“Man, you did it,” My friend Casey said. “I applaud you.”
•. •. •
He was referencing my leaving Facebook a month ago. He’s heard me mention wanting to leave many times over the past five years that we’ve known each other, with increasing frequency coming into the end of 2016. But he never thought I’d actually do it. Hell, I never thought I’d actually do it, to be honest. It took a long time, even after deciding I’d leave, to actually click the “Deactivate account” link. I’d hovered over it a dozen times or more in the week leading up to finally doing it, but I just couldn’t make myself.
I left Twitter quite a while ago. Twitter has become nothing more than a place where you willingly put yourself in front of trolls, bots and celebrities who use you for their own means while pretending you matter. Nothing that has happened on Twitter since the Arab Spring has mattered in any meaningful, positive way. It’s a cesspool where turds float to the top and stink up the place with their offal, and some even become President of the United States as a result.
Twitter wasn’t hard. Before that, MySpace, Orkut, Google Plus, Friendster… None of them were all that hard to depart. But Facebook… That proved to be a lot harder to leave than any other Social Network I’d belong to in the past.
I bargained: I would take the app off my phone. That’d help. Except it didn’t, because I’d done that a bunch of times in the past, only to load up the mobile browser version to check on how a piece I’d posted was going, or how many likes my most recent witty observation was accumulating. You know, just a hit to tide me over. I’d quit after this one, I promised.
More bargaining: I would only use it nights and weekends. I set up productivity apps that block certain websites during certain hours of the day on my laptop. I would inevitably disable them as I was on the toilet or on a boring call. I even went so far as to eventually sign up for a proxy service that tunneled all of my internet traffic and promised to blacklist sites for productivity enhancement. That too crumbled, as I’d leave my WiFi to get on a cellular connection on my iPad and check, just this once, how something was going on Facebook. Each and every measure I put in place to limit my Facebook activity crumbled, slowly at first but eventually I’d just give up and dive right back in.
It turns out, when you want to quit a drug you’re addicted to, there’s a huge difference between putting your pipe in a drawer and promising you’ll never use it again, and smashing it with a hammer. So after 10 years of using Facebook to communicate with thousands of readers, fans and friends, I finally deactivated my account.
“I have wanted to leave so many times,” Casey continued, “but I keep going back to The Misery Machine.” The second he said that, it hit me. That’s precisely what Facebook has become: a machine that creates, runs on and produces 100% Pure Grade A Misery. And for a month and a day, I’ve been free from its grip.
…It feels so damn silly to talk about a freaking website in terms of complete and total addiction. You may even laugh at me. I’m fine with that. I only ask that, if you think it’s that easy, why don’t you give it a try and see how it feels?
No? That’s what I thought. And I’m not even judging you, because I know exactly how hard it is to leave something that has not only been part of your life for years (in my case, ten of them), but is the de facto method of communication for hundreds of millions of people. It’s the pulse of your social network. It’s your go-to for news, entertainment, updates on family and friends, and if you’re being 100% honest with yourself, a quick hit of validation when you need to know you matter to someone — anyone — in this world.
That’s the truth of it. It’s not just a website. It’s always-on, always-there, always-updated, living and breathing, and thoroughly integrated into your life. More than a dozen people I asked told me, after chuckling a bit, that yes — they’ll have typed “F-A-C-E” into the address bar of a web browser the second they open it before they even realized they had. Even more admitted to checking Facebook for updates within a minute of having checked Facebook, closing it to read something else, and getting bored.
It’s especially hard for middle-aged folks to look at a website — a simple piece of technology that used to be the last place anyone would trust for information, relationships or news — as something they can’t live without. And it’s not like everyone is in that particular bucket. There are millions of people for whom Facebook is just a novelty, who have less than 100 friends, or never bother to check it because it’s just not a part of their lives.
But for over a billion people, Facebook is a daily — sometimes hourly, and sometimes even minute-to-minute — part of their lives. And leaving it means turning their back on friends, family, news, entertainment, current events, and most importantly, constant stimulation combined with validation. I know I was in that camp.
But since I’ve left, I’ve noticed a few huge changes and a dozen or more small ones in my life. I’ve broken them down into three categories: my mental health, my writing, and my day-to-day activities.
