“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes — including you”
Stop me if this sounds familiar — Log into Facebook (or open the app).
Meme. Depressing (or enraging) news article. Screenshot of a tweet. Facebook video of something from pop culture (or something political). A wish ad. Maybe you actually see a post from a friend about their own life. Another article that does not improve your mood. Another tweet screenshot. Three memes in a row. A post from a group you’re in. Another ad.
This had become my typical Facebook experience and I was not pleased.
My dissatisfaction with Facebook had been growing for a while, upwards of two years. Like a bad habit, I kept going back (and that’s my own fault). Despite being ever more aware of my dissatisfaction, I wasn’t yet ready to give up and so continued trying to squeeze drops of positive stimulation from a stone.
As Mark Zuckerberg has stated, Facebook’s purpose is “to help people connect”. I recognize that for people with friends or family who live far away, or for disabled people, Facebook can be very helpful, invaluable even.
Aside from that, it’s a tool that can make it quite easy to make plenty of digital “friends”, but one could ask — how deep and “real” are those connections?
To what extent are they superficial interactions that create the illusion of connection enough to satiate our social needs and subvert the need to “talk to people out in the real world”?
I had continued to squeeze that stone, and needed a “last straw” to finally cut my losses and walk away.
I decided to collect some data, because data is helpful in making decisions.
I ran an informal experiment to quantify what was bothering me. I wanted to see if my perception was accurate.
I scrolled my news feed for a while and counted how many posts were purely text only, and about the poster’s life. If there was an attached image or video, that post didn’t count. Posts that were purely just THEM and about their life, and counted how many posts were anything else.
I had to scroll through 43 posts to see four (4) text only, personal life update posts.
That’s less than 1 text-only life update post from friends out of every 10 posts total. If you were in a face to face conversation with someone and for every minute they were talking, only 6 seconds was in actual response to you, that’s what it might be like.
Facebook (and other platforms) do not resemble normal real-world human interaction anymore. They’ve become distraction factories.
A friend chimed in:
“It’s worse than that. I did something similar looking at which ones were ads. The longest stretch of “real” posts was 6 before another ad. And usually around 3–4.”
I’ve heard from some friends who have disabled their news feed, so they can only see posts in groups or if they go to someone’s wall. They’ve said that dramatically improved their experience. I am aware that you can choose who appears in your feed by following or unfollowing or selecting “see first”. I also know there are also browser plugins (like Facebook Purity) that do allow a bit more control and filtering of the site, but it never felt like enough for me.
I knew what I was looking for and jumping through a bunch of extra hoops without the guarantee of getting what I wanted just didn’t seem like the best move.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate a good meme and I don’t necessarily mind a mixture of news, memes, and life updates, but I need a way to filter them. The ratio has gotten far too out of balance. If Facebook allowed filtering by content type, then I could just turn off everything I didn’t want when I needed a break. But that’s not an option, not on any platform I can think of.
Facebook is supposed to be how we stay connected to our friends yet I wade through so many “filler” posts and I still don’t really know how my friends are doing. It got to the point that I actually had to send PMs to people to say “hey, how are you?”, because that was easier than finding out from my feed or from their wall.
After running my experiment, and coinciding with some other big changes in my life in Dec 2019, I made the decision to finally reduce my Facebook usage. At first I was just going to that browser tab less often. But I still had Facebook on my phone, and I found that my mobile usage ticked up disproportionately as my desktop usage dropped.
And I knew that normally the mobile app frustrated me most.
The Last Straw
Finally on January 3rd, 2020, on the way to a friend’s house, I hit my last straw. I don’t even remember what it was specifically, I just remember opening Facebook on my phone while on the bus, seeing something that just made me really annoyed, and said “you know what, this needs to stop.”
So I deleted Facebook off my phone at that very moment, knowing that I would not be willing to re-install it. And it has stayed off ever since.
My very next instinct was to open Facebook to post and say that I’d deleted Facebook off my phone, which made me laugh at myself. Oh, the irony.
It revealed a cycle that many of us are all too familiar with. My mindset had to change — instead of instantly posting every thought I had as I had it, it became “I will (or might) post about that when I get back home.”
You know, like Ye Olden Days when we didn’t have internet on our phones. How nostalgic.
John Green is a rather big YouTube personality and real-life author who decided to quit Social Media entirely in 2019. He recently made a video about it, which echoed parts of my own experience detailed in this article.
I will admit that despite deleting Facebook off my phone, for several days after I was still having the impulse to open it. That impulse faded substantially after a week, and I have never been close to re-installing it. My desktop usage has also reduced drastically.
Then came the next step.
