About a year ago, I started wondering what life would be like without Facebook. What would I do with the time that I normally spent on Facebook? I knew that I’d fill the time with other activities, but I wasn’t sure what I’d do. How would my face-to-face relationships change? Would I have more in-person friends? And what about my general sense of connection/disconnection from the world? I wanted to know…did Facebook screw with my thinking in a way that was negative? Facebook seems like nothing but a web app, but in reality, I knew that going to Facebook and getting “likes” gives people a boost of dopamine so, therefore, it’s addictive. What would happen if I broke the addiction?
I can’t remember exactly when I made my full exit from Facebook this year. It happened in steps because John and I own a lot of businesses and we still have to market things sometimes or go visit Facebook to see other people’s marketing. It wasn’t really possible to leave Facebook completely by deleting my account because I need an account to see other business’ web presences sometimes too.
So every time I thought seriously about leaving Facebook, I realized that I couldn’t delete my account. Here in Mexico, a lot of people have Facebook pages instead of web sites. And I still use the Internet to find information. Sometimes the information is provided via a Facebook page. And often, people want to connect with me via Facebook for things like our cancer ebook, for example. So this complicated things, but one day, I realized that I could use the cover image to make sure everyone can clearly see that I’m not an active participant on Facebook. I’m not visiting Facebook to read news feeds and I’m not contributing to the community “feeds” anymore. The only time I end up at Facebook is if someone sends me a link to their business web presence and it happens to be at Facebook.
Facebook, as a general rule made me feel bad. It was a huge source of time-suckage in my life for one thing. I never spent a moment on Facebook where I felt like I was being productive. And for the most part, other people’s posts inspired a low-level judgment that colored my day an angry hue. In addition to making me feel angry at random “friends”, Facebook also made me feel closer to certain people than I really am. I mean, if I leave Facebook and everyone has my email address or if they have contact with me via Messenger but they choose not to communicate, then we’re not close. We’re probably not “friends” at all actually.
Early last year, I read that studies have been done showing that “likes” make people’s brains release dopamine. I mentioned the dopamine above. Let me say it again: Dopamine is addictive. Dopamine is kind of a weird neurotransmitter, it can cause both good and bad emotions, but either way, I shun addictive things because I like to have control over myself and my life.
After I read about the addictive properties of Facebook, I started looking more closely at what Facebook is, what it does, what it’s really about, and why I felt compelled to “check-in” each day. For me, it was all about intermittent reinforcement. I would go to Facebook in search of a tidbit of humanity…some evidence that the people I know are still real. I’m not talking about searching for things like what my “friends” had eaten for dinner the night before, but rather comments about their daily struggles. These daily struggles made my daily struggles smaller. The opportunity to support someone else was an opportunity to feel good (and get that coveted dose of dopamine).
Toward the end of my Facebook tenure, I started counting how many of my news feed items were actually just ads or memes or stupid videos made by other people I had never met and did not know. For three days in a row I did a count and found that on my news feed, I had a ratio of approximately 1 real typed comment by friends up against 50 memes, ads, and stupid videos posted flippantly by people who were too shy, stupid, or uninspired to type up their own comment for the day/hour. This really made me stop and think. What was I really looking at? (Advertising) And why did I keep going back for more? (Dopamine)
There were 1 or 2 people in my friends list who were posting regularly. But weirdly, I didn’t see the posts that really interested me from the friends I was closest to. John would see these people’s posts (the posts my close friends made) even though he wasn’t interested in these people as much as I was. He couldn’t see the posts made by his close friends. This made me wonder about The Algorithm. What is Facebook trying to do to my brain? Since John and I both work in different areas of the tech/marketing industry, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Facebook has an agenda. Don’t dismiss this fact. I’ll say it again: Facebook has an Agenda. What is the Agenda? I can’t say. I don’t know, but I would guess that it has to do with profits (in other words, getting you to spend money on shit you don’t want and shit you don’t need) or on some larger, grander plan set forth by The Machine (a group of very powerful and wealthy individuals in the U.S. who have created a sophisticated system of oppression that starts with the food supply and ends by harvesting every penny you make in your life via the healthcare system). I was seeing certain Facebook friends on my feed for a reason. Maybe they’re doing research on me to see if they can get me to stay on the page longer and see more ads. Or maybe The Algorithm has noticed that I click on certain ads more often when I see certain people’s posts less frequently. Maybe I’m being subtly brainwashed into believing something that I absolutely think is false. John and I know for a fact that our mobile phones and computers listen and watch us even when we haven’t given them permission to do so. Did our devices hear us talk about certain things when we go for a jog or when we talk over lunch and then adjust The Algorithm to manipulate us in some specific way?
And the thing is, I don’t want to be manipulated. That’s why I don’t eat fast food. Shitty food hijacks your brain and changes the trajectory of your life in a negative way. Some people don’t mind. They like refined sugar and trans fats enough to take the crappy trajectory in favor of a few Big Macs, Mike and Ikes, and pancakes at Denny’s. But I’d rather spend the rest of my days sugar-free and on a whole-foods diet, thank you very much. Everyone has a right to choose their own path, but Facebook is like fast food for your brain/emotions. It’s shit. And it changes the trajectory of your life in a negative way.