• • •
First and foremost: I feel left out sometimes. I don’t quite know what’s going on when people reference the latest outrage or trend or meme going across Facebook. I don’t know what mutual friends are doing or just did when my friends bring them up in conversation, where I used to know without even having to ask who, what, where, when or why because I already knew.
Somehow, I stay just as up-to-date on current events and news. It’s almost like Facebook isn’t necessarily about what’s going on, so much as it is a running tabulation of everyone’s opinion of what’s going on (and of course, their fabulous lives in spite of it all).
It had become a poison to which I’d become addicted and, worse, acclimated. I was unhappy most of my day and I realized it was because I would hop on Facebook hourly, looking for stuff to be mad at because it just feels like we are supposed to be mad, doesn’t it? With all this insanity in the world and the elections and the hacking of the elections and celebrities dying and injustice all over, we MUST be mad, or we are bad citizens. But I have a happy life. I have a happy girlfriend and happy dogs and happy cats and I’m working a good job and not hurting for shelter, water, food, or air. There’s much to be happy about.
And that makes me feel guilty, like I’m not paying sufficient attention to the plight of my fellow man and woman. And that in turn makes me go dumpster-fire-diving for outrage so I can get back on the clock and turn in a proper outrage report with my timesheet.
And I realized… you can be sufficiently educated and apprised of the worlds events without having to get outraged by each and every iteration on bad things. It’s okay to simply say “yeah, I’m upset by the whole thing” and know inside yourself that you’ve got all the pieces of the story accounted for and organized in your little current events file without having to prove it, IN ALL CAPS over and over again, to people in your Social Network.
Those who agree with you, demand that you be as outraged as they are each and every step of the way or you’re no true believer (and it’s impossible, because every time you ante up they raise the stakes – or worse, you do to satisfy your need to be seen as at the forefront of the whole mess). Those who disagree won’t ever properly hear you or your points – they will simply be holding a stethoscope to your argument, listening for the slightest murmur or weak spot to attack – forcing you to do the same.
The public spectacle of being in the know has grown tiring. I have been through enough real-life shit to fill three lifetimes. I don’t need to spend my hours and days and weeks and months being miserable out of guilt or obligation, for fear of not being a participant in the Outrage Olympics. I’m still reading news, but not all day on constant stream. I’m still socializing, but more directly with those who stuck around after the convenience of reaction by liking and sharing was gone.
In the weeks since I left, I have felt my need to constantly be outraged decline by an order of magnitude, with absolutely NO loss in awareness of current events. It turns out, I don’t need thousands of opinions hurled at me every hour of every day, for me to make or justify my own. In fact, it’s far easier, because the sources I use for news are all legitimate — AP, Reuters, AFP — and I don’t have to deal with debunking fake news, opinionated news or partisan “news” sites all day. By reducing my need to react (and be seen reacting), I’ve earned back some time to reflect and work. This had some really weird consequences on my mental health, which I’ll get into shortly.
The downside, which in time has slowly become an upside: I’m nowhere near as in touch with what’s going on in my friends’ lives. I don’t see the daily posts. I don’t see the latest pics of their kids and what they’re eating and what cool new t-shirt they got from TShirtSiteDuJour.com. I don’t know what everyone got for Christmas, or where they spent New Years’ Eve.
But it hasn’t stemmed the flow of information from my closest friends. I do know where they were and what they were doing and how things are going. I may not know it minute by minute, but those who matter most have made the effort to stay in touch actively instead of passively. My friendships have always been of utmost importance to me, and while the quantity of information and the number of people I have it about has decline by two orders of magnitude, the quality hasn’t suffered one bit for the ones that matter most. And that has left me with literal hours per day to put toward my work, which has taken off in huge ways.
I will admit, however, that it took almost the entirety of the month I’ve been gone to get over typing “F-A-C-E” into the address bar of every browser I open the moment I open it. That habit is embarrassing. But knowing you have the same problem makes it sting just a bit less. And you do have that problem. You don’t have to admit it. I know you do. It’s okay.
