The Facebook Slot Machine and Your Most Precious Commodity
Updated: Feb 15, 2018
Hi! Welcome. Before I jump in, I want to thank you for reading this post. And I do actually mean it. You have a million different options of where to put your time and attention, and in this moment, you're choosing to read my words. Thank you. It means a lot to me. And it may mean more to you, too, as you read on.
I am the generation of social media. It was initially created for my age group, and hooked its tentacles into every social facet of our lives. From "checking in" at every eatery to posting pictures of our newborn babies, we have embraced this medium as the way we communicate to our chosen communities at large.
And at the beginning of January of 2018, I decided to step away from it for a month.
A month seems like no big deal, at least to some of us. But for me, quitting social media was a big deal. I was, by all accounts, a social media believer. If someone told me they didn't understand or like social media, I tried to talk them into using it by listing its merits. I told them the secret to social media, as I understood it to be: "You get what you give."
I felt like I could give this advice because I had used social media constantly over a long period of time. I joined MySpace in college around 2004. Though I preferred MySpace, Facebook quickly grew in popularity shortly after, and my friends left MySpace in droves. And like the sweet and mildly attractive lemming I am, I followed. I joined Facebook in April 2005. As of this writing, Facebook has been a fixture in my life for 12 years and 10 months. And, to the best of my knowledge, the longest I've been off of Facebook is about a week. That makes almost 13 years of constant social media presence.
Can we just pause and think about that for a minute? Thirteen. Years. There is nothing else in my life that has been that consistent, save my family. (And my period. Thanks, period.) So, to add to the constants: death, taxes, and Facebook. (And periods.)
It doesn't help, either, that my day job is all things social media. Since 2011, I have managed social media for small businesses, widening their presence and brand using the major social media platforms. My job is, at its core, to use social media as a tool to market to potential consumers. Whew! Saying it like that sure takes the romance out of it. Truthfully, I find it very interesting. It's more of an art than a science. You simply cannot predict with absolute certainty how people will respond to social media marketing. And that's exciting to me.
All of this to say, stepping away from social media for a month was a very big deal. And for most of my 13 years on social media, I wouldn't have dreamed of doing it. But for the past few months of 2017, I had been feeling a mess of anxiety, inactivity, frustration, and barrenness when it came to my productivity. I needed something drastic -- I just didn't know what at first.
Then came Cal Newport's book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. I've grown distrustful of the self-help genre over the years, and didn't expect much from this book when I picked it up. However, the basic premise that people need to have uninterrupted, focused work time spoke to me, and I knew what I was experiencing in my own writing work was a lack of focus. So, I gave the book a shot.
In Deep Work, Newport examines the correlation between social media and distraction from focused work. On the surface, this may seem obvious, and in many ways, it is. If you're on Twitter, you're not writing code. If you're watching Twitch, you're not writing your novel. On that basis alone, I gave Newport's suggestion a try: no social media for 30 days. He advises in the book to not tell people you'll be off, just sign off and don't come back for 30 days.
Let's be real. I didn't expect too much from this. I expected to miss social media every single day (by this I mean I expected to miss interacting with friends, and I expected a few might be angry with me and think I was ignoring them). I expected to realize that I needed to set aside a few hours in my day for uninterrupted writing. I absolutely expected that I'd come back after 30 days and never want to leave again.
Instead, in the act of depriving myself of social media, I realized a whole host of ways social media distracted me on a deeper level. I realized how surface level most of my interactions were with people I love and care about. I realized how much of my anxiety came from scrolling through my Facebook feed. And, holy wow, did I love not being marketed to every time I went on Facebook (how did you know I needed tampons, Facebook? Did my period tell you? Did my period tell Amazon who in turn told you? Blast you, period!).
And, dare I claim it, I felt free.
