Facebook Time-Out — and now on the threshold

Are you deliberating terminating your facebook account? 
Chances are you might have at least considered it. The recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal has kicked off a wave of abandoners. I was already on the threshold when the scandal surfaced. To test if I’d be in or out I did a little experiment during the months of February and March of this year.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Overkill

Bad as the recent data scandals are, they didn’t pop up until halfway through my time-out and after it. What made me take a leave was a social-media overkill after having been an online art teacher for 4 years. Working online means you have to participate, which I did. A lot. And which I’d grown to resent more and more. Partly it was the social media content that got to me: bickering, fake news, picture-purrrfect half-truths, the non-stop input of irrelevant trivia, click bait and a perpetual call for my attention and energy. I didn’t even have that many followers/friends and still it was too much to keep up with.

Devoured attention spans and dried up inspiration

The other part of it was that I noticed my facebook behavior was intervening with my work routine and inspiration. Looking into how that worked, I found mega-interesting articles and videos about how facebook actually programs its users to disperse their attention by a constant impuls-reward system. And also that facebook designs our timelines to keep us there for as long as possible. In other words, facebook influences its users enormously, with all due consequences. In videos like the one behind the link, which sums it all up, I saw my suspicion confirmed that I was consciously being manipulated, which made it easy to pull the plug for a while, to see what I would be without that kind of ongoing manipulation. Whether there was life without facebook.

Deep, dark fears

I decided on my two-month time-out mid January. 1 February would be THE day. It seemed like it was going to be a really big deal. In previous years I’d moved across the country a few times, so much of my contact with distant friends went via facebook. I was afraid that if I checked out I might lose some of them. And I had no idea how to be an online teacher without the aids of facebook. And having been so absorbed by the platform, I was afraid that life might seem empty without it, which was in itself a telling sign that it really was time to take a leave of absence.

My steps in taking a time-out

When the day came, though, there was no difficulty at all. I had expected it would be very hard to stay away from my timeline. So I had taken some useful precautions.

Photo by Michael Mroczek on Unsplash

1. Block facebook in browser

First, I had blocked facebook in my go-to browser. I used the app “Leech block” and set it to block the URL 24/7. I kept facebook accessible on another browser that I hardly use in case any of my students would contact me for assistance through any of the online course groups. That only happened three times in two months. The rest of them contacted me through e-mail as I’d kindly requested.

2. Delete facebook app

The second thing I did, was uninstall the facebook app on my phone. I kept the messenger app for my students. To be sure. But it was bye-bye to the endless row of notifications. By that time I resented the amount of irrelevant notifications facebook had begun to send after a change in their notification system. Who cares whether a friend of a friend has liked such and such? Or who has just entered a coffee shop wherever? I don’t! And if I did, I wouldn’t have the time to notice all these things anyway. I wouldn’t want to ruin my focus on things like this. It may well be possible to adjust your notification preferences in the settings, but since I’ve found my settings undone a few times after new algorithm implementations, I decided I wasn’t going to be bothered with it anymore and rather ignore the notifications altogether.

3. Notify friends and students

The last thing I did, was write to my students and friends that I was leaving facebook for a while and why I did so. I kindly requested they’d contact me through e-mail. The response was mixed. Some people were interested, understanding, supportive and looking forward to a more personal way of communicating. Others might have interpreted my decision to be criticism on their own facebook behavior for some started defending their activities on the platform and their commitment to it. Although later on in the process a few of them sent me an e-mail in which they told me that they had also begun deliberating taking a time-out to give their facebook presence a good thought.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

The initial effects

On the last day of January I was ready to take off and the next day it was quiet. Instead of the cold turkey I’d expected, there was a sudden overwhelm of fatigue. The first two weeks I slept like a log every night and slept way more than I was used to. I was totally amazed by this because I hadn’t known how tired I was before I had shut out this huge wave of impulses. But it actually made sense. Because how can we feel how we really are if we are hooked on all these impulses all the time? Whether it’s TV or social media, a constant flow of input takes your attention away from your own needs.

Other than my sudden fatigue I felt nothing short from liberated. Literally. On the fourth day of my time-out a student of mine approached me with a login problem in one of my facebook groups, so I had to break my leave. When I got on my timeline I felt like getting away asap. The first message I noticed was a vile argument between two people, the second a post about horribly abused animals (a post that went viral a few years ago already, so old news and yet very unsettling) and the third was a picture-purrrfect self-portrait of a woman I knew who was experiencing serious problems in her life but made herself look da part for her facebook followers to make her life look A-MA-ZING!!!!! Within seconds I felt totally repulsed by my timeline, so I fixed my student’s problem and left the platform as soon as I could to sink back into the quiet.

