On the night of Friday, September 25, I found myself facing a dilemma. The details are irrelevant; what you need to know is that I tried to determine a course of action via Instagram poll. I presented my finsta followers with two cryptically worded options; then I sat back, waiting for them to vote on my fate.
Staring at my own post brought me a sense of satisfaction, but it waned with every passing second. Soon, I was publishing a follow-up: “Do I rely too much on finsta polls when making life decisions?”
When I got my first “yes,” I resolved to make a change. I would vanquish Instagram from my life for five days—and I would write about it for the Herald to hold myself accountable.
I was thrilled about this plan before I realized how terribly boring it was. Instagram cleanses have already been the topic of countless articles, many of them concluding with the same self-evident declarations. It wasn’t enough to simply delete Instagram; I needed to replace it with something at once more fulfilling and more sensational. I had no clue what that would be until I recalled a website that would not only suggest thousands of possible activities for me, but give me painstakingly detailed instructions for each one: WikiHow.
WikiHow had been one of my favorite websites to lose myself in before I sold my soul to social media. For the uninitiated, it’s a database of “how-to” articles covering everything from “How to properly take off a face mask” to “How to wear jeggings”—a digital metaphor for the infinite potential of humankind.
If only a random WikiHow article generator existed, I lamented. Then I remembered Google. Soon, I had found exactly what I was looking for: a miracle of modern programming called “WikiOuch.”
The scheme was set: every time I ached for Instagram, I would go to WikiOuch and generate a new article. Next, I would perform whatever task the site ordained for me. Ready, set, randomize!
Instagram cleanses are not for the weak. Upon waking up, I immediately felt tempted to redownload the app. Willpower, Britt. I opened WikiOuch instead and crossed my fingers as it loaded…
“How to buy iBooks on a Mac.”
Buying iBooks on a Mac was something I had done for school many a time; I didn’t need a primer. I scrolled through the page anyway, in case it contained any little-known tips or boasted a spunky voice.
The article was matter-of-fact, but its simplicity made it all the more persuasive. I took its advice and purchased a book I had been meaning to read for a while: Sylvia Patterson’s I’m Not with the Band: A Writer’s Life Lost in Music. Heck—I’ll throw in Pamela Des Barres’s I’m With the Band while I’m at it, I thought. What a rush—after only 10 minutes of my experiment, I had lost $18 dollars but gained two riveting memoirs.
That afternoon, my roommate Peter and I decided to go for a hike. During the 30-minute car ride to nearby Tuna Canyon, my fingers gravitated toward my phone, craving a feed to scroll through. No, Britt! Bad!
I gave WikiOuch another go. This time, it spit out “How to sleep with broken ribs.”
I’m all for gonzo journalism, but I was not about to hurl my body into Tuna Canyon for a scoop. I refreshed the page for a new task: “How to mail a letter internationally.”
This message seemed oddly prescient—I had been meaning to write to my Singaporean friend Daphne for a while. I texted her for her address and made plans to swing by the post office later in the week.
On the way home, that dark urge returned. “How to join a listserv” was my next task. The page was clearly written for readers who were already planning on subscribing to a specific email list. I had no such sense of direction, so I Googled “best listservs” and ended up on “CataList, the official catalog of LISTSERV lists.”
As its catchy tagline suggests, the website—which looked like it hadn’t been touched in ten years, but had apparently been updated an hour ago—was a list of lists of listservs, so to speak. Overwhelmed, I chose one near the beginning of the alphabet: “Ancient Marriage,” hosted by the University of Liverpool. I eagerly await my first communication from them.
My last temptation came just before bed. I smashed that WikiOuch button and received… “How to accept being a tall girl”!
I’ve never had a problem embracing my 5’8” height, but I was curious to see how the good citizens of WikiHow had teamed up to comfort girls who did. Highlights included rather corporate affirmation “On average, tall people make more money than their shorter counterparts” and one of my personal favorite maxims, “Don’t be afraid to wear heels!”
So much for a new start. Just minutes after I arose, my fingers fumbled for that blindingly pink icon all over again. Another trip to WikiOuch was in order. “How to understand basic karate” were the golden words that appeared on my screen this time. Fortunately for my sleepy self, the article was a primer on the history of the martial art rather than a breakdown of actual karate moves.
I got out of bed and put on four-inch platform boots, knowing that WikiHow would be cheering me on with every step. Peter and I had plans for a day trip; to prevent a moment of weakness in the car, I packed a book for the ride. The trick worked—I barely touched my phone.
My afternoon was busy and thus free of Instagram jitters; they returned during the trip home, ironically spurred on by a Tweet declaring that Instagram sucked. This time, “How to draw Sonic Characters” was my WikiOuch-allotted destiny.
I hadn’t been well acquainted with Sonic the Hedgehog as a child; I had only ever played the video game in the waiting room at my dentist’s office. Clearly this was fate’s way of righting this wrong. I haphazardly used ink, so I couldn’t erase any of the guiding lines; I deemed this a “happy accident.”
