Instagram is essentially a weight-loss app, and Facebook is loving that for it

Plus: Why 'The Glute Guy' is canceled, how to get your pull-up, and more.

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Would you believe it: Instagram makes a significant number of users feel bad about themselves, particularly young girls. The twist is that this is according to Instagram/Facebook’s own internal research. I think anyone could have told you, anecdotally/subjectively, that this was the case for many years now. But as of this week, we know from this WSJ investigation that Facebook empirically knows, and is empirically choosing to not do a whole hell of a lot about it.

According to the research, some people in good mental health with, presumably, support networks and a strong sense of self-worth, are just scrolling the feed, head empty no thoughts. But people prone to mental health issues or in vulnerable demographics (teen girls), Instagram appears to be an accelerant for low self-esteem. Some of the problems were specific to Instagram, versus all of social media. Here are some great quotes:

"'Social comparison is worse on Instagram,' states Facebook’s deep dive into teen girl body-image issues in 2020, noting that TikTok, a short-video app, is grounded in performance, while users on Snapchat, a rival photo and video-sharing app, are sheltered by jokey filters that “keep the focus on the face.” In contrast, Instagram focuses heavily on the body and lifestyle.”

"They said they are also testing a way to ask users if they want to take a break from Instagram. Part of the challenge, the researchers said, is they struggle to determine which users face the greatest risk.'"

"To promote more positive use of Instagram, the company has partnered with nonprofits to promote what it calls “emotional resilience,” according to the documents. Videos produced as part of that effort include recommending that teens consider daily affirmations to remind themselves that 'I am in control of my experience on Instagram.'"

Actually, it doesn't seem like they are, really!:

"Lindsay Dubin, 19, recently wanted to exercise more. She searched Instagram for workouts and found some she liked. Since then the app’s algorithm has filled her Explore page with photos of how to lose weight, the 'ideal' body type and what she should and shouldn’t be eating. 'I’m pounded with it every time I go on Instagram,' she said.

I have a separate Instagram account just to experiment on, and can confirm that there is a distinct and aggressive "workout stuff/general-purpose fitness influencers"-to-weight-loss-content pipeline. In my experience, it instantly transforms the Explore page. It's overwhelming. And it's not even good content either; it's spammy faceless accounts with handles like __get.skinny.fast__30.days. that repost hacky garbage like that video of a person running in slow motion as their body fat melts away with the caption "Like if you agree!”

A post shared by @madfit.ig

So let's be clear that blame for these negative effects goes in this order:

  1. Facebook and its algorithm

  2. The people posting this stuff/the government that should probably be regulating them (tie)

  3. The people actively supporting people posting this stuff

  4. -98. (various)

    1. The people seeing this stuff

These companies love to lay the blame for these kinds of issues at the feet of users and algorithms, as if they are mysterious black boxes that can't be fully comprehended by our human brains. And they are always, always looking for solutions that place the burden on the user as much as possible. Whether that’s cynical PR projection, or willful ignorance about their role in the problems they create, is not for me to say. 

But make no mistake: Algorithms are choices, made by Facebook and Instagram. If you put all of humanity onto Instagram and Instagram spits out the top contenders as "ladies who sell 11-abs workouts and 1200-calorie diets that involve primarily eating bell peppers," that's not either a coincidence nor a reflection of what humanity actually wants. There is no algorithm in the sense of a thing that has independent and unpredictable agency; there is only the algorithm of the already-biased minds who make it, who don’t try to check themselves.

And that's not when those kinds of choices were done by a very human and very cruel hand, like when TikTok straight-up suppressed content made by disabled, queer, and fat users. Their stated reasoning, that I don't buy, was to "protect those users from cyberbullying." Why not change the algorithm and moderate the fucking platform so that all users are safe? Because these companies know that it’s addictive to make people think that, somewhere in their app, there's a solution to feeling inferior and incomplete. The influencer who makes you feel not pretty enough, who also seems to have the key to becoming pretty enough? That’s Instagram candy. Stats I would love to see: how much more do people use Instagram who also report it makes them feel bad about themselves?

But it’s very funny to me that pretty much every social media company, knowing their product is addictive to the point of detrimental, is playing chicken around the idea of having an app that is anything less than "as addictive as the extent of the tools available to us will allow." They know what content people want to see, and more importantly, what they don't want to see, or find challenging. Facebook, and Instagram within it, can't give up even a scrap of addictiveness if it means its numbers go down. I’ve been disappointed to see coverage that is actually empathetic to the supposed “challenge” Facebook faces in effectively moderating disinformation, as if it’s trying mightily and failing tragically; it can only hire contractors to review all the posts so fast! Meanwhile, it's hoping no one notices the golden goose, the algorithm it could change from the top, and the profits it could give up.

This internal research is similar, perhaps not in severity but in the broad strokes of annoying, morbidly funny, and sad, to when Exxon conducted internal research all the way back in the 70s on the environmental impact of fossil fuels as a way of doing oppo on itself and assessing externalized threats to its business. It found unambiguously that fossil fuel would cause climate change. So Exxon buried and ignored it. 

