A Farewell to Facebook - You Will Not Be Missed21 July 2014
Aaaaargh! I can’t go on like this anymore.
After iffing and maybeing about it for months, I’ve finally decided to quit all social media. As of this morning, my accounts on both Facebook and Twitter have been permanently deleted. Destroyed. Wiped out. Nuked from orbit. Terminated with extreme prejudice. And damn, does it feel good.
A few people are probably rolling their eyes – “oh no, not this again” – because I quit Facebook with some fanfare at the beginning of 2012, and kept it up for maybe 10 months before caving in and rejoining. A year and a half since creating that new account, it’s clear that I made a terrible mistake. The grass really was greener on the other side. Time to hop back over the fence.
Looking back, 2012, the year when I went on a low-Facebook diet, was also the year when I began my current career, hitch-hiked across Europe, quit drinking (the biggest turning point of my life), started this blog, met several of my now-closest friends, read nearly 70 books, and, towards the end, finalised my plans to drop out of university and move to Vietnam (my second biggest turning point). All in all, a pretty significant year for me. A few things went wrong, but far more went right, and I’m sure that the fact that I didn’t have Facebook weighing me down was a contributing factor.
(Disclosure: I actually did have a fake FB account for a lot of that time which I rarely used; it had 0 friends and I just used it to check up on a few groups and events that I otherwise couldn’t access. I don’t plan on doing the same this time round; I’m sure I’ll find a way to manage without it.)
I’ve been pussyfooting around the idea of re-quitting for an embarrassingly long time – I wrote over a year ago that I’m “probably going to delete my account again soon” – but never could quite bring myself to do it. I’d tell myself that Facebook’s not completely useless, I need it every now and then, it does come in handy sometimes, I can’t do without it. No matter how badly Facebook treats me, I keep on forgiving its flaws. Is this what it feels like to be a battered housewife?
Fuck it. The negatives clearly outweigh the positives, and it’s not even close. I’ve dumped a lot of deadweight from my life in the last couple of years, and it’s time to add social media to the ever-growing junk pile.
Quitting Cold Turkey
The clincher for me was reading this post by my hero Steve Pavlina, who recently made the exact same decision to nuke all his social media accounts. As is usually the case with Steve’s writing, I agree with every word.
(Well, except the part about Walden. Am I the only one who hated that book?)
Here’s a quote:
Moderation works for some things, but that approach doesn’t work so well in certain areas, especially not after years of regular usage where the addictive patterns have already been trained.
I’ve seen people do 30-day social media opt-outs. They see great improvements in their lives during those 30 days. Then they return, and within a week or two, the old habits are fully restored.
Imagine a smoker who stops smoking for 30 days and then goes back to smoking afterwards, but with the intention of smoking less than before. That rarely works for anyone. The previously trained neural patterns will simply re-engage, sometimes within just a few days.
That one hit home because I actually did take a month-long break from social media earlier this year, as a new year’s resolution. It was a big win – I really did see huge benefits – but within a week of firing up my news feed for the first time in February, I was already back to my old ways and wasting just as much energy as I had been in December. It seems like social media really is an all-or-nothing proposition for me, and of those two options, I can’t say it’s a difficult decision.
Yeah, I could keep my account and just try to use it less, but what’s the point? For one thing, I’d be fighting an uphill battle against Facebook themselves. The company’s entire raison d’être is to keep you addicted, distracted, and coming back again and again so you can look at more and more adverts. Facebook is a terrible communication platform, but its flaws aren’t the result of incompetence – they’re deliberately engineered to keep you hooked and dependent.
It’s like the relationship between a junkie and his dealer. Should I work on improving my relationship with my dealer? Buy in bulk, so I don’t have to visit him so often? Install a fancy app like SelfControl that prevents me from visiting him more than once per day? Are you serious? The answer is to stop putting the goddamn needle in my veins!
Plus, by having an account at all I’m giving people expectations that I don’t want them to have. Even if I check Facebook only once a month, other people on the site have no way of knowing that, and are going to message me and expect a reply. I don’t want to have more than one inbox. Email me, people. It’s not that bloody hard.
That’s just another example of how Facebook is designed for user manipulation, not user satisfaction. If it was possible, I’d make my profile nothing more than a static page, impossible to comment on or message, but of course Facebook won’t let me. I have every possible notification turned off, and my account cranked up to all the most closed and private settings I can find, yet I just can’t stop Facebook from bombarding me constantly with shiny little digital trinkets scientifically formulated to waste my time.
