We all know the compulsive itch to check Instagram at the most inopportune of moments (or worse, in our actual free time when we could be doing so many things that are actually constructive). Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How To Build Habit-Forming Products, recently sat down with Business Insider to explain why the app is so damn addictive. If you can’t tell by the title of his book, the factors are pretty bleak, and were definitely strategized in some boardroom long before you downloaded the app.
For starters, Eyal points to the years-old habit of photography and ”this anxiety that we feel if we don’t capture this moment it will disappear forever.” I definitely recognize that frantic photographic tugging on my emotions, don’t you? Taking a picture is often an attempt at controlling the bittersweet fact that time is lurching forward whether we want it to or not, and taking the present moment with it. What hooks us even further is the process of posting a photo and the “effort” that goes into it. This includes the magical gratification (and perhaps dopamine rush?) of taking a blah picture and instantly fixing it up with the app’s filters. Suddenly, any old dull crap you photographed can be made to look beautiful, creative, and whimsical.
After investing a few seconds’ worth of energy to make a picture pretty, your brain suddenly decides that you simply must put forth the effort to share it with others. Soon, your mind starts to warp and your knee-jerk reaction upon seeing something beautiful is to capture it through Instagram instead of that fancy DSLR you splurged on. After all, you start to think, is a beautiful picture really a beautiful picture if 200 of my Instagram friends don’t see it?
Above all, what really keeps people coming back to the app every day is the same thing that keeps us returning to every other app, habit, or vice: that damn empty void inside. FOMO leads the way on this one – you feel an incessant urge to know what’s happening in the Instagram world every moment and to prove to others that you’re not sitting at home alone. Other bleak feelings like boredom, loneliness, and a desire for escapism can be Insta triggers too. You may not recognize those feelings in the moment when you tap on the app, but as Eyal told Business Insider, “FOMO is huge reason to use Instagram. Not just to take pictures, but this fear of missing out on the moment. And my solution to alleviate that pain point, that psychological itch, is to open Instagram and scroll through.”
So essentially, just like millions of other habits in life, Instagram is all about hiding from ourselves. What a cheerful realization! We want to avoid the pain that comes along with wondering if we’re good enough, facing a grim reality beyond our phone screen, missing out on all the fun, or just plain being alone with our thoughts in any capacity. Instagram is perfect for that, whether it’s through interacting with other peoples’ images or using our own photos to escape ourselves by crafting some external ideal of who we wish we were. Humans will do almost anything to avoid emotional pain, and we’ve all seen that manifest in our own lives in some way, so at least Instagram is pretty harmless compared to most avoidance habits. Most methods we come up with to shove away pain become destructive forces in our lives or just create more pain that hits us repeatedly over time, whereas looking at a feed of pretty pictures taken by your friends doesn’t exactly ruin your life.
I think Instagram can actually be a really positive force for finding creative inspiration or adding a little more splendor to life’s mundane moments. It only becomes a big problem if it’s used as a popularity contest like Facebook so often is. It’s disturbing that Eyal’s revelation leaves us with yet another nugget of proof that marketers are frequently brainwashing our every move, but unfortunately, that’s happening pretty much all the time. So if we overlook that, Instagram is simply a neutral medium like any other app or communication method. It’s up to its users whether it’s implemented for positive reasons or negative ones.
Reprinted with permission from The Frisky.