So, I did something crazy for Lent, and I gave up Facebook.
I learned a few things about the social media giant, and myself, in the process.
First, I want to say that the connections we have on Facebook are real. There are real people, who's lives we care about, with whom Facebook helps us stay in touch. There are real people who's opinions we value on matters going on in the world, and for professional feedback.
There was more than one instance where my wife told me about things going on with people close to us that I didn't know about. She learned about them on Facebook. I was off the grid and out of the loop.
Facebook will tell you that their mission is to connect people, and they've done that, quite honestly, in an amazing way. Not only do we keep in touch with family, friends and professional networks, we use it to organize events, and launch new social movements.
If it stopped there - at only the good side of the equation - how could we not say that it's one of the most beneficial tools ever created for society?
But it doesn't stop there, unfortunately. The problems that plague our social discourse only get amplified on social media. Your political friends can't stop sharing politics. Your friends that tend to see the world in a negative light can't stop sharing negativity. The advertisers who want you to buy their products can't stop advertising.
We live in a digital world that now provides instant feedback on the media we create. As individuals, we seek out Facebook likes from our friends. Marketers and media companies see the things they create in terms of shares and clicks. Facebook sees the world in terms of time spent on Facebook - the longer you are there, the more ads they can serve - and their algorithms show you the things that will keep you coming back for more and more.
So much of what is put in front of us seems so reactionary and so short term. Did you see what the politician from the other side said that was outrageous? Did you see the news story from your local television affiliate about another shooting? Did you see the slam directed at those who oppose the things you value? Did you see the offer that only lasts for a limited time?
Yet, as much as we all know the downside to Facebook, there's a strangely addictive quality to all of it. As a former smoker, I know what it is like to give up a nicotine addiction, and giving up Facebook wasn't dissimilar. Not in the, "Oh, my, I really need a cigarette RIGHT NOW," type of craving you get when you give up smoking, but more from a sudden awareness of all of the times you engage in the habit without even thinking about it.
Any smoker will tell you that there were times they truly enjoyed a cigarette. After completion of a project. After dinner. A smoke or two while having a drink. It's the other sixteen a day for the pack-a-day smoker that makes them feel the worst. At some point, you ask yourself, "What in the world am I doing?"
Over time, it seems that Facebook seeps into every aspect of our day. We check it in line at the grocery store. We check it while we're waiting for our dinner to arrive. We check it at work after completion of a task. We check it any time we need a mental break. We check it first thing in the morning. We check it one more time at night. I can't tell you how many times I logged into Facebook out of pure habit during my little purge, only to log back out after reminding myself I'm staying away for awhile.
So much of what we do with Facebook is unproductive consumption for the sake of habit. Yes, there were a few updates about family and friends that I missed, but in six weeks of mostly staying away like I said I would, what did I really miss? I was fully caught up on the news from other sources; I guess I mostly just missed the added negativity and in-fighting.
Still, I wouldn't be being completely honest if I didn't address the personal desire that lasted longer than the need to stay plugged in to what was going on around me: the desire to share. Seems so innocent and altruistic when it's put like that, doesn't it? But on top of cute pictures of my kids and general life updates, I would be lying if I didn't admit that my desire to share also included all of the terrible things mentioned above.
That's the funny thing about Facebook. They are a company with real problems on their own (data sharing scandal, fake news, etc.), but the biggest problems seem to stem from us.
I've had to ask myself what I'm going to do differently now that I'm back. Moving forward, it's a goal of mine not to engage in daily tit-for-tats that have a shelf life of little more than 12 hours. I've broken the habit of mindless Facebook consumption and I intend to keep it that way. I deleted the app from my phone, and don't plan on putting it back anytime soon.
Destructive media, in all of its forms, so often gets blamed on media companies. Really, they're just giving us what we want, aren't they? If we want something better, change has to start from us.