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Great Idea: Get Off Facebook

Facebook brings me good laughter every day, good entertaining videos I never would have discovered otherwise, and news of people I like, their growing beautiful families, their gains, their losses, their opinions, sometimes even their arguments with other folks. I keep in touch with old friends with minimal effort, and also make new friends, though I might never meet some of them in person. Facebook is "free" in the sense that I don't pay out of pocket for it, and honestly the data they collect about me and feed back to me in the form of targeted advertising is little more than a minor annoyance; sometimes, in fact, I end up learning about a product I need, or want, or just like to drool over. (My Facebook feed is heavily laden with ads for gorgeous guitars.) Facebook, I can honestly say, is one of the first sites I head for every morning. And it is ruining my life.

This is not going to segue into an argument that you should get off Facebook. I just want to articulate why I personally need to get off it and stay off. It's not the time I spend (I almost said "waste") there, because I have the time to spare if I'm reasonably disciplined about it. But that time, spent in other ways, could be more uplifting if I played my guitar, more edifying if I read a good article in one of the magazines I subscribe to, more productive if I allowed myself to fall down a research hole related to something in my current novel-in-progress, more enriching if I picked up the phone and called somebody to see how they're doing. On Facebook I can passively receive the impression that I'm doing all these things, or approximations of them. I'm not, though. I'm just putting in the time staring at a screen.

It's great to laugh. Laughing gets the lymphatic system flowing, and we need that. To get to the laughs, I wade through funny memes I've seen before, most of them lots of times, and through marginally amusing memes I've seen before, and through misleading "click bait" headlines I've mostly learned to ignore, and through advertising that poses as editorial, and just plain advertising, a few political posts that amount to echo chambers since I've long since culled the "friends" whose opinions I find offensive, and through sad efforts of a few people desperate for sympathy but not really deserving any. It's a good bet I'll eventually find something that will make me laugh, and you bet that feels good. For a minute. And where has the morning gone?

But it's not the time spent. It's not that I don't value being in touch with people I otherwise would have lost track of long ago. It's not even Facebook's system of gathering personal knowledge of me and selling it to advertisers I find annoying. (That's just old school TV digitally honed and brought into the twenty-first century.) The reason I need to get off Facebook is that it makes me feel bad, and if I hadn't worked hard to figure out what was going on, I wouldn't even know it was happening.

To figure out why Facebook makes me feel bad, I had to begin with some quick deconstruction.

. Facebook provides laughs. But... Life is full of laughs if you look for them.

. Facebook makes connections with people easy. But... Easy connections are not as valuable as earned connections, nor as valued.

. Facebook is a news and information source. But... By the time you check the origin of a post, you might as well have read/listened/watched a trusted source you've already identified and vetted as dependable.

. Facebook provides a forum for public discussion. But... No, it doesn't. It provides some people with a way to put their opinion -- rarely well considered and educated -- where unknown other people can see it. After that, it's a free-for-all for those who disagree, and an echo chamber for those who do agree. It's a place where people can get angry, get hurt, and hurt others. Can anyone gain knowledge from such a forum? Yes, but it's not a good place to try and do that. If it's knowledge you're after, there's a whole world of real news services, books, magazines, papers, and the Internet itself. There are even primary sources if you have the energy to go out and find them.

The thing about Facebook is that it makes everything seem easier because you're just scrolling down the page. Oh, here's a funny video. Okay, I need a laugh, so that's good. Oh, here's a political discussion, let's see if it supports what I already think (echo chamber) or makes me so mad I'll have to go take a cold shower to calm down, or if I learn something -- which I'll need to verify if I have the energy but oh, here's a thing about baby goats and I love baby goats... Where has the afternoon gone?

Why do I blame all this for making me feel bad? I could make a good case for addictions working by letting you down so that you need a fix. But this particular addiction itself is all about anonymity. It's one thing to interact with other humans, quite a different thing to sit behind a screen and interact with whatever little chunks of people's personalities they, sitting behind their screens, send out to the world. Sure, you may know me and I may know you, but you and I are real people. We cannot act as full humans on Facebook. We are, in a real sense, mostly anonymous. All that is operating online is the small portion of us that we put out there through our fingertips. I end up feeling bad because nobody is getting whole me and likewise I'm not getting whole anybody -- it's all just a stream of bits. (pun not intended but it's pretty good)

Here's what can happen, and has happened to me: I've had an inkling for years that Facebook was not good for me, and have sometimes decided or almost decided to quit. But Facebook has addictive qualities and I kept lapsing back into it. I was on the verge, again, of quitting it when the pandemic hit. I suspected Facebook might be a welcome outlet during periods of isolation, so I decided to keep with it for the duration of the plague. I gave myself free rein with it, and other online time-killers such as favored talk shows. I got madder and madder at the way Trump was handling things, especially the pandemic. I got madder and madder at his handling of the Black Lives Matter issues. After months of getting madder and madder, I made what I felt was a rational decision to start confronting Facebook posts I found offensive. It was a moral decision, I thought. I confronted a few of them with hard logic. I was met with insults. No surprise there. I felt bad. Really bad. I felt a lot worse than I would have if I'd just left it all alone. Political dog fights on Facebook are not my thing.

I'm getting off Facebook because I know that if I had been having a discussion in person with that person who insulted me on Facebook, we might have had a civil discussion, and we both might have gained something from it. I know this because experience has shown me that it takes a full human to have a real discussion, especially a productive argument, and even more especially when the argument is fraught with deeply held beliefs and emotions. I tried to do something on Facebook I felt was a moral imperative. Result: I feel bad. In real life, just beginning a difficult conversation takes finesse; on Facebook, you just jump right in with no idea what kind of day the person at the other end is having.

I'll be looking for my laughs in other places. I'll connect with friends by other means (and there are plenty these days). If killing time is what I want to do, I can assure you I have an incredible arsenal of ways to do that, some of them bearing positive, tangible results. Might I lose touch with some people I otherwise wouldn't? Maybe, but I'm not sure that's a bad thing if all that's keeping us in touch is flipping open a computer and clicking on an icon.

As I said, this is not an argument that you should get off Facebook. Many will not feel bad at all from the Facebook experience, will on the contrary find it a rewarding way to spend some time each day, rightfully viewing my misgivings about political fights as overly sensitive, and my whole "human versus bit-o'-human" complaint irrelevant and ludicrous. I think some people would brush off insults from faceless opponents like so much dandruff on a shoulder.

There's a passage in To Kill a Mockingbird about an old lady, Mrs. Dubose, who asks Scout, the little girl narrator of the book, to sit and talk with her every day at a certain time. Scout finally learns that the old lady was using her as a distraction as she tried to lengthen the time, each day, that she could wait before taking the painkilling opiate she was addicted to, the goal being to get off the stuff before she died. Her explanation, finally, was that she wanted to die "beholden to nothing and nobody." I relate to that. Having tried several times to quit Facebook, I realize that it is not just a habit, but a true addiction, and for a writer who is supposed to have a social media "platform," it's a complex addiction. I'm like Mrs. Dubose. It may be that the addiction, above all else, is the main reason I'm proclaiming I'm through with Facebook.

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