photos with broken-heart emoji underneath them, he deleted the app from his phone. Now he says he’s on it occasionally, but much less than he used to be.
Some people said they began to pull away from Instagram because the pandemic had made them question whether they wanted to participate in the self-promotion economy at all. Jeff Ihaza, a music editor at Rolling Stone, described to me a feeling of wanting to be “less known” after he spent six months mostly alone. “Not having regular contact with the outside world, for all of its obvious downsides, felt kind of like hitting a reset button,” he said. “After a while, I forgot about all of the criticisms I had about myself, which made getting off of Instagram feel imperative. It made me kind of not interested in the idea of personal branding or being a public-facing person.”
Ihaza has fewer than 1,000 followers, so he’s far from a public persona, though he had once felt the promise of cultivating one and presented a manicured version of himself online. Over the summer, he deleted every post he’d ever made. Ihaza had become disillusioned with the amount of himself he’d given to Instagram over the years. He had an overwhelming desire to really hold on to the things that were his. “I didn’t want to exist in a place where you can search someone’s name and get an approximation of who they are,” he told me. “I began to see that as a really strange thing.”
I’d been having similar feelings. In April, I made my account private when I experienced some harassment from a troll. That’s when I noticed that most of the accounts that requested to follow me each day were bots. I combed through my followers trying to ascertain how many of them were fake accounts. Too many to purge. Had this always been true? Why had I never bothered to notice this? I deleted hundreds of old posts. Eventually, I archived every single image — itself an exercise in narcissism, as it took me the better part of a week, every evening after dinner. Instagram doesn’t make it easy to disappear without deactivating completely, and even though I was dying to erase my history, I wasn’t ready to commit to being gone forever.
My archiving exercise felt drastic, like cutting off a limb. I didn’t realize how much I used my own feed to reinforce ideas I have about myself to myself. I went back and chose a few examples that still made me happy and unarchived those, almost to prove that I still existed — also so that the work I had made and posted wouldn’t be forgotten.
Once I’d been off for a few weeks, it felt harder to imagine posting anything. When my grandmother died in May, nothing I wanted to say felt right. Would I post the truth under a few nostalgic vintage photos — that her life began and ended in degradation but swung through great moments of glamour in between? That she was a mean drunk who tortured her children with her selfishness? That she was a wild force, a huge influence on me, and a person I loved and thought about daily? She died totally alone, as she’d been for months because of COVID, and there could be no funeral. How could a caption possibly explain anything so heavy? Normally if I was grieving, I would get together with friends and family. Trying to connect with them on social media was no comfort at all.
That same inadequacy applied to trying to express complex feelings on politics. In early June, the wave of protests that dominated our feeds — highlighting actual trauma happening all over the country — underscored the fact that everything I once thought innocuous to post (the very things Instagram rewarded so many of us for posting) now signaled my privilege. The pressure to perform social justice correctly was paralyzing. As one white woman told me, “I didn’t want to post my bail-fund donations, but I worried people would think I wasn’t donating if I didn’t.” Too much posting felt forced; too little felt indifferent.
“It feels like a good time for white people to be quiet,” another friend reflected at the time. Other people told me they wanted to share messages of support or to stay on and explore the ideas of defunding the police that were being widely circulated. Regardless, that period of time created discomfort that led some people to disengage. As Ihaza put it, “I’m a Black man living in America, and it started to weirdly bother me when I noticed the fervor with which a lot of white people were posting infographics and video after video of social-justice content. It made me question how I felt about participating in that ecosystem at all.”
Instagram felt insufficient for the task of engaging with the political moment, even as it was becoming, for many people, a primary vehicle for doing just that. In August, I saw a tweet from the writer Kara Brown that struck right at the heart of that angst: “As much as I thought (and still think) the black squares were dumb, if I go to a non-Black person’s Instagram and I don’t see a black square, I’m like, ‘oh they’re racist,’ because everything is a trap.”
When I asked Brown to unpack her tweet with me, she laughed and acknowledged that it was reductive, but she’s sticking with it. “It was a joke, and I find it all absurd. But I have been very frustrated with people who are newly engaged with this movement because I always think, Why did you not care about all of the Black people who are being killed a year ago, two years ago, three years ago, for the entire history of this country? Why did you just care now?”
