One morning I woke up and my Instagram account had been transformed.
The night before, it had been a friendly stream of beautiful baked goods, restaurant dishes, and friends’ home-cooking experiments, with a few puppies and babies sprinkled in. Now, drowning out the food porn, there was, well, porn porn: women on the beach wearing extremely small underpants, fellows flexing while wearing extremely small underpants. None of these underpants looked even a little bit comfortable.
I was also following a lot of tattoo artists, race-car drivers, and people with user names like bodybuilderchocolatethunder. I didn’t want to buy sports apparel emblazoned with the words “Ball Till You Fall.” Or did I? I liked the message. The hoodies looked warm. I wasn’t even sure anymore. I felt unmoored. My own landscape — one I had built click by click, selecting whom to follow — was unfamiliar to me.
Holy bathroom-mirror selfie! My Instagram had been hacked. (Or, more likely, I had opted in to some third-party app and neglected to select certain privacy functions, but that doesn’t sound nearly as dramatic.) I changed all my passwords and checked to see just how many new accounts I was following.
So I began unfollowing. My thumb got tired. I got bored. I decided I’d unfollow 100 people a day. Before I knew it I’d be back in a dreamy Instaworld of my own making, filled with nothing but Italian picnics and Istanbul markets, backlit bottles of wine and jars of fermenting cabbage, and beautifully laminated croissant cross sections. A world where no one was very much different from me, a world of my ilk. My self-chosen world.
That was all still there. For the time being, though, I was also stuck with scantily clad people from Ukraine and Thailand, looks by makeup artists in Lucknow and ink by tattooists in Seoul, real estate come-ons from hustlers in Louisiana and gym progress shots from, seemingly, everywhere.
Slowly but surely, I got sucked in.
Because wannabe porn stars pause from posing to eat dinner with their parents. Shady e-commerce entrepreneurs celebrate holidays, amateur models mark milestones, and international influencers become proud parents. When these things happen, they post pictures and video. I was seeing people’s lives, lightly filtered, but real.
I watched the world celebrate Christmas. I peeped at weddings on the other side of the planet. I wished I could join the Dubai fashionistas, Beijing hipsters, and Moroccan university students for the meals their photos made me covet. I wished I knew how to read the scrolls and curves of the alphabets that crossed my screen: Thai, Cyrillic, Arabic, Greek.
Before I knew it, I was virtually driving around live with a former Florida Gator, sunroof open, learning about his interest in flipping houses. I was listening, enraptured, to a young woman with a scholarship in Indian classical music cover Bollywood songs.
Oh, world, you can sing. Your children are beautiful. Your thirst traps are hot as hell. You look amazing.
In 2011, Eli Pariser published the book The Filter Bubble, warning that the Internet was becoming an echo chamber. Due to personalized filters, we are fed the kind of content we already look at, the kind of content we are most likely to consume. That’s what my Instagram feed had become: a bubble. I was seeing what I knew I wanted to see, and it was cozy and good. But I was missing everything else.
Unto ourselves, we are not that interesting. Our imaginations are limited. When thousands of random strangers became part of my feed, I learned things. It’s illegal in South Korea to give tattoos if you’re not a medical doctor, so there’s a flourishing underground of parlors run by talented artists. In Australia there’s an Order of the Fighting Fathers, a group of pugilistic priests and laypeople “committed to ‘Fighting the Good Fight’ — against drugs, poverty, prejudice, and all forms of injustice.” The government of Rajasthan is working to get cellphones into the hands of those who receive ration cards, viewing digital empowerment as a tool to fight poverty.
My Instagram feed had become a bubble. I was seeing what I knew I wanted to see, and it was cozy and good. But I was missing everything else.
The world is that interesting. There are so many good ideas out there. To conceive of progress, we can only draw on our own bodies of knowledge. It’s why we need to talk to one another, to see one another. It’s why it’s not good to have the seats of power occupied solely by picks from right-wing think tankers, or by left-leaning Ivy Leaguers. It’s why diversity really does matter.
And although what’s interesting is our differences, what’s beautiful is how much we are the same. How much we love our children and our pets. The internationally irresistible lure of an avocado cut in half, soft-cooked eggs occupying its green hollows. The urge to dance and the way we encourage our friends in their endeavors. The human body, its parts and its frailties.
I stopped unfollowing. My thumb feels better. I’m not at all bored.Devra First is The Boston Globe’s restaurant critic and food reporter. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.