The Horrible Place Between the Apps

Everyone has that one app. The one that mocks you from your home screen. The app that lures you to the folder where you’ve tried to hide it. The app you’ve signed out of and deleted — only to download again the next morning. The app you can’t quite quit.

For Corey Lewis, it was Instagram. “I found myself constantly scrolling through it for no reason, all the time,” the 43-year-old Seattle-based tech marketing consultant said. “Every slight pause in my brain had resulted in a pretty much subconscious reaction to open the app and start thumbing through my feed.”

Making things worse were some new and unwelcome feelings. “I actually found myself getting angry and just having weird, not-very-me emotions about posts that had zero bearing on my life,” he said. Lately, even as his toddler explored the world around him, Mr. Lewis found himself exploring feeds on his phone.

“I found myself jamming Instagram into every single one of those times, no matter how small, which is totally selfish and the opposite of being an involved, open and present parent which I very much hope to be,” he said. It was time to do something.

The first and most obvious step was to delete the app. It took a couple weeks for the phantom tapping to stop — opening, from muscle memory and out of sheer habit, the folder where Instagram used to be. Then it worked. “I stopped reflexively going for it,” he said, and “didn’t ever really think about it.”

A month in came a vacation and, with it, a test: Instagram was reinstalled, then uninstalled upon return. All clear, again. He was free. Or so he thought.

“I clicked on an Instagram picture link someone posted on Twitter and it took me to the web version,” he said, referring to Instagram’s mobile site, “where I was already signed in on Chrome, and it was back.” Only now he was using a worse version of the app, and doing so under a cloud of shame. It was time to try again. He blocked the Instagram domain in his web browser, and says he hasn’t checked it yet. It’s been about week.

The concept of addiction, however imprecise it may be, has dominated conversations around smartphone use, so much so that the companies behind our addictive devices now build treatment software right into them (such as Apple’s Screen Time, Google’s Digital Wellbeing). In 2018, Facebook and Instagram started letting users set in-app time limits; even TikTok, the proudly habit-forming video app, includes a feature called Screen Time Management.

It’s not that the makers of these products don’t still want us to use them every day. They’re just talking about it differently. Mark Zuckerberg, for example has been telling anyone who’ll listen that he would like to make sure that scrolling through his apps is “time well spent,” as opposed to, I guess, whatever else it’s been for the last 15 years.

Which is to say, if we really want to fix our relationships with our phones, it’s up to us. So how’s that going?

In the Dark Shadows of the Apps

I’ll start. Years ago I deleted Facebook from my phone. I can check it on my computer if I need to, but I don’t, at least not much. I’ve gotten rid of Instagram a few times, but it comes back; I don’t post and I check it too often, but it doesn’t feel like a problem.

Twitter does. About two years ago, I turned off most of my phone’s notifications, including Twitter’s. I still checked. I started uninstalling the app on weekends, then keeping it uninstalled until I needed to post something for work. (The idea that Twitter is necessary or even helpful for work is, probably, the self-deception at the core of this problem.)

I constantly backslid. I started logging out after using the app and gave myself passwords I could never remember; eventually they ended up in my password manager. I started using Twitter’s mobile site, which I assumed would feel more deliberate, or worse, but that process disappeared into a subconscious routine as well. Finally, it was time for a full ban on Twitter on my phone.

This worked. Then, a week ago, I found myself browsing Twitter through its web version, which I had logged into inside of Nuzzel, an app that aggregates news links from the service. I was pretending — to myself — to check one app only to check another. I felt bad that Twitter, which I can hardly justify using, was somehow testing my self-control. I felt worse for feeling bad about something that felt too dumb to even articulate.

And yet I suspected that I wasn’t the only person spending a lot of time scrolling around in this queasy, impotent shame-zone, so I started asking around. In short: We are not well.

Making Things Worse Because They’re Already Bad

Dan Crawford, a public relations professional in Washington, D.C., described a trajectory similar to mine. He had installed time limits on his phone and given his wife the password; she acted as a sort of phone-time trustee, doling out 20-minute chunks at his request and her discretion. On Twitter, he had turned on two-factor authentication, which requires a code sent by text message to log in. Finally, he blocked Twitter’s number from his phone.

