Hello, Facebook, my old friend

Hi, my name is Dustin, and I’m (probably) addicted to Facebook. (Okay, I’m addicted to Facebook.)

If you’re reading this and we’re already Facebook friends, you’re like, duh, we all knew that. You post five, six, seven… eight… nine times a day. And not just links and memes. You post long screeds. And you often react to and comment on other people’s posts. You know everything that’s made the rounds on Facebook before I do. (If you’re my boyfriend, you’re specifically thinking, “Ugh, it’s so annoying that every time I say, ‘Hey, have you seen…?’ the answer is always, ‘Oh yeah. Saw that earlier.’”)

Yup. That’s me. Facebook addict. Not sure me and my ilk are in the DSM yet, but I suspect we will be soon. Which is part of the reason I’m writing this here.

Since the election — you know the one — I’ve been seriously reevaluating my relationship with Facebook. How much time I’m spending on it. What it’s doing to my brain, to my emotional state. What I’m putting out in the world on it, and how it’s affecting (or not affecting) other people. What I could be spending my time on if I wasn’t on Facebook… 2–3 hours per day?

I’ve never timed it properly, but I would not be surprised if — in the months leading up to the election — I was spending literally 2–3 hours a day scrolling through my news feed, drafting posts, commenting on others’ posts, etc. I watch probably 2–3 hours of TV a week. I was probably spending 2–3 hours on Facebook a day… Oy.

I used to defend Facebook addiction. I mean, I still can:

  • Facebook helps me keep in touch with people I don’t have time to keep in touch with otherwise — old college friends, some family members, friends who’ve moved away, etc.
  • Facebook puts me in touch with people I’ve never really had personal relationships with in real life, but who I’ve connected with on Facebook because we have mutual friends, met once at a wedding, went to a conference together, etc.
  • Facebook lets me spread thoughts and information I think is useful to people in a quick, semi-mass way. I have 1,202 Facebook friends in this moment (how many of them have unfollowed me, I don’t know…). When I’m on the train, reading an article about voter suppression laws in X, Y, Z states, in 30 seconds I can “put” that information in front of those 1,202 people — and feel like I’ve “let folks know”.
  • Sometimes there’s funny videos. (In fact, for most people, Facebook is, like, 55% funny videos. For me, it’s more like 3% funny videos, 11% personal updates, 34% thoughtful social commentary, and 52% sky-is-falling panic attacks.)

So, yeah, that’s my basic defense of Facebook. And I’ve gotten lots of positive feedback from people over the years that makes my use of Facebook feel helpful, informative, etc. That feedback has kept me going, and I think I have informed some folks and even changed a few votes.

But — but, but, but, but, but — I’ve also realized there are nefarious aspects of Facebook addiction that I just wasn’t willing to wrestle with during the election (which, for me, spanned about 18 months…):

  • Spending too much time in your bubble. I’m not entirely anti-bubble, y’all. As a gay boy growing up in South Carolina who felt, almost daily, like he didn’t belong, I’m proud and very protective of the life I’ve built in Boston, where I feel loved, supported, and understood. But, like home, bubbles are things you should come in and out of — not places you should live all the time.
  • Thinking that broadcasting a thing and having meaningful conversations with people about a thing are the same…thing. You know why campaign operatives didn’t just say, “Hey, why are we bothering with all this phone banking and door knocking? Let’s just get everyone to say what they think on Facebook!”? Because those things aren’t interchangeable — despite how much members of my generation (I’m a #millenniold) want them to be. Conversations between people matter more and have longer lasting effects than mere postings and even impassioned comment threads. I think we all forgot that in this election. I really, really do.
  • Being tapped into to a whole bunch of people’s feelings, thoughts, emotions, reactions, etc., in real time, is not normal. Social media is great. It’s the future, in a lot of ways, but it’s also TOTALLY BIZARRE in the context of human history. It’s basically our first foray into telepathy, and y’all know how freaked out telepaths get in comic books. Some big, scary thing happens in the world, and — BAM! — the telepaths are cowering on the ground in excruciating pain because they can’t filter out all the noise. That’s because it’s fairly unnatural to wade through so many thoughts and feelings on so many topics all at once. A little bit here and there, sure. But for 2–3 hours a day… no. It fucks with your mind and sense of perspective.
  • Misinformation. I’m not even going to spend time on this one. Many others have. But, like, yeah. The complete lack of “journalistic ethics” on Facebook and other social media sites is incredibly frightening, and it seems like it’s only going to get worse before it gets better — if it gets better.

There’s obviously a lot more you could say in favor of and against Facebook than the few points I’ve laid out here, but I hope some big picture themes are emerging. Facebook promises easy access to a lot of people you love and find interesting and information that’s relevant to your interests and way of seeing the world. Facebook also gives you a false sense of having an impact on the world because your personal feedback loop makes you think you’re changing hearts and minds when mostly you’re just reiterating what a few people already think and feel.

I couldn’t take Facebook after the election. As someone with a history of acute anxiety and panic attacks, there are times when my body just can’t take a negativity/uncertainty/sadness bomb in the form of a Facebook news feed. So, I distanced myself. A lot. I looked at Facebook maybe 5–10 minutes total in the days after November 8. I posted a few times — links from websites, a quick note on taking care of each other. But I didn’t scroll down and read what others were saying and posting. I just couldn’t. I’d spend hours trying to calm myself down, then open Facebook for 30 seconds and instantly feel the same level of panic I had worked hours to dismiss.

Some will say that panic is what we all should be feeling. I think there’s a legitimate argument to be made there, and I won’t say those people are wrong, even though I vacillate between panic and a subtler form of fear, trepidation, and sadness.

In any case, panic is not a state in which I can exist for very long before my mental health takes a nosedive. So, I’m trying to keep myself informed and engaged up to the point of feeling panic, but only up to that point. I know others are in the same boat as I am, and I’ve been trying to reassure folks that it’s okay to not see 10 versions of the same article that says the same thing about what’s about to happen. That people were informed about what’s going on long before the 24-hour news cycle. That the biggest, most effective social movements in our history existed long before the advent of social media. That it’s literally okay — maybe even preferable — to not be logged on all the time.

I can say, for myself, that going from 2–3 hours a day to 30 minutes or less of scrolling and digesting has had a huge impact on my state of mind. I don’t feel less informed. I still get news alerts from NPR and other sources when major news happens. I still hear and see bits and pieces of what post-Trump America is starting to look like, but I hear and see them once. I spend the time I’m not on Facebook talking — in person or on the phone — with family and friends I haven’t spoken to in a while. I think about actions I want to take and research how to take them. I read. I listen. I steady myself for what may come.

And I start writing on Medium — something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time, but — and I swear to God this is true — haven’t made time for because, in part, I’ve been spending so much goddamn time on Facebook!

Not to over dramatize it, but I do think we’re in a world of trouble if we keep thinking that by participating in Facebook and other social media we’re doing something significant. It has its place. But it’s not a new be-all-end-all. I’m going to be honest with myself about how much I’ve treated it as life — and not as just a small part of life. And put the time and head space I dedicated to Facebook over the last few years to other, more meaningful things.

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