Almost two weeks after deleting Facebook off my phone, I reached the same breaking point with Twitter. My Twitter usage had ticked up a fair bit in the absence of Facebook but I was having a very similar problem . More often than not, opening Twitter and scrolling was only making me upset, or sad.
As John pointed out, this is a self-regulation issue, at least in part.
I know I can get worked up easily, and I haven’t always been good at walking away. Again, I needed that trusty Last Straw (TM) to help me do the thing.
The Last Straw 2: Twitter Boogaloo
I got in a fight with someone on twitter one morning about a week after the Facebook delete, and I just said to myself “that’s it, you’re done too”, and I deleted Twitter off my phone.
It’s really telling how not having social media apps on your phone can make you feel “disconnected”.
When I do actually post to Facebook from desktop now, I tend to only have the same 3–6 people react or comment (and 90% of my other notifications are event related).
I don’t know if no one else is seeing my posts (that pesky algorithm), or if it’s more that no one else cares that much. I suspect that plain text personal updates probably get the lowest priority in Facebook’s algorithm.
To quote a friend:
“Paying attention to what you’re paying attention to” is the mantra I keep coming back to from that “I quit social media for a year” video. We either pay attention to how we use our apps, or they inevitably use us. What, if anything, is going to motivate someone to finally take back ownership of their attention?
Like John said of himself in his video, I’ve become connected more strongly with (many fewer) people in “in real life”. But in some sense, I do feel a bit like I stopped existing.
“Quitting” social media really helps serve to highlight how strong (or not) your friendships are. People who you only know online can effectively disappear.
It’s not that I want them to, or that I don’t care, but without that “easy” mutual meeting point, you would have to become pen pals with a lot of people, and many of us don’t have the capacity for that.
So now that I’m off these big, bad, main channels, is it worth exploring alternatives? After all, a common refrain on this subject is “but there are just no good alternatives!”
While not technically “Social Media” platforms like what we’re used to, there are two I’ve tried enough to be able to “recommend”: Slack and Discord.
Slack was designed as a tool for teams at big companies to better organize and coordinate and communicate between and within teams.
Discord is primarily a pure chat room platform for gamers.
Neither sounds particularly like Facebook, right?
I’ve tried both more in depth. In my opinion, Slack adapts quite well to being an analog for the best aspects of Facebook (and gives the users much more control). It still doesn’t have events, but it mimics much of the other FB functionality that you “know and love”.
On Slack, channels can act like separate themed groups on Facebook. Comments can be threaded, and custom comment reactions can be uploaded. You can upload images, videos, and post links (that will all auto-preview). You can also private message and group message. Slack doesn’t have an algorithm that changes what you see and when, it’s all chronological, like Twitter.
Discord is more popular since it’s built for gamers and that’s a really big target audience. Discord is that it’s more of a pure chat room set up and not as much of a direct analog to Facebook. You can’t thread comments but it does have channels and custom reacts.
Having tried both, I got to see how well a smaller, more managed community could perform in a closed system. Users actually have control over the platform and environment versus it being dictated by a corporate overlord. This is much closer to what I wish Facebook was. Users moderate the content and come up with “house rules”.
Otherwise, there are a couple of open source, decentralized networks — Diaspora, and Mastodon. Both have smaller but passionate user bases. I do think decentralized should be the way of the future, but I’m not sure if enough people will come around to tip the scales.
I’ve come to believe that it’s unlikely that any other big company is going to be able to launch a new “Facebook killer” that could actually unseat Facebook’s market dominance.
A lot of people are burnt out from all the apps, and beyond The Big Four (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snap/TikTok) they don’t want to add new apps/platforms unless those apps offer something really new, specific, or unique.
But if you’re actively looking for other options and willing to take some initiative, you can consider starting up a Slack or Discord server and inviting your friends.
So You’ve Chosen To “De-Screenify”
To help keep me honest in my quest (you know, if the spite ever wears off), I installed an app called Rescue Time which tracks your digital activities, and allows you to set goals.
The only goal I really cared about was less time on social media. My initial goal was 2 hrs or less per day. Eventually I switched it to 1 hr or less, and I’ve succeeded most days.
It’s actually pretty startling to think that I went from probably at least 3 hrs of social media per day before all of this (that’s just social media use, not all internet use), to now being able to (easily) keep my usage to under an hour.
Not having the apps on my phone makes a world of difference, because I was so prone to scrolling Facebook or Twitter while waiting in line at stores or on transit. I confess the craving is still there sometimes, but I know exactly how it will go if I give in, so I don’t.
The benefit to this is that my previous “peak use cases” — waiting in lines, on transit, or other, have been eliminated — which has also helped greatly reduce the cravings/impulse when I’m at home. I’m just generally more used to resisting that impulse now, no matter where I am.