My morning began with the same old yearning, so I paid WikiOuch a visit. “How to block ads on Google Chrome” was the article it pulled out of the ether. I was scared that the directions would overwhelm my feeble brain, but when I read the first step—”Open Google Chrome. Its app icon resembles a red, yellow, green, and blue sphere”—my fears dissipated.
I had work that day, so I was able to steer clear of the cursed camera app—until a sudden remembrance of Juicy Couture threw a wrench in my plans. Stricken by the urge to see how Gwen Stefani’s notorious 2000s fashion empire was doing in the modern era, I poked around the brand’s website… and upon clicking the tab reading “Fashion,” I was redirected to Juicy’s Instagram page.
The interface was so familiar that it took me a second to recognize my mistake. Once the significance of the squares on my screen registered, I froze. Darn you, Gwen!
I closed the tab and returned to WikiOuch to receive my penance—“How to count to 100 in Irish.”
I have never been to Ireland. I have no Irish ancestry. Counting to 100 in Irish is not a Monday night pastime I would typically consider. Yet I approached the task as if I would someday be called upon to recite “A haon, a dó, a tri” in a life-or-death crisis. As I read, I found myself memorizing terms and recognizing patterns in the same way I had while translating passages for my Old English course last autumn. I wished I had brought my textbook with me to California. I’ll dig it out when I go home for Christmas, I pledged.
Poof! My early-morning impulse to log onto Instagram had vanished. I checked my emails and texts; then I hopped out of bed and threw back my curtains in defiance of the daylight-killing alter ego I had just put to rest.
I flailed my way through the day with the unabashed joy of a Muppet. I didn’t think about Instagram once—until I decided to face the dilemma from the beginning of the week through some heart-to-hearts with friends and family members. These conversations took time and soul-searching—and seeing this, I recognized how futile my 24-hour poll had been. Had I really hoped that my problem would be resolved through that post—or had I merely craved the addictive feeling of being seen, even if it didn’t necessarily entail being understood? The truth had finally revealed itself: all too frequently, my finsta served as a way for me to spin my struggles into melodrama, to narrativize them until they resembled exciting television plots. While this was a fun and spicy coping mechanism, it often prevented me from treating my problems with the seriousness they deserved.
I wanted to share my new gnosis with my friends—and my finsta, alas, seemed the best way to do it. I almost broke my compact—but I stopped short, realizing that I would have to broadcast my failure to the entire readership of Britt’s Tidbits if I did so. I ultimately expelled my angst through another medium: the free verse poem.
In high school, I tried to write a poem every day. Typing metaphors into a Google Doc at 3AM that night, I once again felt the exhilaration that had come so naturally to me at fifteen. My final product was a twenty-liner about Jesus, entropy, and a very happy frog. It was messy, but it was mine, and I couldn’t wait for the satisfaction that the revision process would bring about.
My WikiOuch assignment was oddly apropos: “How to stop anxiety at night.” I slipped into bed and began the suggested routines: music, mindfulness, muscle relaxation. I want to tell you I had the best sleep in years; it wasn’t, but it was pretty darn good.
Success. They say it takes 21 days to kick a habit, but five did it for me. I’d overridden my grey matter, my penchant for purposeless screen-tapping, my desperate desire to pair extreme close-ups of my nose bump with obscure captions for my faithful finsta followers—at least for the time being.
I didn’t have work, so Peter and I drove to the beach. In an alternate universe, I would’ve posted a pic of the sunset and captioned it with a lyric from Phantom Planet’s “California (Here We Come)”—or alternatively, The Garden’s “California Here We Go.” Instead, I devoted my attention to scampering up the sides of rocks, watching crabs creep out from crevices, chatting with the woman who had brought her pet pig to the shore.
At one point, Peter mentioned that a friend had replied to his story, and I was reminded of Instagram’s usefulness as a means of connection. Many of my friends live miles away; being able to peer into their daily activities and exchange comments and DMs with them via the app feels like a practice of intimacy, not a perfunctory routine.
The only bummer of the day: I went to bed with a WikiOuch-sized hole in my heart.
Swapping out Instagram for a bevy of bot-assigned tasks was the best gift I could’ve given myself for the fall equinox. Within the course of only five days, I reconnected with an old friend, bought two new books, had a spiritual epiphany, and drew an avant-garde cartoon hedgehog. I’m appalled by the fact that I unconsciously built so much time for idleness into my daily routine—but I’m also encouraged by the knowledge that I have so much more free time at my fingertips than I formerly believed I did.
I redownloaded Instagram within an hour of finishing my experiment. After five minutes, I deleted it again.
Am I swearing off Insta forever? Nope. As I mentioned above, it’s a useful avenue for keeping in touch with faraway loved ones—and I’m already planning out captions for photos I haven’t taken yet. But I’m kissing the incessant polls goodbye—and I’m finished with aimless scrolling.
However, I might have to be pried away from WikiHow.