• • •
My Mental Health
Something I didn’t expect or really understand until I was hip-deep in the middle of it is that Facebook hindered my ability to deal with and get over some pretty deep pain from events that happened a few years ago. It’s interesting — you have pain inside you, and like any human, when that stuff starts to rear its ugly head, you don’t really want to feel it. It’s pain. It sucks. It’s like that.
In the old days, I’d run to distractions to stave it off, but eventually I’d run out of them and eventually I’d have to face whatever was messing with my mind. A few hours or days of pain and some awarenesses and awakenings would show up and I’d be over it.
Facebook is a constant morphine drip of distraction. And especially in modern times, with political insanity and outrage happening left and right, there are actual, real, justifiable things to be angry and upset over. So all that pain inside you that begins making itself apparent drives you to distraction, and then BOOM! Trump said something stupid, or Clinton said something stupid, or the Republicans or the Democrats piss all over the Constitution, and all your friends are OUTRAGED!!!! that it happened. And here you are, with pain in need of an outlet.
It results in a constant source of rage, with a constant place to put it that doesn’t actually help or address the source of the rage, so you’re stuck in a cycle of anger, outrage, expression and remission. Before you know it, you start coming down and the pain that’s deep inside you begins to boil again, and it’s right back to Facebook, where there’s a never-ending source of things to vent that pain at. If it’s not politics, it’s religion. If it’s not religion, it’s that friend who peaked in high school that constantly says stupid stuff but you can’t unfriend them because that’s an act of war. If it’s not them, it’s a fake news article. If it’s not any of that… Give it 60 seconds. Something will show up. It’s guaranteed, because Facebook is actually engineered to make sure it does.
So, since leaving, I’ve dealt with more underlying and suppressed pain I really had no idea I was even experiencing. It’s been 4 years since my divorce and losing my house and starting my career completely over. I’ve gotten over the divorce bits, but I had no idea how much I really missed my old house and my old career until new opportunities for buying a house and starting back into writing for television and magazines arose. And I couldn’t appropriately deal with any of it, because I couldn’t ever actually identify any of it for what it was, because I had a never-ending stream of shit to go be mad at and numb me, moment by moment, against the real underlying causes.
To say that I’m happier for leaving Facebook is approximately the same as saying I’m happier for having finally gotten a festering, infected splinter out of my foot which made it impossible to walk without limping, which made me sore all the time, which made me angry at the world.
I also have no reason to pretend to be friends with distasteful and terrible people anymore. That’s definitely been a plus.
• • •
Facebook and Twitter were soaking up all of my output. All these thoughts and feelings, pissed into the Newsstream never to be considered again. It is truly sad to see how, over the past ten years (and especially in the last five years) how most writing on the internet has become tailored for clickbait, short-form reading and nuggets that are custom-tailored for quick digestion and shitting — I mean, sharing (often without even bothering to be read, with the bullshit headline being enough for someone to reactively repost for fear of looking stupid if they’re not one of the first to leap forward with this important piece of crap).
I call them McArticles. Perfect bite-sized junk devoid of nutrition that fills a void in the short term, and does you absolutely no long-term good.
It has always been a joke amongst most of us on the internet that there are click-bait headlines and crap articles filled with listicles and hyperbole, but I didn’t realize just how deep into the majority this kind of content has risen. I read (yet another) “thinkpiece” just yesterday that slapped me in the face. Not the writing in the piece mind you – that was tepid and shallow and on the whole useless. And that’s what woke me up to just how bad it’s all gotten. It wasn’t even about Trump, or politics, or Silicon Valley and how terrible everyone there is, or anything that you’d expect to gobble up clicks and produce #Trending hashtags.
This “writer” simply surmised 7 things that Issac Asimov – an actual thinker and creative person – said and did in his life, combined them into a list that promised that the reader could be “As Creative As Issac Asimov In Just 7 Steps” and put it out there as if he — and not Asimov — is the creative one.
That’s when it hit me: I do NOT want to be this guy. I don’t want to be anything like him. I don’t want to be a dish on the Facebook buffet; yet another scoop of moderately priced flotsam on a smorgasbord of jetsam that people coast through on their morning, afternoon, evening and toilet perousal of social media every day. And more and more, over the years, I’ve seen how my writing has transitioned from books and long-form articles on CNN, Huffington Post, AOL News, Slate and other sites to attention-grabbing bon-bons of like-mongering and share-harvesting. And I didn’t even see it coming.
