Why PixelFed won't save us from Instagram

Why decentralized photo sharing won't save us from Instagram - but it might help.


PixelFed is a decentralized photo sharing network based on the ActivityPub protocol, the same one that Mastodon uses. For a lot of people divorced (or wanting to be) from Instagram over mental health concerns and issues like forced consent to post-GDPR terms, a decentralized social network like PixelFed sounds like an exciting and promising alternative.

Personally, I stopped using Instagram once I accepted the fact that its core premise and integral structure of social interaction was encouraging me to form habits that were harmful to my life goals. I’m not alone - studies have shown that people are happier after deleting apps like Facebook. The reasons for this don’t differ greatly from why any social network can be bad for you - they’re just found in much greater intensity on photo sharing sites, and specifically Instagram.

It is still early days for PixelFed. As I write this I have no way to know what kind of network it will become, or even if it will survive at all. I do know, however, that there are many glaring and fundamental problems that a decentralized photo sharing network like PixelFed won’t solve. To elaborate, I’m going to discuss what makes Instagram so poisonous to health, why centralized social networks aren’t likely to ever be healthy, and why decentralized social networks have a very slim chance of being better.

Why Instagram is bad for your health

Let’s start with the basics. Your brain responds very differently to reading text than it does to looking at images.

It doesn’t take more than a quick search to find hundreds of articles and studies about how reading can make you smarter, more empathetic, and stave off cognitive decline by improving brain connectivity. In essence, reading involves a multitude of brain regions including the temporal and frontal lobes. There’s still a lot to be discovered about the human brain, but here’s what we think we know. The frontal lobes control important cognitive skills like emotional expression, problem solving, memory, language, judgement, and sexual behaviors. The temporal lobes handle important functions such as the encoding of memory, and processing emotions and visual perception.

In other words, reading text - even on social media - stimulates your brain and makes you think about the information you’re taking in. To react to words on a page, you first have to read them and form thoughts about them.

Unlike reading, looking at an image has a very different effect on your brain. Here’s an infographic about infographics that covers some of these effects. Basically, millennia of evolution have produced human brains hardwired to respond quickly to visual stimuli - in less than 1/10 of a second. As the infographic will literally show you, almost 50% of the brain is involved in visual processing, and 70% of all our sensory receptors are in our eyes. That’s a lot of resources devoted to quickly processing visuals. Why could this be bad?

Unlike times past, we’re no longer (day-to-day) concerned with spotting a tiger in the bushes about to pounce on us. The near-instant processing time needed to discern if that shivering tree branch is the just wind or impending mortal danger is outdated in our current living arrangements. Our brain, however, doesn’t know that. It hasn’t evolved faster than our technologies or society. The downside to this is that anyone with a little knowledge of this fundamental flaw in the human mind is able to exploit it.

Advertisers call this exploitation, “visual marketing.”

These linked articles are stuffed with the same factoids over and over again. “The brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text.” “90% of the information sent to the brain is visual.” Whether or not these numbers are accurate, it’s clearly provable that visual marketing is on the whole more effective than advertisements without images. There’s a reason for it, and it should scare you.

Unlike reading, which involves regions of your brain responsible for comprehension, decision making, and emotional control, images are processed by different areas of the brain. Visual input travels from our eyes through our optic nerves to the thalamus (or LGN, Lateral Geniculate Nucleus) and the superior colliculus. From the thalamus, it proceeds to the visual cortex at the rear of our brains, where the image is processed. Effectively, viewing images does not make us think in the same way that reading does. In other words, it’s easy to do.

Let me be clear. This difference in the way words and images are processed is not, in itself, bad. A photo-centric social network is not, in itself, bad. Images and words alike have the power to evoke strong emotions, send powerful messages, spark revolutions, and spur progress. This is good… if it’s used for good.

Instagram, a photo-centric network chock full of product placements, paid sponsorships, and outright advertisements, is a social network primarily designed to bypass your cognitive thinking and sell you stuff.

I don’t think Instagram started out with the same motivations it has now. Along with all the photo sharing networks that blossomed when Instagram first got popular, I still believe its initial vision was to make sharing photos with your friends fun and easy.

It just got too popular.

Why centralized networks are bad for your health

In the wake of privacy concerns over the last few years, new uproar over algorithm-driven timelines, and the #DeleteFacebook, #DeleteTwitter, and #DeleteInstagram movements, more people today are aware of how networks that make their money on your data are bad for your health. This is in part due to their centralized nature - one hierarchy of authority makes decisions for the whole system, and at the same time, has to support it. It’s expensive to support millions of users, so it’s no wonder that the network’s main concern (and let’s just consider the most innocent case) is to remain profitable.

What’s a good way to remain profitable?

Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time… Identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps. – Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter and Blogger

Quoted in Wired article, 2013, “Twitter Founder Reveals Secret Formula for Getting Rich Online

There’s a book called Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products which, if you’re ever in the mood for a good horror flick, you should curl up in bed with some popcorn and read.

The book details a simple model for a habit-forming product. The model is cyclical, and has the following key points: a trigger, an action, variable reward, and investment. In summary, if a product can get you to think of it, leading to some action that is easier to do than to think about, give you a reward for that action some of the time, and then compel you to commit or invest in it - you’re hooked.