Those Who Push Back
If you feel like you've been seeing news about the harms of social media everywhere, it's because you absolutely have. Articles ranging from posture and neck pain due to staring at your phone to increased cases of anxiety and addiction have found a solid foothold in regular news programming. Larger media outlets like Time have spilled lots of digital ink on which social media platform is the most harmful to mental health.
Recently, early Facebook funder (and Napster creator) Sean Parker admitted Facebook was developed to consume as much of the user's time and attention as possible. "God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains," he added. It has also been documented that Facebook and other social media sites hire what are known as Attention Engineers who borrow techniques from Las Vegas casinos in order to make their social media platforms as addictive as possible.
While you may have noticed a stark decrease of Facebook involvement from your friends over the years, bigger movements are starting to gain traction, too. Surprisingly, even former tech executives have begun to shun the tech they helped create. Former employees of Google and Facebook recently collaborated to create The Center for Humane Technology to help combat smartphone addiction and sites that encourage addictive feedback loops.
What started out as a way for people to communicate with their friends and family has quickly become something much bigger. And as a society, we're struggling to understand this much bigger thing, and value it as either good or evil.
I stumbled across many articles like these in 2017 and wondered about my own involvement with social media. While minds like Cal Newport argue that social media is a tool, I realized that social media wasn't a tool for me: it was an immersive hub for interacting with my friends and family, and the virtual representation of my social life. When I pieced that realization together, a big part of me wanted to run away. Deactivate or delete all of my social media accounts and go rogue. Instead, as Newport suggested in Deep Work, I took 30 days off.
What I Did in Those 30 Days
I took a deep breath on Monday, January 8th at 9am, and clicked "Log Out" button on Facebook. Next, I logged off Instagram and rearranged the apps on my phone to bury all of my social media apps so I wouldn't see them and mindlessly click them on accident. I had deleted my Twitter account a week before because I realized that platform just wasn't for me.
For that first hour, it was so difficult not to type "Facebook" in the url bar. I can't even relate to you how difficult it was because it was all subconscious. Before, whenever I had a second to spare, I'd quickly navigate over to Facebook. Now, I had to mindfully stop myself from doing so. I felt itchy. Annoyed. My compulsions told me to click over to Facebook, and my mind had to battle my will into submission.
But hour two? Now that was the truly surprising part.
The itchiness was gone. My lizard brain stopped egging me on to go to Facebook. My mindful brain took back control of my impulses. I no longer wanted, consciously and subconsciously, to log back on to Facebook.
And honestly, for me, that one hour was the hardest part of the entire month. I was sick for a good portion of January, and it can get awful lonely when you're sick. But not once did log on or feel the need to.
Because I interact with most people in my life on Facebook, I expected to be lonely the entire month. I feared that I'd lose touch with people, or someone would get mad at me for missing an invite or some important news. I had FOMO, absolutely. More precisely, I had FOMSI, fear of missing something important.
Luckily, I have very supportive close friends and family. When I told my friend Lily, who had been off all social media for about six months at that point, that I was taking a month break, she flooded me with texts, calls, and real, honest-to-god snail mail. I kept Facebook Messenger on my phone for my two closest friends, as I evaluated our friendships may suffer if I cut off that mode of communication for a month. I wrote letters. I texted. I sent pictures to my family. When something important happened, I intentionally texted each family member and each friend about it. When something important was announced by a mutual friend on Facebook, either my two closest friends or my husband let me know about.
And to my absolute surprise, I was never once lonely. I wasn't bored. And most importantly for me because I have chronic depression, I wasn't depressed.
Did I hermit up and write five books during my month off social media? No. Sadly, no. My life continued as normal. I worked. I wrote (but boy, was writing easier). I crocheted things. I planted things. I read things.
And I am not exaggerating when I say it was goddamn blissful.
My First Hour Back on Facebook
First, a confession. My 30 day break from social media was actually a 33 day break. A big reason for that was that I simply didn't want to come back.
