Many years ago, when I was just getting started on Instagram, I saw a clip of The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah interviewing a woman wearing a hijab. The woman claimed that hijabs are actually empowering for women because it privatizes their sexuality. She continued that if women with private sexualities are powerless, it means that powerful women must be sexy.
As philosophically dubious as this claim may be, it was one that I had never heard before. I had spent enough time online that I heard the same talking points plenty of times, so it was a welcome surprise. This post was my first ever ‘Like’ on the explore page, which was the best decision I ever made.
Immediately, as if by the will of Allah, my feed was flooded with Quran quotes. Some were in English, but most were in Arabic. Needless to say, these posts didn’t particularly grab my attention. I would spend hardly any time on the explore page of the app, and once Instagram introduced ‘recommended posts’ in your follower feed, I found myself unaffected.
After this happy little accident, I realized that the same method could be applied to the other apps to which I was already addicted. By turning off my YouTube history, the suggestions feed was filled with previously viewed videos, before being removed entirely. By subscribing to niche subreddits about obscure tech I’d never owned, and written in languages I didn’t speak, I filled my feed with the most confusing and boring posts. It wasn’t long before I deleted most of the apps outright.
Social media is, by design, hyper-palatable. It gives you access to everything you could ever want without asking for anything in return. The best way to break the chokehold it has on your neurons is to destroy the algorithm with a dark inversion of my simplistic misunderstanding of ancient Eastern philosophy. When the algorithm yins, you yang. If it yangs, you yin back harder than it yinned you first. If you like memes, start reporting every meme you see. If you don’t speak Portuguese, start liking and commenting on the posts of Brazilian influencers. Most importantly, any time a post piques your interest, mark it as “not interested” or whichever equivalent. The trick that I stumbled upon works by making your own feed hostile to you. If all goes according to plan, you should be struck by a feeling of disappointment and boredom whenever you open the app.
Besides these few changes, feel free to keep using the service as you normally would, but keep in mind the end goal. You should be focusing on getting yourself to the point where you no longer use the app. If you find yourself losing to the algorithm, then you have one more move to make: deletion. Just as every chess master will tell you, if you ever find yourself in a stalemate, you can always get up, accuse your opponent of cheating, and punch them right in the wallet. You can use your anger to drive the impulsive-decision-making part of your brain and just get rid of the whole thing. Live without these apps for a while. See how it feels.
Most online lifestyle gurus will tell their followers that now would be the time to start living your real life. Use all your newfound freedom to go to the gym every day, read Marcus Aurelius, write a novel, start buying more houseplants, learn to cook, or play an instrument. Don’t listen to them. Believe it or not, many of these so-called gurus depend on their followers to remain relevant and employed, and they therefore benefit from watching you backslide. The benefit of “living your real life” is that, unlike social media, there is no algorithm to determine what you should see or do next. It’s now your choice as to the lifestyle you want to live.
Of course, if you want to go to the gym, learn to cook, and read hard books, you absolutely can. I would even strongly encourage it. These things are not only good for you, but they go a long way to developing discipline and preventing relapses. It’s just important to see them for what they are: a way to build up your focal strength, not something you have to do whenever you’re not scrolling. In addition to self-improvement, you should take this time to explore the things that have genuinely captivated you. There is a wide world outside of social media, and now you have the ability to focus on a few things for a long time, rather than focus on everything for no time. Life is fun, so go have some.