Two years ago, I embarked on a crusade: I removed every social media application from my phone save for Snapchat and YouTube. I got rid of TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest — all in an effort to improve my mental health and mitigate my growing phone addiction. During the pandemic, I would cyclically download and delete these apps, a bit like a toxic relationship. Of course, I still have full access to some sites like Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr on my laptop, so I haven’t totally removed myself from the proverbial grid.
The interactions I was still having with social media, either on my computer or on my occasional “cheat days,” were still negatively affecting my mental health. I continued to fall prey to the comparison and isolation that pervade social media, and after some time of quietly dealing with these repercussions, my crusade was clocked by a realization. My issues weren’t coming from the social media sites themselves, but from the content I was seeing on them. My Instagram and TikTok feeds were a personal hellhole of unachievable beauty standards, upsetting news, even more upsetting memes and users flaunting lifestyles I could only hope to afford.
All of this is to say that Instagram, Tumblr and TikTok are not inherently bad or bad for you, but their algorithms, or how these apps decided what content I would and wouldn’t see, were bad. Or, more accurately, I had trained the algorithm badly. So my crusade changed. I was no longer removing these apps from my life altogether. Rather, I began asking myself, how do I make social media serve me? What I discovered through various guides and videos was that it is entirely possible to train my algorithm to show me content that improves my time online — bands and shows that I like, people that represent me and actually good memes. So after almost a year and a half of experimenting, I can proudly present four steps on how to change your social media algorithm, and what this change can do for you.
1. Budget your likes, follows and comments
We’ll start easy with the foundational step of this process — not every single post that comes across your feed or messages deserves your digital currency. I know, I know, it’s tempting to like every Instagram post or YouTube video that you click on, whether out of habit or a sense of obligation, but this is one of the most damaging things you can do in the quest for the perfect algorithm. For example, I couldn’t understand why I kept seeing deep-fried TikToks (which I, respectfully, hate) on my For You Page, until I realized that it was because my roommate kept sending me them and I kept liking them. So I stopped liking and interacting with them entirely. You can’t always stop people from sending you posts you may not love on social media, but you can mitigate how much you interact with that content. By freely giving likes and follows to anything and everything, your algorithm is more likely to continue showing you that same anything and everything, rather than curating itself thoughtfully and positively.
2. Interact with things you’re passionate about
My Instagram Explore page used to be a messy hodgepodge of anything I paid attention to beyond a click or a view — hence budgeting those likes and shares! Memes or news, models or cooking, you name it. It was there, and so was I. So, just as I began to turn away from giving a like to anything I opened, I started furiously liking only the content I really loved. Any Florence + The Machine post on my Instagram Explore page? Like. A “Downton Abbey” scene on my TikTok For You page? Comment. Whatever the equivalents are for you, start interacting with them when you see them on your feed! The more you do that, the more your social media algorithm will figure out what topics you’re actually interested in and start making your feed something you actually want to view and interact with.
3. Follow people who represent you
Social media, for the longest time, fed into my own lack of self-confidence. Everywhere I turned I was met with Victoria’s Secret models and Paris runways and that began to destroy me. I don’t say that to slander these women — I say it to highlight the difficulty of growing up as an imperfect young woman in a social media landscape obsessed with being perfect. Still, I was the one interacting with impossible beauty standards, so one day I purged my social media of people who didn’t represent me. I turned to following and liking mid-sized women, writers, body positivity activists, musicians and anyone who I saw myself in. Maybe for you, this means following more people of color, individuals with disabilities or members of the LGBTQ+ community. Soon, though, your feed could saturated with people and accounts that reflect you and inspire you to be the best achievable version of yourself possible. There’s a way to escape that unachievable version of beauty and happiness, and all it takes is a reorientation of who you allow to grace your social media.
4. Stop hate-following
Why do you still follow that girl from high school whose life choices you simply reject? Seriously, why? Don’t tell me, I know the answer because I did it too — and still do, if I’m totally honest.
I am Sisyphus and hate-following is my boulder.
Why do we do it? Why keep following people whose Snapchat stories leave you red in the face and with a sour taste in your mouth? For the drama, mostly. Getting angry over what someone posts is like a hit of adrenaline, but despite that fleeting high, it is unhealthy. We are left with an overload of negativity invading our mental health that can have tangible effects on our real life, such as increased anger or obsession with others’ lives. How do you think I feel after watching that-girl-from-high-school’s Instagram story? Not any better about myself, I can tell you that. Unfollow the people you know you can’t stand — I’ll do it if you do — and, if you still crave a bit of drama, vent to a roommate or watch “Riverdale.” That’s what I do.
It’s no secret that social media can have negative effects on mental health — we’ve known this for a long time. Social media sites are “designed to be addictive and are associated with anxiety, depression, and even physical ailments,” and can instigate jealousy toward others or a crippling sense of FOMO — “Fear of Missing Out” for those of you who missed the memo. It is difficult to express, personally, how growing up in the social media age was damaging to my perception of self and the outside world, and I know I’m not alone in feeling this.
However, half this battle is what we consume on social media, not just the consumption itself. I understand that, and because it would be foolish of me to suggest that we all delete all of our social media all at once, I want others to understand this as well. Today we are all so deeply invested in our online presence, and considering we spent over two hours on social media every day in 2020, I don’t see this investment losing traction. If we’re going to continue to live in the virtual landscape, why shouldn’t we make it as comfortable and safe as possible? It takes time and honestly a lot of concentrated effort to create a welcoming and positive digital environment for oneself, but that time and effort are more than worth it in the long run.
Today my social media feeds are a glorious amalgamation of anything I want them to be — “Doctor Who,” Greta Van Fleet, “The Great British Bake Off,” poetry, classic novels and whatever else I have taken the agency to choose to see. I do still see the occasional unwanted deep-fried meme on my Explore page, but all I have to do now is ignore it, go like a “Lord of the Rings” screencap, refresh the page and poof. It’s gone. Because the algorithm knows that I am the master of what I consume and that, if I am going to spend any amount of time on social media, it better be enjoyable.
Daily Arts Contributor Maddie Agne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.