I really like hearing from friends. I like to run into friends face-to-face and I like to talk. I like to listen. I like to commiserate and congratulate. I love events and parties. But posting to the Facebook news feed is like going up on stage in a gigantic auditorium of people who are standing around in desperate, broken huddles and cliques (like junior high) not really paying attention to the stage. People go up one at a time to say something into a broken microphone on that undecorated stage. A few stragglers out in the audience stick their hands up in a thumbs-up to show that they were listening even if they weren’t. What motivates a person to do a thumbs-up doesn’t necessarily have to do with agreement and often, I think people who would “like” my posts often hadn’t even read my posts. Sometimes a “like” is just an effort at affiliation. “Likes” are a bit too ambiguous for my taste, but commentary on a well-written or carefully considered post is rare indeed. I suppose that’s because we’re all aware that Someone Is Watching us make that commentary. Nothing is private. People self-censor in those situations. The government doesn’t even have to lift a finger to inspire people to become silent in those situations.
And in the United States, daily life and Facebook are almost synonymous. They bleed into each other. So that means that Americans censor their thoughts all the time. Facebook changes a person’s internal universe such that their awareness is focused on the self in an egotistical way. And everyone knows that egotism is a fragile thing. Anyone who travels outside of the United States for any length of time…anyone who mingles with people who are less inundated with Facebook as a part of their daily lives will notice right away that these people who live their lives without Facebook ask more questions and show more interest in others than Americans. Whenever I talk to English-speaking strangers, I always know they’re Americans if they fail to ask me any questions about myself after I’ve inquired about who they are and what they’re all about. A lack of genuine curiosity about others is a strong, identifying feature that nearly all Americans reliably exhibit.
So what’s happened since I left Facebook?
Well, John and I hired a team of Mexican workers and we built a 7-apartment complex in Mexico and then, I bought some tools and built furniture and other details for our 7 apartments, and decorated said spaces. I’ve been learning Spanish (which will be a project that will never end). I’ve moved 3 times. I’ve moved my daughter 3 times. I learned how to do acupuncture (another project that will involve ongoing studies forever) and biomagnetism. I wrote a 3 volume book. I’ve taken Spanish classes 3 nights a week for months. I’ve done writing and SEO work for clients on top of all that. And after I stopped spending so much time on the computer, I learned that I can reverse my myopia (my eyeglass prescription is 2 diopters lower than it was 2 months ago). Hmmmm. I’ve done a lot.
How did that happen?
I suppose it has to do with the fact that there are lots of things I want to do with my life and when nothing/no one is hijacking my brain, I tend to get down to business and do those things.
But leaving Facebook is not to say that I’ve been cut off or disconnected. On the contrary, John and I go out a lot (except for the past month because we were focused on our construction project). People converse here in Mexico. There’s so much conversation, in fact, that I often feel overwhelmed by it. Lydian has a big group of friends. Instead of getting sucked into Facebook at the end of a long day of work, we go out and get sucked into face-to-face conversations at intercambios.
Has this changed my life? Absolutely. But it’s impossible to know precisely how because I’m taking the Facebook-less path now. I’m not sure where I’d be in my life if I’d spent 5 to 15 minutes (or longer) per day staring at my Facebook feed.
I know parents of young kids who spend 5 to 15 minutes (or much, much longer) staring at their Facebook feed on their phones every day and I always wonder what would change in the world and in these people’s families if these parents stared at their kids instead of Facebook. What would happen if people looked up from the Facebook feed on their phone and instead had a conversation with the person sitting next to them? In Mexico, I sit next to a lot of strangers, but in the U.S. the opportunity to meet someone new was pretty limited by the car culture. Here’s a secret I don’t tell a lot of people: I like strangers better than friends. Why? Because strangers talk to me on the basis of who they are (straight up) and on the basis of how I treat them in the moment. Some strangers suck…yes, it’s true. But as a rule, strangers are friendlier than friends. Many, (but not all) “Friends” will often pigeon-hole me and try to make me be what they want me to be. So I tend to prefer those conversations I have with strangers because strangers help me understand who I really am. People who stare at their phones when they have the opportunity to have a conversation with someone sitting next to them are missing an important chance to see themselves for who they really are.
It was easier for me to see how negative Facebook was as a force in Lydian’s life than it was for me to see how negative it was for me in my own life. Lydian, John, and I all made the decision to leave Facebook at the same time and using the same tactics for the most part, though Lydian’s Facebook connections were much more shallow than mine and John’s. That’s a generational thing, apparently. John and I had Facebook friends that were based on real-life meetings and relationships. Lydian’s Facebook connections were governed by other, less social rules overall. So when she left Facebook, she gave little to no apology. She sent a few messages to people she had real relationships with and otherwise never looked back.
I think that social media has its place and that it could be valuable in certain contexts, but if adults don’t switch their brains on and think carefully about how to wield these tools properly, the tools wield us. There may come a time when social media is re-envisioned and re-developed into something that’s valuable to me again, but I can’t support what Facebook has done to relationships throughout the world, but especially in the U.S., and to the way young people (in particular) see themselves. So far, I’ve enjoyed spending my time on other pursuits that don’t involve Facebook or other social media like Instagram or Twitter. What would happen if you left Facebook?
What would happen if you stared off into space instead of staring at your phone? What would you think about? Who would talk to you?
You’ll never know if you don’t try it sometime.