Facebook detox, Part Two (FACEBOOK, YOU CAD!)

(Read me.)
(Read me.)

THIS JUST IN: Facebook has gone too far. They conducted what seems to me a highly unethical experiment on their users, to wit, they, manipulated the news feeds of over half a million randomly selected users to change the number of positive and negative posts they saw. It was part of a psychological study to examine how emotions can be spread on social media. Read this NY Times article for more information. Here’s some of the bunk under which they explain the experiment:

“The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product,” Mr. Kramer wrote. “We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out. At the same time, we were concerned that exposure to friends’ negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook.”

I had been taking a semi-break from Facebook, as I wrote about here. But I hadn’t fully disentangled myself. After reading that article, I deactivated my account. (If I want to reactivate an account, however, the helpful people at FB assure me that all I need to do is log in. I suppose if I were not still somewhat ambivalent, I would actually delete my account. But I’m not ready for that.) After I deactivated my account, I got this message:

Hi Rebecca,
You have deactivated your Facebook account. You can reactivate your account at any time by logging into Facebook using your old login email and password. You will be able to use the site like you used to.

“You will be able to use the site like you used to.” I suppose that’s factually true. But as I detox and regain my regular old brain (the one that used to be less distracted and harried, and less anxious…the one that reads and writes books), I doubt I will want to use it like I used to. Facebook had become, for me, a sort of shiny opiate. I don’t think I will choose to go back there on those terms.

I am encouraging whoever I talk to about this issue to read The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. (About the book, Michael Agger at Slate wrote, “Nicholas Carr has written a Silent Spring for the literary mind.”) What I like is that Carr writes about how we have choices in how we use this technology. It sounds like if we step back, slow down, unplug, and act consciously, we can reclaim what is being lost as we click and click and click without thinking.

I apologize if I sound evangelical, but this seems very, very important, and I am just waking up from an unintentionally self-imposed nightmare, and I must talk about it.

Facebook detox, Part One

The allure of the lure...
The allure of the lure…

The other day, I extricated myself from Facebook. Quitting Facebook has been on my mind for a long time, and I’ve been brewing a sort of confessional essay about why, but that’s still brewing.  (In the previous sentence, I first typed, “Leaving Facebook…” but thought it was more apt to say “quit” because I don’t know if it’s possible to leave a place that isn’t a place.)

I’m using an addiction metaphor, which in my case fits. Facebook—which an aged relative erroneously but aptly once referred to as “Fishhook”—has become too visually and mentally noisy for me. I can’t be a casual/social drinker there, can’t (or haven’t been able to) limit myself to checking occasionally and not over-partaking. My time on Facebook leaves me feeling unbalanced and drained, hung over. As well, I’ve been reading The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (which comes in the midst of my extended rumination about managing distraction in the digital age, reading David Ulin’s The Lost Art Of Reading: Why Books Matter In a Distracted Time, etc…) and I’m convinced that I need to step away from my unthinking daily dips into social media. I don’t like who I’m becoming over there. What I really hope to do is train my brain to focus and sustain a long narrative again, a.k.a. read a book, and, let’s say, write a book, without feeling constantly distracted.

I have lost count of how many people have told me they can no longer read a novel. People who used to be novel-readers and novel-lovers. It’s starting to really scare me, because reading fiction makes us more human.

Why did I finally quit Facebook the other day? A dear (actual, real-world) friend posted something that jumped the shark for me. I don’t blame her, and I don’t judge her. But when I saw her post, I thought, “Okay, I’m done!” I have yet to thank her, because I don’t know how to frame that thanks, but she inadvertently helped me hit bottom (to continue the addiction metaphor). So in a perverse way, I’m grateful to her. It was clearly my time. The post gave me an excuse, and a decision.

I feel a need to make a public confession about my addiction to Facebook, and my quitting, so that I am held accountable. So that if someone sees me at the virtual bar, they can call a cab and send me home. I hope that having witnesses will help me self-regulate. (If you are reading this, thank you.) It’s similar to how my “Hang Up And Drive” bumper sticker keeps me from answering the cell phone (or I risk being a hypocrite!) when I’m on the road.

I want my brain back. I want to believe my brain is plastic enough, and my will strong enough, that I can regain what really matters to me. There are many things I love about Facebook. That’s the problem: Facebook is too many things to me.  It’s postcards from friends, pithy humor, relevant professional and personal articles and shares, community bulletin boards, event announcements, messages, a constant party, more. It’s an accumulation of “Likes,” ego strokes when I post something celebratory or clever. I will miss these things. I have noticed many events are no longer posted on websites or in newspapers, but only on Facebook. I will miss some events because I won’t be there. I hope my friends will still find me in other ways, will still include me. Meanwhile I resume the quaint practice of joining email lists rather than “Liking” Facebook pages.

One prompt for my desire to quit Facebook last fall when I read Kathryn Schultz’s article about Twitter. She discusses how a writer needs to sustain attention, and needs the cave of isolation that is writing a long narrative. In the article, Schultz writes:

I began this piece by noting that writing my book involved spending four years in a figurative cave. In my experience, and the experience of most writers I know, that cave is the necessary setting for serious writing. Unfortunately, it is also a dreadful place: cold, dark, desperately lonely. Twitter, by contrast, is a warm, cheerful, readily accessible, 24-hour-a-day antidote to isolation. And that is exactly the issue. The trouble with Twitter isn’t that it’s full of inanity and self-promoting jerks. The trouble is that it’s a solution to a problem that shouldn’t be solved. Eighty percent of the battle of writing involves keeping yourself in that cave: waiting out the loneliness and opacity and emptiness and frustration and bad sentences and dead ends and despair until the damn thing resolves into words. That kind of patience, a steady turning away from everything but the mind and the topic at hand, can only be accomplished by cultivating the habit of attention and a tolerance for solitude.

I am intentionally conflating my Facebook with her Twitter because Facebook is the social media platform to which I have given my time and energy, and it’s a true equivalent for me. I keep coming back to the idea of a problem that shouldn’t be solved.” There’s an echo of Orwell’s cave in Schultz’s cave: she describes it asthe necessary setting for serious writing. Unfortunately, it is also a dreadful place: cold, dark, desperately lonely.” In Orwell’s cave, from his essay, “Why I Write,” Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.” A human may not want to subject herself to such a place, such an illness, but if she wants to write a book, it must be done.

Schultz’s “problem that shouldn’t be solved” is also echoed in how I am raising my daughter. I am not here to solve the problem of my child’s boredom. No parent (no pacifier, no gadget) should be. Boredom is necessary for human development, problem-solving, and building anything based upon imagination (which I think encompasses most of living, actually). Boredom is another problem that shouldn’t be solved. With a creative mind, boredom solves itself. Boredom is necessary for writers.

We have a choice. We can accept or reject the stew, the default happy meal of overwhelming information to which we have access, and which we now assume is normal and somehow sustainable, and which we assume will somehow sustain us. I’ve been inadvertently assuming this too long; I don’t like this soup. I need other nourishment.

While I experience my detox from that part of my digital click-diction, while I brace myself against the tremors, likely you readers of my blog will be subjected to more about the transition. Perhaps I add to the noise and the too much, here on my blog. I hope you’ll bear with me.

If not, at least maybe you’ll read my novel someday.

(Feel free to read my Facebook detox, Part Two.)