I’ve also been using an app called Your Hour, which tracks both screen-on time, as well as screen unlocks. The default goals are 2.5hrs (or less) of screen on time and 100 unlocks.
I typically tend to fall into the 2–3 hrs screen time a day range, but I’m less concerned about my total screen time, since I’ve removed the key temptations for the most part. The things I use my phone for now are mostly productive such as checking bus times, weather, my calendar, listening to podcasts/music, and reading ebooks.
I’ve been a lot more productive and creatively fulfilled. I’ve started playing music again. I’ve started learning new languages again. I’ve been cooking more. I’ve been reading books again! And once we get back to spring/summer, I am certain I will be going outside more again.
It has taken a weight off my mind, and I’m grateful for that.
Other Reasons To Quit
I can only speak for myself, but I think I had come to feel some sort of obligation to social media because “it’s the party that everyone’s at,” and for promoting my creative work. I’m still thinking about that, since Facebook tends to only show artist/business page posts to a small fraction of your followers unless you pay for wider distribution, that’s not a big incentive anyway.
There is the fact that Facebook helped steer a major election, whether wittingly or not, and Cambridge Analytica manipulating people through Facebook (and selling those strategies to malicious people/organizations).
Facebook admitted the election manipulation was bad and promised they would take steps to prevent it happening again. I don’t know about you, but I’m not holding my breath on that. Facebook has a tremendous amount of power, and their ethics and morals are certainly in question. Twitter could filter and ban white supremacists from their platform, but choose not to because doing so would also ban several Republican politicans.
It’s a business. They make money from our data, and from us using their platform so the incentive is to keep us on as much as possible. It has been shown that keeping people angry and upset keeps them engaged which keeps them on the site longer. The other indirect effect of this is that it trains people to be worked up almost constantly, and short circuits our conflict management.
If you don’t have good emotional self-regulation, spending a lot of time on social media is a bad idea. I’ve previously written about the issues with following certain Meme Pages as well.
To paraphrase a saying: “The best time to quit Facebook was several years ago, the second best time is now.”
Several years ago there was a controversy about Facebook supposedly switching to a monthly fee. So many people said “I’ll quit before I’ll pay to use this site.”
Looking back, I can only wonder what Facebook would have become were it a subscription service. On one hand, that would likely have shut a lot of people out since more and more of the world is in poverty every day, but it might have also meant we actually got more say in how it worked and what features we wanted.
Then again, it’s a free platform now, and has been clearly shown to be able to affect elections, so arguably they have much more power as a free platform that everyone is on, than a paid one that only some people are on. It really makes me ponder the general negative implications of “free apps”.
Did you know China has it’s own Facebook? It’s even more of an omnipresent monolith. It’s called WeChat, and it’s one single app that replaces your credit card, social media, ride-sharing, dating, shopping, and more.
It kind of makes Facebook’s concentration of power seem a whole lot more quaint.
The “everything-in-one-place” aspect of Facebook (and to an even greater extent, WeChat) has made it a strong anchor. Yes you can leave but if you do then you’ll need to rely on several additional apps/sites to do the same things. That’s really inconvenient. Convenience might just be the downfall of society, but that’s a topic for another article.
Life “After” Facebook
For years and years, I envied people who weren’t on Facebook. Whether they never joined in the first place, or if they actually quit and stayed off. It seemed unthinkable. Now I’m sort of living it. Not truly completely off, but close enough.
I’m not hyper-following the news anymore (which also means I’m not getting a steady stream of the latest atrocities against marginalized groups either). Yes I do miss out on some positive news and fun memes but again, I feel like the ratio is far too disproportionate. It just isn’t worth the trade off for me personally.
My head is a lot clearer, and above all else that’s great. I’ve been a heavy internet user for over half my life. This change is important and necessary for my growth as a person.
I feel I must also acknowledge that quitting social media requires a certain amount of privilege. This isn’t as easy for everyone. Many of my friends have physical or mental disabilities, and are much more reliant on social media. I get that, and I would never suggest that social media should be banned or that no one should use it. But we do all need to be more aware and consider the implications.
The platform has morphed in several ways. Obviously most things change and evolve over time and fighting change is a losing battle, but I’d argue that Facebook was better for users and mental health back when it wasn’t so omnipresent.
I’m still not entirely sure how much I’m going to try to use social media to promote my art or projects going forward, it feels at least partly futile. For now, this is a path I want to continue on.
Is it possible to quit or drastically reduce your Facebook usage without becoming completely socially isolated? Yes.
Is it a challenge? Yes.
Is it good for your mental health? It very well could be.
For many, the established norms will always be “good enough, despite their flaws”. But If you reach the same point I did, know that a better social experience is possible (and can be very rewarding), you just have to work for it more.