Even if I do check my messages, I have to deal with all the fuss about whether or not people can see that I’ve “seen” their message, and if they’re annoyed when I take more than 5 minutes to reply (grow the fuck up, seriously).
Then there’s the group chats I’ve been added to which I have no interest in but it would be rude to leave, the friend requests from people I’ve barely met who are apparently insulted that I clicked “ignore” (get over it), the people I’d rather forget about but don’t want to cause a stir by deleting, and Christ, just all the drama, I can’t even describe it.
You’d think people would get past this playground nonsense by the time they’re 15, but apparently not.
Twitter and the rest
The only other social media service I use actively is Twitter, and that decision was slightly harder, but I figured it needs to go too. At the end of the day, it’s just another distraction, and there are far better things I can be spending my time on.
(Edit: I rejoined Twitter. I’m not proud.)
Google+ I’m keeping because I never interact it with anyway and am rarely reminded of its existence, so it’s a non-issue. Plus I use Gmail, and I imagine that the two accounts are inextricably intertwined so that I can’t quit one without quitting the other. I’ve been a Gmail user for years – since long before G+ existed – and it’s a great service, but if Google ever start using it to shove G+ down my throat (which wouldn’t surprise me as this is the direction that they’ve started taking with YouTube), I guess it’ll be time to say a sad sayonara and find a new email client.
G+ might be a damp squib so far, but Google clearly aren’t giving up on it, and I can’t predict what the future has in store. I see no reason to get too excited about G+ though, even if it does become more widely adopted. I can’t think what need I have that it would fill.
I might as well mention Snapchat, which I downloaded earlier this year at the insistence of a friend, played around with briefly, then ended up deleting after a month or two. Yeah, I guess it’s an interesting concept, but do I really need another distraction in my life? What problem do I have that Snapchat actually solves? I was doing fine for 23 years without it, and I can’t remember ever once saying “damn, if only I had a way of sending someone a picture message that would delete itself after 10 seconds!”.
Cal Newport puts it well: you wouldn’t buy a garden tool if you had no idea what to use it for, so why doesn’t the same apply to a piece of software?
This is going to sound ironic because I’m a programmer, but when it comes to technology I’m generally an extremely conservative guy. I rarely download new apps - scanning the list of apps I use regularly, I can only spot one, Vitamin R, that I’ve “discovered” within the last year – and I’m very hesitant to buy new gadgets or devices unless I have a clear and articulate idea of what I need them for.
When it comes to the latest Apple gadget, computer accessory, or hot new social app, people tend to only consider the financial cost before signing up. This seems like a stupid approach to me, because money is the least important cost of all. Far more valuable are my time, energy, and mental clarity, three things which electronic gadgets are very good at draining, and which are much harder to replenish than my bank balance.
I can’t think of a single reason why I’d want to own an iPad, for example, or any other brand of tablet. The thought of buying one has never even remotely occurred to me. I’ve expended more energy in my life writing this paragraph than I have comparing tablet models. Raving to me about the latest innovations in the world of tablets is like trying to sell me on your new brand of lacrosse stick or clarinet or flavour of cat food. Yeah, maybe the new version is 5% shinier than the old one, but why should I care when I’ve never had any need for one in the first place?
I don’t even own a smartphone – I ditched my HTC last year for a Nokia 1280, and that black-and-white beauty is my favourite phone I’ve ever owned. People are usually shocked to find this out (not least because I work for a mobile app company), but I have no intention of going back, and I’m yet to hear a convincing argument for why I should.
The one single thing I miss about having a smartphone is the maps. If someone invented a phone that does nothing but call, text, tell the time, and tell me where the hell I am when I get lost, I would use it for the rest of my life.
99% of the time, I find that when I have a problem or frustration or a way in which my life needs improving, a new piece of technology is not the answer. The real problem is usually in my head, not in the way that the 1s and 0s are arranged on my hard drive, and an elaborate software solution is just a way to procrastinate and distract myself from the real issue.
My favourite productivity apps are a pen and a piece of paper. I’ve tried a few of those fancy to-do apps like Things and Remember The Milk and I’ve found that they just don’t work, for me at least. Keeping an exercise log? I can’t beat a pocket notebook.
Organising my schedule? I manage my life through the Calendar app on my MacBook, a program that’s remained largely unchanged since the version I used 10 years ago on the first Mac I ever owned.
Writing? Well, I’m writing this particular blog post in Evernote, but I do most of my writing (and all my coding) using Vim, a piece of software that’s approaching its 23rd birthday and still kicks the ass of every newer “advanced” text editor I’ve ever tried.