Brown theorized that if it weren’t for the pandemic, these latest examples of police violence might well have gone the way of Ferguson, which, she pointed out, happened around the same time as the so-called Ice Bucket Challenge. When Brown logged on to Instagram back then, she saw white celebrities ignoring the fight for racial justice while soaking themselves for the less controversial cause of ALS awareness. This year stretched the idea of posting as a form of “raising awareness” to its breaking point.
Last year, a few months before Tavi Gevinson wrote a cover story for this magazine about growing up on Instagram, she explained to me how unhealthy she felt about her relationship to it. When I told her that I mostly just enjoyed it, she laughed and said, “That’s because you came to it as a fully formed grown-up with a normal sense of self-worth.”
Perhaps. But all my life I’ve been conditioned to pine for unattainable lifestyles. Scrolling gave me the same feeling I got from the pages of Vogue or Martha Stewart Living when, in my 20s, I just wanted my life to be clean and resolved. Martha’s magazines showed me the perfection that I craved — as if life were actually a dewy bowl of cherries waiting to be transformed under lattices of golden butter crust.
Maybe the craving for that kind of aspirational life isn’t about any specific medium at all. I loved magazines so much that I eventually went to work for them. I’d also been a diarist since I was 5. I wrote as therapy, as a way to process thoughts and events, as a way to practice and enjoy writing. But in the back of my head, I always wrote as if someone were reading (no one was) or might read them one day in the future. When I started using Instagram, I took those impulses and applied them to chronicling my own life in real time — the diarist’s techniques merging with the art director and editor I’d trained to be. I turned my own life into the magazine I most wanted to read. I even categorized and saved my stories as “highlights,” which embarrasses me to admit, but I did look at them sometimes to relive happy times with my kids or beautiful moments at Fashion Week. I stopped keeping an actual diary for most of the time I was active on Instagram. Deleting so much of my archive felt like a dramatic burning of old journals, and it offered a similar catharsis.
Recently, some of the old socially acceptable self-involvement has rebounded, and the less politically engaged people I know seem eager to return to “normal,” albeit primed for judgment in a way they weren’t before. After all, the sport of scrutiny hasn’t abated, and the self-conscious caveats via caption seem to acknowledge this unease. For example, if you see someone posting a photo of their unmasked face, you can expect a preemptive disclaimer about how they have just taken a COVID test and doused their phone in alcohol and sprinted back into socially distant position as soon as the photo op was over and, oh, by the way, also donated to a charity while they were on their way to a testing center, link in bio should you want to also donate.
Perhaps the biggest danger facing Instagram is simply boredom. Social media is a relatively new phenomenon, and it’s possible that platforms, when put to the test, can’t hold our attention forever. I look at Twitter sometimes but have barely tweeted the entire time Trump has been in office. My Facebook has been more or less dormant since Obama’s first term. I don’t have the numbers, but if the youth are any indicator of how the wind might be blowing, my own teenagers seem less interested in Instagram than ever. My daughter disabled her account months ago, and her twin has no photos on his profile and hasn’t posted a thing in all of 2020. Instagram is loaded up now with TikTok videos, which feel light-years away from the carefully curated influencer culture of the past decade. Unfortunately, TikTok has all sorts of problems of its own baked into it, including alleged racist algorithms and data theft. It’s no less narcissistic, but it’s certainly less about trying to project the illusion of perfection and happiness.
I have begun to use Instagram again, but sharing anything particularly personal doesn’t hold the old appeal. The time I spend on the platform now is mostly just looking at Stories, posting shopping tips or thoughts about pop culture or things that make me laugh. For the first time in years, my best friends are calling me to ask where I am and what I’m doing, instead of seeing it mediated first through Instagram.
At one point over the summer, my husband took an unposed photo of me lying on a rocky beach, our youngest son reclining against my legs. The sky is clear, and the warmth of the afternoon sun cast dramatic shadows on our tranquil bodies. It’s one of my favorite photographs of us ever taken — the memory of that spontaneous stop for a swim, one of the happiest of my life. As of now, it remains unshared.
*A version of this article appears in the December 7, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!