On avoiding Facebook

Last Tuesday I deactivated my Facebook account, resolving to spend less time with the web-based service. I spent a week without the online service and here follows a list of some things the benefit of distance caused me to think about or encounter.

  • Firstly, I had completely habituated the automatic process of opening the Facebook page. I found myself doing it completely without any conscious thought. This habit took a couple of days to get over.
  • Related to the above: Perhaps this habituation is a way to approach the internet in general. We build a set of websites and frequent them because the internet doesn’t present itself with an easy ‘in’. Just using the internet presents a problem for the human being – there’s too much of it, and where do we begin? So we build habits of use, sites we rely on. Facebook, Twitter, blogs that update regularly, etc.
  • It’s very hard, at first, to decide what to use all that new spare time on when you don’t have the instant gratification of Facebook to plug into. Should I read? Or listen to music? Should I cook something? Should I get some exercise? That you are even asking these questions means you’ve already taken longer than the muscle-memory operation of opening Facebook in a new browser tab. That was a frustration for quite some time.
  • It requires non-trivial effort to maintain even a similar level of connectivity with people via email, phone/text, etc if you are averse to using Facebook. I had several valuable conversations via email, but the vast majority of people I typically interacted with in any given week on Facebook I didn’t hear from or speak to elsewhere for the duration. There is a whole class of people I only speak to on Facebook.
  • Sharing interesting internet things with friends is much harder (if not outright impossible). If I had to pick one thing I really, really missed about Facebook it was the ability to instantly share something with a large group of people. I’m not sure what that says about me, however, and whether I’m alone in seeing the appeal in that.
  • Conversely, however, the world doesn’t end when your friends don’t see that crazy video of the latest uncannily-human-looking-robot out of Japan, even if you think, nay know, people would enjoy it. That was a valuable realisation.
  • People do miss you on Facebook when you leave, and as above, you become intimately aware that by not using Facebook you’re making yourself just a little bit more difficult to contact. Not on chat, only available by phone or email, etc. You are being a minor nuisance, Is how it feels.
  • We are, all 500 million of us, entirely at the mercy of the design of Facebook, and at the mercy of our psychological and evolutionary predispositions. That little red box with a ‘1’ in it is so very, very hard to ignore, and there is no way to change any function of Facebook (aside from privacy controls, etc) and given that they are trying their absolute hardest to monetise and optimise your clicks and eyeballs, I find it dis-empowering that we get no say in these kind of developments. If I could, I would turn off or change the way notifications are displayed.
  • Yet I’m also painfully aware that this desire or expectation is not found outside of digital environments – at least not to the same extreme degree. We can (and often do!) complain about things like the fact that our car steering makes driving a chore and gives us sore muscles, but because the technology is so utterly dependent on the function of metal, plastic, oil, gear-ratios, (things that are hard to change quickly, or at all) we tend to grit and bear it. Within the digital environment, everything is instantly and immediately modifiable in a theoretical sense, if not necessarily in a technical one. Is this an unrealistic expectation, wanting to decide or have some say over core software functionality? I do not know. But certainly Diaspora, Crabgrass, et al. look set to cater to more of that kind of expectation.
  • Related to the above, I still don’t have an active and viable strategy to mitigate the harm of my constant Facebook usage. I didn’t want to come back until I could somehow ensure that I wouldn’t fall back into the obsessive habits of  constant connectivity. But as Douglas Coupland said, “In the same way you can never go backward to a slower computer, you can never go backward to a lessened state of connectedness”. Having now tried it and found a lesser state of connectedness actually and technically possible…. I now know lesser-connectedness is not quite worth the trade off. Perhaps self-discipline is the only answer, or regular de-habituation sessions like this week.
  • Lastly, my mum told me that she missed me on Facebook. I think her words were along the lines of “I feel like I’ve lost one of my eyes” (she has only a few friends on Facebook – most prolific are myself and my brother). Facebook as a way to reassure people you’re still alive, know where you are, and what you are doing (both in good and not-unproblematic surveillance kind of ways) is not a new thing, but it’s worth being reminded of every so often.