If you’re paying attention, you might notice I’ve described Instagram. And Twitter. And Facebook. And every other social network.

There’s a reason it’s easy to use Instagram, easy to post a tweet, easy to browse Facebook. These products have been designed to make it easy for you to use them. They’ve been designed to alter your behavior to better suit the product’s goals.

This industry employs some of the smartest people, thousands of Ph.D. designers, statisticians, engineers. They go to work every day to get us to do this one thing, to undermine our willpower. – James Williams, co-founder of Time Well Spent

Quoted in Nautilus article, 2017, “Modern Media Is a DoS Attack on Your Free Will

At the heart of the idea of getting you hooked is the concept of a dopamine feedback loop. Dopamine, an organic chemical neurotransmitter in your brain, is thought to be responsible for allowing us to anticipate the reward to an action. It inspires us to get a glass of water when we’re thirsty, for example, and may help us to feel good when we take actions towards doing so. Where dopamine is so effectively misused is in the practice of providing variable rewards to drive social media addiction.

Unlike getting a glass of water when you’re thirsty, variable rewards are random. It’s as if drinking water sometimes, but not always, cured your thirst. This effectively programs your mind to pursue the action that results in the unpredictable reward. Since getting the reward isn’t guaranteed, you need to make more attempts to achieve success. Social media is designed to make these variable dopamine hits easy to obtain. It’s designed to hijack your intellectual independence in order to keep you on the network.

Especially when the main goal of a centralized social network is to make a profit, that network is exploiting evolutionary flaws in your brain to make that profit from you. You are literally being hacked.

Now combine this information with the knowledge of how a product comprised primarily of images bypasses your cognitive thinking. Not only are you being hacked, but your main defense system is being easily, laughably, circumvented.

Exploiting users is a particularly compelling temptation for any social networks under pressure to make a profit, and this pressure is amplified in organizations with a centralized structure. Not all centralized networks do this, but undoubtedly, the very successful ones do.

Decentralization is by no means a fix for exploitation and greed, but a decentralized social network might have a few things going for it.

Why decentralized networks might be slightly better for your health

The main issues present in Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram as pertains to social media addiction do not go away on decentralized networks. I’m personally, currently, using both Twitter and Mastodon. The former is centralized and the latter is decentralized, but the the same motivations that could get me in trouble on one platform apply to both. Decentralization does not fix the problem.

It might help.

Unlike a centralized, single-hierarchy, definitely-for-profit social network, decentralization has one thing going for it: more people. Specifically, more instance owners who are in control of their instances.

Running a Mastodon instance is a responsibility, should you choose to accept it. Besides the server itself, instances require their own sets of rules and code of conduct, and like the often adopted mastodon.social code of conduct, it can be collaboratively drafted by the community. Mastodon provides instance owners with moderation tools and provides users with reporting tools, and there’s an expectation that they’ll both be used. As with other decentralized social networks, it is the responsibility of the instance owner to moderate and foster a social environment that serves the best interests of the instance users.

Instances typically run on donations, and in the grand scheme of things, are inexpensive to support. Decentralization means that instance owners individually have to bear smaller costs. There’s no central body being pressured to make a profit in order to run servers that support millions of users. The effect of this many-owners structure is that decisions that concern any particular instance and rules that it might want to adopt are made by that instance’s community, or the instance owner. If a user disagrees with the direction taken, they can communicate directly with the instance owner, or simply move to another instance. There’s no “take it or leave it,” and no forced acceptance of terms. Users always have somewhere else to go.

This, in general, means that over many instances, and via many moderators, more people from diverse backgrounds with a collection of both overlapping and contrasting interests are able to have a voice in how the social network evolves.

If instance owners have their users’ best interests, not addiction, in mind; if moderators act responsibly, and according to their instance rules, moderate for good; and if a wide and varying selection of instances with differing interests, political viewpoints, and topics continue to be available; then decentralized social networks might be better for your health.

Where this leaves PixelFed (and all social networks)

All social networks have the potential to do more good than harm, but it is up to those who control them to put in the constant, proactive effort required to make that happen. Twitter has recently been making some steps towards becoming a healthier network, like banning political ads and highlighting manipulated media. I think they’re ahead of the curve. With decentralized social networks, there’s at least more chances for the possibility that instance owners truly want to do more good than harm with their own little piece of the whole.

While photo sharing networks will, by their essential nature, bypass cognitive thinking and have an advantage over their users that way, there are many design considerations that PixelFed can implement in order to make the network healthier. Features such as comments, likes, timelines, and push notifications can be designed to provide utility more than drive addiction, and there are designers more qualified than I who can tell you how.

These networks will have to constantly resist the temptation to take the easy route. They will have to work to avoid success based on the exploitation of their users’ desires to chase the easy dopamine hit. They will have to prioritize the ability of the social network to add real value to the lives of its users - at the expense of its own potential to garner mindless, meaningless popularity.

This is in no way a condemnation of PixelFed or any other decentralized photo sharing network. Personally, I sincerely hope they succeed in giving users a healthy, safe, and free-as-in-freedom network for sharing photos with friends, and with the rest of the federated community. It will require considered design with mental health at the forefront; the active, caring effort of moderators and instance owners; and ongoing collaboration from the federated community at large to work together to build for the greater good.

A photo-sharing social media network that does more good than harm? It’s possible. But it won’t be easy.