A couple weeks ago, I deactivated my FaceBook profile for a week. It was a truly interesting social experiment, and changed the way I think about a lot of things. There are many articles circling the internet lately about the harmful effects that social media is having on social interaction throughout society, many quoting former high level personnel from Google, FaceBook, and Twitter. I’ve read these, as have most people, but until recently, I didn’t take them very seriously. It wasn’t until I actually went without my favorite social media platform for a week that I realized just how good their algorithms are at creating an echo chamber, polarizing people, and being genuinely addictive.
The biggest reason I deactivated my FaceBook was because it was causing problems for me in relationships. My partner had been telling me for the past couple years that I ignore him in favor of FaceBook. This was completely accurate, and I didn’t realize the extent to which it was until I deactivated for a week. Additionally, like most parents, I often tune out and check notifications while sort of helping my kids with their homework, or after they’ve been talking about Minecraft for longer than I find it entertaining to hear about Minecraft (just for reference, the latter is a pretty small amount of time). There is no debate or mitigation on the fact that my time spent on FaceBook was causing detriment to relationships within our home, and deactivation seemed the best way to address that at the time.
During my deactivation, I kept Messenger, mostly because my partner and I communicate with it throughout the day, and it’s functionally no different than text messaging, which I already have on my phone no matter what. I kept my Instagram because it’s a less interactive platform which I spend very little time on (maybe ten minutes a day, and not even every day. I mostly look at my daughter’s pictures, and post a couple times a week.) I have never found Instagram as alluring as FaceBook. I also kept Twitter, on which I have never posted anything, and use solely to follow relevant politicians. Let’s be honest, I kept Twitter because I have to fact check what people claim Trump said, and to take screenshots of the more egregious ones. My deactivation from social media was exclusive to the main FaceBook newsfeed, groups, and profile, but since these comprise well over 90% of my social media interaction, the impact was nearly as substantial as unplugging completely.
The first thing I noticed was that it really is addictive. For the first three days of my deactivation, I still clicked the FaceBook icon on my phone probably a dozen times a day out of habit, only to have it go to the solid blue screen asking me if I want to reactivate my account. At that point, I would close it, and remind myself that I wasn’t on FaceBook now. It reminded me of when I quit smoking, and would sometimes reflexively go outside at certain times of the day, and upon getting there, remember that I didn’t smoke anymore, and go back in. That’s what it felt like to be without FaceBook for the first three days. There were no physical side-effects, of course, but emotionally, it felt very similar to what quitting smoking felt like.
The second thing I noticed was that my sense of time changed. I was still online a lot. I read the news directly from ABC, BBC, The Guardian, and The Hill while I did my hair and makeup in the morning, on breaks from work, and while cooking. I read fashion blogs and vegetarian cooking sites. I enjoyed the very aspect of the internet that made me fall in love with it in the first place, the availability of information. I found, interestingly, that I was able to consume this type of media without losing track of time. An hour spent reading Vegetarian Times recipes or articles from The Guardian while stirring a simmering pot of soup, feels exactly like an hour. An hour spent falling down the FaceBook rabbit hole of notifications, tags, and threads, feels like five minutes. Additionally, it’s way harder to step away from FaceBook than it is to step away from a news article, recipe, or blog entry, if family needs my attention. I found it easier to come and go when I was consuming primarily conventional media or low interaction social media such as Instagram, rather than highly interactive social media like FaceBook.
I would say the biggest realization I came to is that FaceBook is shaping how we interact with each other, and how we view each other. By virtue of the format, we are literally shoving our opinions down each other’s throats all day long. Granted, the newsfeed is highly curated, so the odds of coming to anything we find really objectionable are slimmer than would be natural, but when we do happen upon those opposing views in groups, or occasionally the comments section of a post by that one awesome college classmate whose family is really backward, it’s become so easy to just rip each other to shreds. The reason, I think, is because we come to see each other as less than whole people. We become a set of attributes, aggregate data, views. For all I know, a person on a group who totally makes my skin crawl with their conservatism, which I perceive as hatred of the poor, could actually be a really fun person to hang out with, but I’ll never know it because they probably live on the other side of the country, and in this context, I have no idea that they’re a fun person, because all I see is comments about bootstraps which show a willful ignorance of the economic realities of our country as far as I’m concerned.
Think about it. I guarantee there are people in your life you enjoy spending time with even if they’re completely opposite of you politically or socially. I can think of a lot of people like that. There are people I served in the Army with whom I consider family, and love to hang out with, but would never ever want to talk politics with because we’re so far opposites. I don’t see them as less than human on social media because I know them as whole people. I’ve known them since before social media existed in our lives. I knew them before I knew their views. Now it’s the opposite. We know people’s views before we know them, and this does dehumanize our interactions.
The other aspect of this is that it makes things really awkward when people from various stages of your life, people you’d never introduce to each other, end up arguing on your status. College roommate calls your uncle a racist piece of shit because he doesn’t understand the importance of Black Lives Matter. Uncle calls your coworker an entitled participation trophy millennial because she believes in affirmative action. To you, these are both awesome people that you value for completely different reasons, and you don’t want to smack either of them down, but neither one of them sees the other as a person. They see each other as the factions they’ve relegated each other to in their minds.
Social media had a lot of potential to bring people together, and to some extent, it has. I’ve met some amazing people on FaceBook. I cannot count on two hands and two feet the number of people on my friends list I wish lived down the street instead of across the country or state, because I would hang out with them all the time if I could. There are many others I met in person when I lived elsewhere, and haven’t had the chance to see for years because we’ve both moved. I am so thankful to have social media to keep me in touch with those people. Ultimately, it’s all of these people who keep me coming back to FaceBook. I want them in my life, and in 2018, social media is the tool for that.
With that said, I don’t think my first deactivation will be my last. After the observations that I made during the week I spent off FaceBook, I see many benefits to strategic breaks to keep grounded in reality, and avoid getting sucked into the worst aspects of it. The week I spent off FaceBook felt good. I felt lighter in a way. My partner and I went out on Christmas Eve, and my phone stayed in my purse the entire time. I was focused on him, not on posting a picture of the funny thing he did, or how many people liked that picture. It felt authentic, honest, and simple in the best way.
Social media is not like other advancements in media that we’ve seen over the course of modern history. This is not akin to how people thought TV would do more harm than good, or how certain ancient Greek philosophers opposed books because they thought they’d harm their students’ ability to commit things to memory. This is different. Social media talks back. It’s highly curated, interactive, and tailored to be the drug every person wants. We need to be mindful of what we’re working with. I’m not telling anyone else how they should manage this. I’m saying, let’s acknowledge this for the double edged sword that it is, and consume wisely.