I might be in a long term relationship with Facebook, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy. In fact, I think it might be time to pack my things.
We’ve been in a long-term relationship, Facebook and me. For well over a decade, we’ve shared frustrations and celebrations. Facebook is, in some respects, the perfect date. It never forgets an anniversary. It anticipates what you like and serves up little jolts of memory to make you smile. The kids’ first day at school, celebratory nights out, weddings, reminders of previous holidays. A snapshot of all the good things in your life, a veritable photobook of happiness.
But for all that, I’m done. I’ve called it quits, pulled the plug, disconnected myself from the mainframe. Because there is a darker and more disturbing side to Facebook in my life and it has become impossible to ignore.
Maybe other people are better able to manage their time and focus, but my experience is that Facebook steals attention by offering compelling distraction. As a writer, distraction is my biggest enemy. My brain seeks distraction to avoid hard thinking, and the pulling out of hair, as I do battle with ideas that won’t lie down neatly on the page. That’s a discipline problem, but my personal Facebook alarm bell was how automated my distracted behaviour had become. Without even intending it, there I was scrolling through Facebook, over and over again. Sometimes within five minutes of leaving the site. That habit had become so ingrained, that even now with no Facebook account to log into, I find myself on the Facebook page confronted with “sign up now”. How did I get here? I ask myself. Where is the awareness of my actions?
Facebook knows its stuff when it comes to neuromarketing. The flashing reminders of new messages, comments or posts by loved ones are designed to compel you to engage. The algorithm behind Facebook makes sure you always see new stuff, tapping into the insatiable curiosity of the brain to keep you coming back for more. You wouldn’t want to miss out now, would you?
Endless browsing on Facebook is not only a loss of productive time, a finite resource that would be better given to doing something meaningful, it’s also a loss of capability. In particular, the ability to pay attention. To focus for long periods or to be fully present. To sit in silence, without a plethora of feedback, to allow ideas to coagulate, to form and to fly. Or to give the gift of your attention to your child, without being pulled into your screen halfway through a story about Jack’s lunchbox and the spider.
A couple of posts from people too close to defriend was the final splash of Kool-Aid on my electronic relationship. Sometimes it’s easier to respect people when you can’t see inside their heads.
Of course, this is not just a Facebook thing, this attention deficit is fuelled by ready-access to always-connected mobile devices. But it is a real problem with real consequences. I am having to relearn how to pay attention without giving in to on-hand distraction. Giving Facebook the flick is certainly part of my brain retraining regime.
I haven’t given up Instagram yet, and that’s because distraction is only one side of the story.
I am a naturally curious person, interested in how things work and disdainful of ideas that leak with self-interest or blind faith. Yet there is something rather disturbing in the way Facebook facilitates the spread of both misinformation and tribalism. How come, when there has never been better access to knowledge, lies spread faster than truths? And why, when we are more connected than ever, do we feel more divided? I don’t want to be part of it. I don’t want to be manipulated in the way Facebook seeks to manipulate me, populating my feed with ideas that reinforce an existing way of thinking.
On top of which, it makes me despair for the human race, with so much cognitive potential, held hostage to our animal and tribal instincts. From the mean-spiritedness of trolls to the small-mindedness of everyday people, reading the comments section on any post makes me weep. Catastrophising is bad for one’s mental health. I have to quit at the source.
Closer to home though I come from an extended family of happy-clappy believers of various strains, from creationists to anti-vaxxers, and while I’ve unfollowed ones who post the most ludicrous links, it influences what I think of them, and not in a good way. A couple of posts from people too close to defriend was the final splash of Kool-Aid on my electronic relationship. Sometimes it’s easier to respect people when you can’t see inside their heads.
Perhaps I sound disappointed? And perhaps I am. But really, what did I expect from Facebook? Intellectual and moral leadership? It was created by a man who thought “hot or not” was a stellar idea. I know there are good things to be found on Facebook, and as with all breakups, there are things I miss about my Facebook relationship. But it feels to me that Facebook is a live social experiment gone completely haywire, and its effects on democracy and progress are playing out across the globe today. I can’t influence the world, but I can be in charge of my own behaviour. So farewell Facebook, so long and thanks for all the memories.