After coming to the realization that I didn't want to give up on social media completely, I logged back on to Facebook. My notification bar let me know that I had around 80 new notifications. Upon further inspection, I had about 80 new notifications since January 25th. Facebook wouldn't show me how many or which notifications I missed between January 8th and January 24th.
As I started working through those notifications, three messages popped up on the screen. I chatted while clicking on notifications, and almost immediately, I felt completely overwhelmed. Not emotionally, but as if my nervous system was being overloaded with information that my brain couldn't possibly parse out and process all at once. I skimmed posts, clicked quickly through comments as I used to do. Physiologically, I began feeling tired. My brain felt overloaded with stimuli, all of it demanding my attention at the same time.
I spent an hour and a half chatting with multiple people and filing through most of the notifications. I had hoped it would only take me half an hour. And then, I shit you not, I had to go lie down and rest.
One of the more surprising things from this experiment was how many thoughts and revelations I had during the month. I was able to take a step back and process my relationship to social media, and how it had changed me as a person, for better and for worse.
These are a few of the things I realized, and they are very important to me. I hope some of them ring true for you, or that you can see yourself in them. Maybe they can help you evaluate yourself in the social media machine.
When people's statuses are lined up as a feed, important information (the birth of a child, death of a loved one or pet, for example) is put next to information like what people had for lunch, or their gripes with a person who parked horribly. That is to say, important information is lumped in with the banal, and it all starts to look the same. Our brains process all the information as the same. And when information is just thrown out to the ether, it's not targeted to any one person. So we consume it equally and with equal disregard. This is a subconscious action, and not meant maliciously. It is simply the way Facebook is designed and how our brains have begun to respond to the flood of information. What is important -- and what is not -- is equal in social media. We see it all, making it more difficult for our brains to categorize and assign value to each bit of information.
Important information will come to you, with or without social media. You don't need to go seek it out. This can also be put another way: FOMO (fear of missing out). If you're afraid to step away from social media, I'm guessing the reasons might be: but what if my friend announces something important? What if my friend gives birth? What if someone in my community passes away? Those are all valid concerns, absolutely. Thinking you won't hear of these important events unless you're on Facebook, though, is not.
As an introvert, I thought social media was my godsend. Finally, I can interact with people in a way that works for me, I thought. In hindsight, I don't know if it's made me any more social. If anything, it's taught me to reply to someone in one or two sentences. How to be witty or snarky to avoid seriousness and depth. How to avoid more difficult discussions with a gif (a really great gif, but still just a gif). In fact, I realized that many of my most cherished relationships took just as much of my time on social media as my casual friendships. I gave them all equal weight and attention. While I'm not arguing giving weight to any kind of friendship is bad or good, I realized that the friendships I truly valued weren't getting the kind of attention from me that I felt they deserved.
When writing an email to someone, or a text or an actual letter, you're giving something to that person that no one else gets. Your time and attention for that space of time. When you create something for one person only, you're telling them, "I gave you my entire attention and no one else. I spent this time on you." What an incredible thing to give to someone. Your complete attention, the use of your hands and fingers, your complete focus, for a set amount of time. To nothing and no one else but that one person. Guys, not only is that incredible, that's sexy.
And that takes me back to my first paragraph.
In this month off social media, the biggest lesson I learned is how precious my time and attention are. How important focus is. I want to be much more intentional about how I spend my time and on whom.
And that brings me to you.
You could've spent this time poking around Facebook or Twitter. You could've been sifting through memes (and I absolutely cannot blame you for that because memes are great). But instead, you've chosen to spend all this time reading these words I wrote. Damn. That's sexy as hell, friend. Thank you. A million times, thank you for choosing to spend your time and attention on me. Your most precious of commodities, no less.
If you have some thoughts on what I've written, please let me know. You don't even have to comment here for all to see. But I'd love to discuss this more, and I'd love to see your thoughts. While on Facebook you could leave a comment, I'd love for you to feel like you can share your thoughts here, and I promise you, we will have a discussion about them. Again, thank you - yes YOU - for reading. <3