The 2016 Presidential election was the first time that I noticed how harmful Facebook could be to my relationships.
I’m a liberal living in a conservative West Virginia town, and until Facebook entered the height of its popularity, I didn’t know the political leanings of my neighbors, and I had a favorable opinion of them due in large part to our not discussing politics.
The sweet woman who lives next door and sometimes sunbathes out in front of her house waves to me when I see her in the yard. We smile at one another and make occasional small talk. She posted a nightly prayer for Donald Trump and persistent rantings against liberalism.
I was much happier before I knew the sweet woman next door thought we should build the wall and kick out all the illegal immigrants. Sometimes I just couldn’t scroll past the blatant propaganda she posted, so I posted links to prove her wrong, and she would take those posts down. But there was no doubt that she resented me. Facebook had changed my relationship with her. I became the elitist educated liberal, and she became the ignorant conservative racist.
I realized that it wasn’t important that I agree with her politically. She could be my neighbor, and we could have different political opinions, so I just unfollowed her. But then I realized that I was too insulated against differing beliefs. I’d built a bubble for myself, and I didn’t like the feeling of that either. I’d closed myself off from the world of uncomfortable information, and I was addicted to information.
When any developing news story arose, I couldn’t control the impulse to scroll through Facebook in search of new developments. I wasted countless hours searching, and much of the information that I was consuming lacked substance. Facebook is addictive because it’s always novel and never uncomfortable. We can tap in to a hive mind of aggregated information, but it’s all shallow, and it always agrees with us. We forget each post a moment after viewing and move on to something else.
Compulsive social media use wastes time, wastes mental resources, and erodes the quality of our relationships. It has turned us into self-marketers, forcing each of us to develop a personal brand. We artificially stage displays of fitness for our friends in an effort to validate our life choices. We want our neighbors to take notice of our spectacular vacations, our recent weight loss, or the achievements of our children. People photograph their meals, take selfies at every moment of possible intrigue, and interrupt family fun to stage group photos all for the benefit of the absent other.
Nothing can be enjoyed in the present moment because of the invisible presence of the greater public, and those choreographed family moments are disposable, single-use content.
I once went to a Christmas program at my daughter’s elementary school. The entire play was ruined by blinding flashes. Dozens of proud parents watched the play through their cell phone cameras. I understand why the urge is there. We are naturally preservationist, and this stems from the unreliability of our memory. By getting all of life’s moments on camera, we believe that we are doing our future selves a favor. We genuinely believe that we will want to relive those events someday, but for most of us someday never comes. Life continues to bustle on and time continues to be too precious to spend watching a Christmas program from a decade ago. And what is lost in the preservation is presence in experience.
And shouldn’t we have the right to remember as we see fit, even if that memory isn’t accurate? Memory has a way of smoothing the rough edges. My family was once stranded with a broken down car on the way to our yearly vacation in Canada. We stopped at a garage in a nameless town in northern Pennsylvania, praying for help. We spent a thousand dollars and lost four hours. The guy behind the counter was a prick, and I am convinced that he overcharged us, but what I remember from that day is killing time at a Goodwill with my daughter and brother. We bought a well-used marshmallow gun, a bag of colored marshmallows, and a purple inflatable ball. The marshmallow gun barely worked. We littered the parking lot with marshmallows. My brother and daughter kicked the ball back and forth for hours while my wife and I panicked about the money. When I think over that time, I don’t remember how pissed off I was. I remember a parking lot rainbow of marshmallows and laughter. My selective memory, has in effect changed my past. If someone had thought to put the day to video, watching it would revive a bad memory and kill a better one.
I decided to quit social media for good on an evening in January. I was home preparing dinner with my wife and enjoying a quiet family moment. And then my phone dinged. It was my Facebook messenger app. The person on the other end requested my attendance at a meeting later in the week. I replied and sat my phone down. Minutes later two other people sent unrelated messages related to work. I answered, and then I sat the phone down again. When it toned again, I turned it off out of frustration.
Sure, I could’ve just ignored the tones. I could’ve exercised some restraint. But Facebook has conditioned all of us to answer. The ringing of the chime means the possibility of intrigue. Anyone with any piece of news may be on the other end. The fear of missing out is profound, and the classical conditioning used by tech companies is powerful. Facebook provides read receipts through their messenger. If I have an irresistible urge to read the message, I have to answer it because the sender knows I opened and read it. Social media is engineered to keep us engaged through the risk of social consequence. An ignored read receipt could lead to reprisal.
As disenchanted as I was with Facebook, I found it difficult to commit to deletion of my account. I opted for deactivation. I could reactivate it at any time. I hovered the mouse over the button for quite a while before I clicked it. I was surprised at the panic caused by the prospect of unplugging from the hive mind. How would I know the latest town gossip? How would I survey road conditions on snowy days? How would I keep up with distant relatives? How would people contact me? How would I contact them?
I didn’t know, but I decided that it didn’t matter. I clicked the button. Facebook begged me to stay and asked me why I was leaving. I clicked the first answer to each question. The screen refreshed. My account was officially deactivated.
Those first days, I reactivated and deactivated my account a few times. I was so afraid of missing out that I couldn’t help myself. I would get a text message or email from a friend about something happening online, and I would cave and binge on gossip and controversy until I had ingested so much negativity that I felt ill. It took a week or so of this cycle of binging and fasting before I decided that I was ready to be free.
I deleted my Facebook for good In January of this year. I don’t know the exact day, and I haven’t counted how long its been.
Deleting Facebook is the first step for me in a campaign to simplify my life. Henry David Thoreau said that we should keep our accounts on our thumbnail. Throughout my twenties, I’ve allowed my life to become infinitely more complicated. I’m a natural worker. I search for the heaviest load that I can carry, and I move it. I think that the meaning of life is not to work hard, but to choose meaningful work and do as much of it as possible. I reflexively volunteer to provide my skills to others when asked.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that everything I’m doing is making the world better for others, but only some of what I’m doing is providing meaning. I have two personalities. The public, professional me is an extrovert. The private me is an introvert who loves books, meditation, and isolation. Changes in technology have disturbed the balance between these two. Social media has forced a war in my personality; it requires extroversion even in a private family moment.
Restoring the balance and abandoning concern for the invisible public will be a process. New technology will continue to become ubiquitous, and society will adapt to require its presence to some degree. The internet has already become so necessary that it is accepted as a utility on par with electricity and running water. But resistance to the commoditization and exploitation of human attention for profit must be resisted.