“Your brain gets used to extra steps very quickly,” he said. “But that’s enough steps that if I need to get work done, I can just hit log off.” For now.

It turns out there’s a thriving culture of folk remedies, tricks, and hacks, some clever, others desperate, and others bordering on self-flagellation. Generally speaking, turning off notifications seems to help, but can also increase compulsive app checking. Logging out of services after using them adds an extra step or two, but often leaves users no less engaged than before and slightly more irritated. Moving icons into folders, and then moving folders off the home screen? Yep. Installing more enriching apps to check — maybe a language-learning app, or crossword puzzles? It can help. It can also compound the same failure.

I heard no unqualified success stories about using Apple’s Screen Time, or Facebook and Instagram’s “Manage Your Time” functions. Brian Kokernak, a systems administrator, told his iPhone to limit his overall access, but described an outcome that was, basically, an inverted snooze alarm: “Hitting a Screen Time limit then tapping 15 more minutes every 15 minutes until I go to bed.”

There are crafty forms of app sabotage, too. Arianna Sanders, a supply chain manager at the e-commerce company Brandless, said she shuts off data access to the Instagram app, so she can’t use it without Wi-Fi. Jack Orlik, a researcher at Nesta, failed to hack his way out of his habit. “I changed the icon for Twitter to make myself pause in confusion or reflection before clicking it,” he said. “Muscle memory of my thumb didn’t care about the icon, so I changed its name to ‘NOT Twitter’ to alter its position. Worked for about one day.”

Some coping strategies moved beyond the devices themselves. “I put my laptop on my desk and don’t allow it to go anywhere else in my room,” said Anaïs Enders, a journalist in Singapore. “I put my phone on airplane mode after use and in a cup that a hated ex-boyfriend bought.”

Many people have tried setting their smartphones to grayscale, a method popularized by tech ethicist Tristan Harris and described in this paper last year as a “remarkable” solution — one that succeeds by making phones, essentially, “a little worse.” If anything connects these methods of self-limiting and app sabotage, it’s faith in the idea that making these apps harder to use, or less pleasant, will help. “It really sucks the joy out of internet usage,” began a Reddit thread recommending other users try it. “It makes life the way it should be and downgrades electronics to secondary citizens in your life.” The replies were mixed. “No difference in usage. It’s not the colors that attract me to the internet,” reported one. “I was starting to think I was the only one who saw no change,” responded another.

Driving Into the Cascade

Using apps on a browser is an obvious way to make using Facebook or Instagram or Twitter — or even Gmail — a bit harder, and, by most standards, meaningfully worse. Think of it as app vaping: It still has nicotine and the motions are basically the same, but the smell doesn’t linger quite as long. It may also be growing in popularity. Twitter declined to share data about how many of its users are using mobile sites instead of its app, and Instagram did not respond to a request for comment. SimilarWeb, an outside analytics firm, provided data suggesting something intriguing: and grew at 13.9 percent and 30.6 percent over the past year.

A shift away from apps could be seen as evidence of growing disenchantment with the major social networks; it would not, necessarily, represent solution to users’ problems. Twitter’s mobile site, for example, has almost all the functions of the app. It also makes regular suggestions that you download the app that you’ve just left behind. Accessing Instagram through mobile web browser is a genuinely diminished experience, if that’s what you were looking for, but this can work both ways.

“Instagram functionality is so much worse they sucked me back in,” said Zack Seuberling, a designer in Seattle, who re-downloaded the full app after a brief stint without it. Andrew Konoff, a software designer, had a different take. “For a while the Instagram mobile web app wouldn’t let you see your DMs or interact with stories,” he said, “and now even that small freedom is gone from my life.”

Self-imposed exile to the edges of social media platforms, in other words, can easily backfire. These are the same edges from which new users are recruited. They’re designed to help people along on their way to everyday app usage — not to ease people out. For now, these places are also where you end up when you want to quit but have decided it’s not an option, and that you should suffer additionally for this fact. They’re undeniably grim spaces, even by the standards of social media in 2019 — extended-stay misery motels along a one-way highway covered in billboards. But what are you going to do. Post about it?

John Herrman covers tech and media for the Times Magazine, and was one of the first three recipients of The Times’s David Carr Fellowship. Previously, he was a reporter for the Business section. @jwherrman

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