I was gonna work hard to make this connection but then in an interview this week with Peter Kafka, head of Instagram Adam Mosseri literally compared social media to cars (some upsides, some downsides. Like climate change). 

He also claims if Instagram didn't care, it wouldn't do research about it. Exxon again is a worthy comparison: It wasn't actually worried about the societal implications of what they were or weren't doing; it was worried only about the bottom line, and maybe secondarily how to get ahead of any public perception that they were ruining the planet. Therefore I have no choice to conclude, just as cars may be a lot of things but in this cultural moment must essentially be flattened to “a climate change problem,” Instagram may be a lot of things but in this cultural moment must essentially be flattened to “weight loss app,” until that problem is addressed.

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What's the answer? I don't know. Honestly, cynically, probably "Mark Zuckerberg's own daughter reaching her teen years and being destroyed from the inside out by social media." Nothing else seems to really get through to these dunces. Mosseri claims, “We think we need regulation, and we’ve been public about that.” This is narcissist reasoning: It's everyone’s job to make sure Facebook isn’t ruining society, except Facebook.

In the near term, I've gotten a lot of mileage out of aggressively curating my lifting account to only follow people who, for lack of a better term, aren't about bullshit. My feed stays pretty good, and even STILL the weight loss stuff slips into the explore page. But that doesn't help with the slippery slope issue of people who aren't, or don't know to, actively work uphill against the algorithm. It would actually be nice and potentially a way forward if Facebook were to consider this a disinformation problem, but it hasn't made a ton of progress with that, either.


Have you had an adverse, or even weight-loss-oriented, experience with Instagram? I’d love to collect more data on this; leave a comment below, if so!

Leave a comment

Eat

I promised pull-up resources in this newsletter! SO many people want their pull-up. Pull-ups are hard, but unlike what I believed for so long thanks to this terrible New York Times article, they are not impossible! I did it through a general strength training program, plus this Megsquats program oriented around "pull-up negatives," which you can do without anything other than a pull-up bar; no bands, no machine (you get signed up for her newsletter, fair warning, but worth it for a free program). I would just tack one session onto the end of whatever my training was that day. 

There is also an r/bodyweightfitness pull-up progression that could be helpful if even a negative feels too hard. The reps and sets come from their overall recommended routine, so you start with 3 sets of 5 for each move, work up to sets of 8 (use RPE 8 to guide your limit for each set), then when you can do 3 full sets of 8, go to the next move. Track your progress! Write it in a little notebook. More advice here and here.

Related Ask A Swole Woman classic that I’m proud of: My Bench Press Sucks.

I’d like to share a special personal victory from one of our Discord members: 

This piece on "mastering the mental game" of a sport was both less and more than I thought it would be. Winning attitude matters, ~of course~, but as someone who came relatively late to the idea of proactively thinking about strategy and the headgame of my opponents, I like this perspective on how far it took the writer to invest in more than just athletic skills.

On the flipside, it’s impossible and even dangerous to try and perform well through mental health struggles.

Watch this Reel.

Drink

I did an interview with Embedded this week! It includes a long screed on how I don't like TikTok, but the most important reason I don't like it is that, for as incredibly funny I find so many TikToks, I can feel my brain melting as I keep pulling the slot machine lever.

I used to be a fan of The Glute Guy and linked him a lot in past columns; eventually he became ground zero for "grow your glutes without growing your legs," a philosophy I frankly don't like. But if you've heard of him, this video from Team ForNever Lean from yesterday is a great rundown of why not him. A trainer whose content I really love, Sohee Lee, also spoke out about this a while ago.

Breaking news: Americans' life span sucks, and there is a wide gap between rich and poor people. The big comparison point in the article is Europe. "We’re a long way from a complete understanding of the American mortality penalty," Derek Thompson writes. Are we????????

My god, I'm bad at talking to other people in real life right now, but I'm trying to be generous to myself about it, and everyone else.

Rest

Not unrelated to the link above, lying flat is justice. Further related, from Charlie Warzel: What's our motivation in this career scene, again?

I very much enjoyed this interview from The Small Bow's podcast, Really Good Shares, with Cord Jefferson. How much I envy Cord's talent is a thing I actively struggle not to think about, and I admire how candid he is here about the struggle to acknowledge one's difficulties and keep striving to be a good person. I’m annoyingly picky about podcasts, but AJ is an insightful and generous host.

And finally, this sweet and epic feature on the mathematician who harnessed the power of wavelets for signal processing. (I’m Not Thinking how this ultimately allowed for… you guessed it… Instagram.) Come for the yas-queen achievements, stay for the “when she became a baroness," but also the

"For decades, the standard test image in the signal processing community was a picture, cropped to a headshot, of Lena Forsen, a Playboy centerfold model in 1972. Wearing a feathered hat and looking over a bare shoulder, Forsen made repeat appearances on conference screens and in papers."

!!!! ????

and also the

"I don’t get even,' she said. 'I get odder.'"

I love you, thank you for reading, let’s go get odder—


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Disclaimer: This opinion-based content is for education and entertainment purposes only. Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who has done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights. Consult a professional for your personal medical and health needs.