I want what I write to matter to someone. Not everyone, but someone. I don’t care if I’m the metaphorical equivalent of a hot dog stand in a small town in Arizona and only a few locals and the occasional tourist try me – what I want is for them to LOVE the hot dog. I want that hot dog to be the highlight of their day. I want to put so much love into making that dish – even if it’s just a hot dog – that people who try it know it’s unlike any other hot dog they’ll ever eat in their lives.
Not everyone. Not even “lots of people.” But whoever does come by and whoever does have a bite, they know they’ll never get another hot dog like that one.
If you took away articles that consist entirely of fake news, Trump’s latest tweet, numeric lists summarizing how your life or outlook could be improved, or “Disney Princesses Reimagined As X” you’d be left with about 12 actual writers and porn. And that saddens me. What saddens me more is that, without even realizing it, the years have found me drifting to that kind of hyperbolic crap. I traded caring about content for caring about numbers. And not even meaningful ones. I didn’t even care about long-form reads or book sales. I cared more about daily posts on Facebook and Twitter that got lots of shares and likes and retweets than I did about working my ass off on the books that have been on my to-write list for years. My old blog withered and dried up. My journalistic assignments and published pieces have dipped into the single digits per year for the past few years.
It’s not a decision I made. It just happened by being in the environment and operating by the rules it created. I realized months ago how unhealthy my relationship with Social Media had become for my work, but getting some distance from it by leaving it completely showed me, day in and day out, just how little work I was doing on things that actually matter. In the month since I’ve left, I’ve written a volume of my new seralized novel, two ready-to-publish pieces (including this one), and about 40 personal journal entries. And there’s not a single like, share or tweet about any of it.
That was hard at first. The instant validation that Social Media brought certainly made it feel like I was doing far more work per day than I was. But here I am, off Facebook and Twitter, and I look back at the volume of work I’ve produced the last, oh, three years only to find a few published pieces and not a single book.
The currency of validation is a weak one, indeed. Give me a week of Facebook likes and shares and Twitter retweets and five bucks, and I’ll almost be able to afford a coffee at Starbucks.
• • •
My Point In Writing This
It’s been a month without my thumb on the pulse of what’s happening the world of Social Media, and I’m just now beginning to get some real perspective.
I don’t want to say that Facebook is evil. It’s hard not to say it, because there has been story after story after story about Facebook manipulating its users and using them to drive traffic and promote their own agenda, at the users’ expense. But no, I don’t think that Facebook, inherently, is evil. I think that they are opportunistic. I think they are a business who charges you nothing to use them, which means they use you for profit.
I’m personally not okay with this. I am also not okay with just how much time I’ve spent on that platform, doing things that in the end mattered not one bit. I’m not okay with the effect it had on my daily life, my mental health, and my work. And I’m not okay continuing on with it, knowing what I know now.
I’m not telling you to leave Facebook. My hope isn’t to convince the over one billion people on Facebook to just give up on it and go whittle or make Lego sculptures with their free time. My point is simply to share my experience, in the event that maybe you ARE experiencing some nagging feelings that, hey, maybe you ARE being used and manipulated to your detriment. Maybe you COULD be doing work that matters instead of spending an hour on Facebook, leaving for ten minutes, and heading right back.
Maybe you don’t need to excommunicate Facebook from your life completely. Maybe you have a hold on it and can manage it such that it’s just a thing you do that enhances your life. And to that end, I applaud you. I’m not like that, and I know literally dozens of people in my life who are also not like that. Of course, I only hear from like five of them these days, but that’s okay.
My only point: If you do feel like Facebook has a control over you, give it a week of sabbatical. And I don’t mean just reduced use. I’ve done that I don’t know how many times, only to come back hot and heavy eventually. Take a solid, no-contact, completely cut off break. See how you feel at the end of it.
“I just can’t leave the Misery Machine,” Casey told me again on New Years Day. “And I don’t even really know why.”
I am willing to bet that there are millions of people who can relate.