In the last couple of days, I deleted the Pocket app from my phone and deactivated my Facebook account. Pocket was becoming a borderline addiction — I’ve always been an avid article reader and Pocket was a major enabler. It was really getting in the way of my New Year’s resolution to read fewer articles and more books. More importantly, it was partly tied up with my decision to take a break from Facebook.
Facebook is harder to explain.
Reasons that did NOT motivate me to deactivate my Facebook account
It’s a major time sink.
This wasn’t my problem. I would say I spend less than 30 minutes a day on Facebook. I probably spend more time pooping, but I find time for that. I can find time for Facebook. Overwhelmingly I post from Pocket or Feedly while reading (since overwhelmingly I post links to things I’m reading).
It’s nothing but vacuous comments about the coffee your friends are drinking.
Actually, no. Either because my friends are different or the Facebook algorithm effectively removes coffee posts, my friends post about art, writing, politics. Some of the most interesting discussions I’ve had about writing took place on Facebook. Politics too. In fact, it is the intelligence of my friends’ posts and comments that have kept me on Facebook so long.
It’s an echo chamber that self-selects for like-minded people.
No again. My Facebook friends are diverse. They include young and old, rich and poor, lots of people with high school degrees and plenty with doctorates. They aren’t, I will say, very racially diverse, but they include atheists, Christians, Buddhists, pagans and Jews (no Moslems that I know of). They represent a pretty good range of sexual preference and even gender identity. I don’t think there are any current military, but they include pacifists and plenty of ex-military, including one who is both ex-military (Marine in Iraq) and pacifist. For that matter, they include people who have been arrested and people who do the arresting, law enforcement and defense lawyers.
If there is a second thing I am grateful for, in addition to the intelligence of my Facebook friends, it is the diversity of my Facebook friends and in particular my thoughtful, conservative friends who take the time to argue intelligently with me. Sometimes I change my mind, but more importantly they show everyone that we can still have civil debate without civil war in America and that being a conservative does not mean being a “wacko bird” (as McCain famously said of Ted Cruz).
So why am I on hiatus?
This is thornier, but it has to do with a few things that may or may not resonate.
First, and least importantly, there are the curated lives we tend to put on Facebook. I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the way we present ourselves on social media. This is why for quite some time now my posts have been almost nothing but articles. I don’t want to talk about my feelings, positive or negative, on Facebook. Beyond that, I don’t necessarily even agree with all the articles I post. I find them interesting.
It’s not that I want my friends to have bad lives or feel sad or be stuck in a negative place. It’s more that I know they often are in those places, and yet I would never know it from Facebook. So I sometimes feel more out of touch then ever.
Truthfully, though, the distorted biographies we build on social media are not the main thing. If it were just that, the conversations about art and writing and politics would be worth it. It’s primarily two things: the time it takes and the brain it makes.
Not how much time, but what time
I said at the outset that Facebook doesn’t take up much time. That is true. The problem is the time it takes. I have spent an inordinate amount of time in my life alone in a room with books and something to write with. I’ve spent a whole bunch more time walking in the mountains and forests alone. Despite how some people see me, I am by most measures a strong introvert despite being “a talker” as they say. I’ve always been good at using that alone time to sit down at a hard problem and stay with it until it’s done.
I’ve rarely been bored because when left alone with nothing to do, my mind takes me to unexpected places — sometimes negative places like a bad record on skip, sometimes interesting places I’ve never been before. The key point is that my mind (everyone’s mind I think), fills in the spaces.
The more I thought about the role those few minutes a day of Facebook play, the more I realized that though only 30 minutes — often less, sometimes more — those are the crucial 30 minutes. Ideas and insights usually come from the mind’s effort to fill those spaces. But not if Facebook fills them. I find that it’s so easy at the first sign of impending boredom to fill that gap with Facebook.
In fact, it’s hard not to. Originally I planned to simply stay off Facebook for a month. I couldn’t do it. I ended up lucky to make it three days without checking in. Why? That’s hard to explain, but it doesn’t really matter why. The important point is that I couldn’t not check. I had somehow developed a need and a dependency that I did not have before and that dependency intervened when it was time for my mind to wander.
Of course not all ideas are good. In fact, the vast majority are bad, some very bad. But as Seth Godin says (from memory): “If someone tells you they don’t have any good ideas, ask them how many bad ideas they have.” So I decided I wanted to leave more space for ideas, good and bad, and do not want Facebook filling in the spaces where ideas are born and creating a need where once I was free.
People used to be surprised that I didn’t own a television. They would volunteer statements like “sometimes I’m too tired to read” and I would suggest those would be good times to sleep. Since the invention of Facebook, people are rarely surprised that I don’t have a TV. Now that there are so many ways to fill the spaces, more and more people don’t even have time for television. And that’s not because they are so busy having earnest conversations with their families.
It is much the same with the hard work of sticking to a problem. The biggest challenge to solving a problem isn’t that the problem is hard. It’s that other things are easy. Facebook is easy. It’s a place to go when a problem seems too hard. Once I’ve gone there, even for a few minutes, I find the road back to the hard problem can be long and difficult.
The Sally Fields Problem
I’m glad that “you like me, right now, you like me.” It’s nice to be liked, or even receive likes, but more and more I feel that I prefer not to subject myself to the daily exercise in operant conditioning that is the Facebook system of likes and shares.
In college when I wrote a paper that I knew was a last-minute all-night dash that was not my best and got an A, my first response was to take that as a sign that the entire grading system was bankrupt and meaningless (I’ve tempered my views on this somewhat after reading a few hundred undergrad papers and learning what the general standard is). My first critical edition, I will be honest, I opened as soon as it came in the mail. My second book, I picked up at the mailbox and brought home and forgot to open. A day or two later, Theresa asked what that package was.
“I’m pretty sure it’s my new book.”
“Aren’t you going to open it?”
“I already know what it says.”
Don’t get me wrong. I think my second and even more so my third volumes of the Consistory registers are really good. I was a bit disappointed with volume I, though the reviews were fantastic. I stepped it up on volume II, and felt like we really got it right on volume III. I’m proud of that work. But the reviews were no different than the reviews for volume I. As in college, that mostly gave me insight into book reviews.
In other words, for most of my life, I judged my output by my own measure. If the reviews for volume III had been bad, I am sure I would have been hurt, but I would have known they were wrong. Facebook encourages me to judge my output by some other measure — did it get a response? Did it get likes?
It’s hard to give up the Pocket + Facebook habit. Sometimes I want to share something because it feels important and I want the world to know. Once I go down that road, everything starts to feel important and everything can’t be important. Or maybe the enlightened sage will tell me everything is important which means everything is important and I can’t possibly post everything.
That is the paradox of psychological math. The biggest difference is between zero and non-zero. Compared to that, zero and infinity are cousins, maybe brothers. In other words, the closest thing to everything is nothing and since I can’t post everything, I’m going to try posting nothing for a while. Maybe forever, which is a sibling problem. Never and forever are also cousins in a way that never and soon just aren’t.
Am I quitting forever?
I won’t say forever (or never). For now my account is deactivated, not deleted. That’s the escape clause. I can just reactivate it. If I feel like reactivating, perhaps I will. I have gotten a lot of pleasure from Facebook and have reconnected with at least five people I had not seen since I was 20 and, in three cases, have actually had the chance to see them again. And even people who live in the next town over are much easier to keep tabs on if I follow them on Facebook. But perhaps it will be like being a vegetarian. I decided to do that for a little while until I felt like eating meat again. Since 1982, I have never felt that desire.
In the meantime, if we are/were friends on Facebook and you’ve found this, you know how to reach me.