The late afternoon light diffused rosily among obstructive buildings as I lifted the matte black bike onto my shoulder and descended into the earth. The subway station at 16th Street in the Mission was bustling with crepuscular creatures. Commuters, eager to escape the city after a full day of work, raced past nameless drifters hunched over near the stairway. The train would take me from the heart of San Francisco across to the East Bay and back to Peyton’s house in Hayward.
My friend’s bike functioned as my transport for the day to explore the city, but trying to maneuver it on the train became an annoying handicap. About ten minutes into the journey I looked up from my phone to find that along the initial few stops in the city, enough people boarded the train to have me pinned against the wall. A hazily-lit claustrophobia overcame me when I realized that just about everyone on the train also had their heads cocked down, thumbs abuzz, wagging and jerking along the screens of their smartphones. Either that, or they were asleep.
A bald man sporting a backpack embroidered with an ORACLE logo stood before me. He was scrolling through Twitter with his right hand while his left reached up to clutch the support beam, revealing below his pinstriped cuff a polished, lunar-silver-linked Apple Watch. Below the right side of his perpendicular elbow stood a fashionable woman wearing a twilight blue Moncler jacket. She typed in Mandarin characters on her phone, thumbs like pecking roosters, to a distant lover, perhaps.
It made me think of the night before, back at Peyton’s house, scrolling through his Instagram. The “Like Count,” at one point, was up to 197. A few hours earlier, Peyton had posted an Instagram edit of us skiing at Boreal. As he studied for an exam at his desk, I sat scrolling on his phone, since I deleted mine a couple months ago. My thumb scrolls past his followers’ photos, but I constantly return to the video’s page with hopes that the heart-filled orange box will appear with more Likes. Each time it’s absent I feel the slightest twinge of despair, reflexively refreshing in hopes of an error.
Disappointed, I returned again to check out the people who’ve “Liked” the video already. I don’t recognize most of the names, but I secretly hoped they belonged to some hot girls. I found a pretty one and investigated. First seeking portraits to determine her attractiveness, I then dug deeper and deeper into her past, all the while fantasizing about her doing the same on her own phone. Two fated lovers bound to meet across the chasm of the Internet.
I was ashamed. Emerging from the feed felt as though I’d escaped a vat of quicksand, I realized I’d just been trapped in a irrational, schizoid world, reading too far into situations.
“The Like” from my fantasy girl probably had a lot less to do with interest in me than it did boredom with her own life.
In the meantime I wasted countless minutes of my own time captivated by her amazing photos, wondering whether or not my own life was exciting or successful enough to impress her. I had to remind myself that her Instagram was not her reality. I had to remind myself that I was being delusional.
In fact, the magic of Instagram is not that it embellishes reality but that it hides it. Scrolling through the feed, I realize that the thin, white lines between the photos are not physical frames, exactly, but more like negative space. These cavernous regions are shrunken to maintain focus on the photos that flank them. If we could peel back a dimension of this Euclidean scrapbook to reveal a deeper layer, we’d see the thousands of photos taken and discarded––the hours and hours of tedium and unexciting monotony. Further below the surface we’d see that the overbearing majority of our lives are not Insta-worthy whatsoever.
Each photo we post is an island unto itself, a snapshot of the seas of our lives. The illusion of Instagram is, like a travel brochure of the Caribbean, it offers only the majesty and spectacle of picturesque vistas, ignoring the endless waters between isles. The Caribbean is a beautiful, awe-inspiring place, but cruises and all-inclusive resorts don’t tell the whole story. It’s also a region of poverty, colonialism, disease and war.
There’s nothing inherently evil about curating, but it becomes suspect when we devote all of our attention to brochures rather than realities.
Instagram appears to be paradise. But I always seem to find myself drowning in the space between the islands, a sea aswim with jealously, fear, nostalgia, scorn, trying desperately to navigate my way to the surface, yet continually being seduced by the images of others to keep swimming deeper and deeper into murkier and more toxic waters.
During my reverie the train had emerged from the tunnel below the bay and the light was gone. Nighttime arrived in ambush of the day, concentrating the light of the world among the interior spaces of apartments and offices. And trains. My gaze was caught on a pale middle-aged woman with bristly black hair. She appeared a notch or two beyond exhaustion, head tilted toward the window, resigned and helpless. Her attire spoke of success, but her body screamed defeat. She stared out the window, longingly searching for something, but all she saw was a reflection of her own body, a human-parcel speeding rapidly along yet appearing stationary. The tendrils of light reaching out into the night
Passengers began to gradually alight off the train into the dark night, eventually revealing two men, neither from this country nor generation, having a conversation with each other, animated and alive.
The train slowed to my stop and I debarked into the station, making my way through a chilly but revitalizing darkness. As I mounted the bike, I heard the train screech off, an illuminated tendril reaching out into the night’s shade.