More goodness

My fatigue disappeared after a fortnight and made room for energy and action. It was truly amazing to find my mojo back. The feeling of constant pressure by being confronted with what my competition was doing, had gone. The perpetual itches in my mood were gone. And rather than working for the outside world and for likes I began to work from within again. My well of inspiration that had pretty much dried up over time, began to fill up. And I didn’t need Leech Block at all. It felt good sinking deeper into my real life so I didn’t feel a desire to sneak onto facebook and check my timeline anyway.

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

And then: FOCUS as a bonus!

But another really interesting thing happened. Cal Newport was so right when he said that facebook timelines kill our attention span. When I watched his video, I thought I wasn’t doing too bad. But three weeks into my time-out I noticed I was beginning to get more work done. I was focused and could spend longer periods of time reading, painting and writing. And even on days that I worked few hours, I got more work done during the day. And…very importantly, I was totally immersed in what I was doing. So when I got back to work the next day, I could pick up right where I’d stopped, still knowing exactly what I was doing. I had always thought my timeline and the work of fellow artists and teachers in particular had inspired me. But reality proved that it had actually eaten up my focus at the cost of my own productivity.

Being a product calls for conscious decisions

Time went on and I felt great in my cocoon when the Cambridge-Analytica data scandal popped up. And only a few weeks later, there was a much less talked about, but in my opinion at least as serious a data scandal in the Netherlands where Dutch health-insurance companies including my own turned out to have installed the data-collecting Facebook-pixel plugin on the very personal medical information pages on their websites. Private search data on medical questions were collected by facebook, who could link IP addresses to user accounts, de-anonymizing private medical search data which they could in turn share with third parties and make money on. It is not known at this moment whether these data have actually been shared or abused, but since they have already been collected and shared, it’s unlikely that nothing has happened or will happen with it. In any case, private medical information is the last data you want to have shared across the web. But facebook doesn’t seem to have any moral boundaries in that respect. And I dread to think to what ends these data could be used.

After this last scandal, I’ve felt a strong desire to leave facebook altogether. I checked my settings to see what permissions I had given facebook in my settings regarding my data and found set it to the barest minimum possible already. Although I wonder if it really helps since I found out that not even deleting your facebook account makes your internet behavior any more private. (And yes, I know there is always Google, but I won’t get into that here.)

Free exploitation

And we are not just a product. We are also paying, in the end. Facebook came up with an incredibly clever system to get paid thrice for their ‘free’ service. First facebook collects and sells our data to third-party data-collecting companies for personal-aimed advertising and influencing. Then they earn a second time when they sell our timeline space for ads specifically intended for our profiles based on those same data. As a unique service they program our timelines to groom us for planned advertisements to maximize the effect. And as if that doesn’t generate enough income, they make us pay a third time by demanding a fee for getting views for page posts. Without such payment, hardly anybody gets to see those posts at all, not even interested followers. So payment is being pushed, almost forced, by keeping unpaid post views to a pathetic minimum. A technique facebook has now implemented in Instagram as well.

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

Weighing

People make their decisions based on their own take on things and on their needs. What I have to make up my mind about, is whether the plusses are outweighed by the fundamental and well-founded objections I described above. And to ask myself what price I am willing to pay for a platform that might make my work easier. Might. Because I’m not sure if it actually does. And I don’t like the intentional manipulation of our timelines that facebook uses to keep us hooked and groomed. The idea that they know a weak spot in our psychology and use it to their advantage and that of paying anonymous third parties feels rotten. It’s like dealing with a narcissist friend who comforts you while keeping the dagger that hurts you firmly planted in your back. With all the manipulation, all our privacy devoured and our attention span crushed, I feel the price we pay for a ‘free’ social platform is way too high. The European Union demands that Facebook takes measures to better protect personal data. But it may be a long time before that has any effect. And knowing how much I loved the quietude of my time-out I find myself on the verge.

To be or not to be on facebook?

The only thing holding me back from deleting my account is the following question: can an artist/writer/online teacher do without facebook? It is a question that will find different answers and I’m very curious to hear if there are any professional artists, writers and online teachers who do not have a facebook account. And how they fare. I’m curious to hear your thoughts while I mull over my decision.