And I still find that the best way to get focused when I want to get some serious writing done is to shut the laptop lid and grab a paper and a pen. Many of the posts on this blog began their life in an A5 notebook. I remember writing my entire 2013 post by hand in one sitting while relaxing on a beach in Cambodia – without any Internet to distract me or LCD lights to tire my eyes, the words just flowed from my hand effortlessly and enjoyably; the post practically wrote itself.
That’s a state of mind I’d like to achieve as often as possible, and electronics are usually a barrier, not a facilitator.
All this is leading up to my main point:
What is Social Media For?
What purpose does social media actually serve? If you’d never heard of Facebook and someone tried to sell it to you today, would you get all excited and enthusiastic and whip out your credit card?
I think it’s more likely that you’d furrow your brow. “What the hell would I need that for?” There’s no functionality Facebook provides – messaging, group chat, sharing photos, advertising, communicating with an audience – that a different service doesn’t already provide better anyway. Why complicate things, especially given Facebook’s GIGANTIC cost to my time, concentration, and overall happiness?
The only exception is maybe if you’re having a party, Facebook is a good way to quickly invite all your friends, but that’s not enough to justify the cost to me.
95% of the event invites I receive anyway are just promo-spam from horrible club nights I wouldn’t attend if you paid me, usually in cities that I don’t even live in. When it’s actually an event I’d be interested in, someone usually tells me even if I already saw it on Facebook, and if they don’t, I’m not going to lose much sleep over it. There’s more than enough cool stuff going on where I live to keep me busy; I don’t need Facebook to find it.
Junk Socialising vs. Healthy Socialising
Social media is to socialising what junk food is to healthy eating. I didn’t invent that analogy, but it’s better than any I can come up with myself. I used to eat at McDonald’s semi-regularly and even enjoyed the taste; these days I wouldn’t eat a Bic Mac if you paid me £500. The last time I tried I felt so physically sick afterwards that I could barely stand. Facebook gives me a similar feeling of queasiness.
Junk food makes you unhealthy, but I think it’s equally true that being unhealthy makes you eat junk food. The times when I was “junk socialising” – pissing away hours a week clicking around on Facebook, commenting, “liking”, posting incessant fucking status after status – were the same times when my offline social life SUCKED. These days things have improved and social media just doesn’t do it for me anymore. I’ve simply found better alternatives.
Twitter provides a handy outlet for my wit, but I suppose if I have a thought that I really want to share with the world, I can always post it on this blog. If it’s not worthy of the time and effort required for a full blog post (and my average post is over 1500 words long), it’s probably not worth sharing anyway.
I still get random strangers emailing me on occasion to say nice things about blog posts I published months ago. Does anyone even remember the hilarious Tweet I posted last week?
This blog costs me roughly £80 a year to run, and gives me a lot in return. As a low estimate, Facebook costs me 20x that amount in terms of lost productivity, and gives me pretty much nothing in return. Facebook loses.
As a quick aside, the reason I’m quitting has nothing do with “privacy”. I’d obviously rather that Facebook don’t share my data than they do, but that’s a pretty stupid expectation. The entire point of using Facebook in the first place is to share information about yourself!
Facebook privacy is an asinine non-issue that journalists only drum up on slow news days so they can feel relevant. Here’s an idea guys: IF YOU DON’T WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW SOMETHING ABOUT YOU, DON’T POST IT PUBLICLY ON THE INTERNET. Revolutionary, huh?
“Keeping in Touch” – Who Cares?
The same friend who convinced me to check out Snapchat (which I downloaded to my iPod, by the way, for those who are confused after reading above that I played around with Snapchat but don’t have a smartphone) told me that the app is a great way to keep in touch with people she doesn’t see so often. Some people back home, she told me, she basically wouldn’t communicate with at all anymore if it weren’t for the Snapchats they send each other.
So? I’d argue that if I don’t have anything to say to someone that can’t fit into a stupid impersonal little Snapchat message which I’m sending out to half my contact list, then the relationship probably isn’t worth maintaining in the first place.
All the Snapchats, Tweets, Likes, PMs and status updates in the world can’t add up to a single minute of face-to-face conversation. And that’s all I really care about. Nothing beats real life.
An afternoon spent hanging out face-to-face with a smart, interesting, positive person or group of people – even if we don’t know each other that well yet – leaves me recharged and invigorated and ready to take on the world.
A long conversation on Facebook Chat usually leaves me drained and exhausted, no matter who it’s with or what we discuss. More personal forms of electronic communication, like say video chat via Skype, fall somewhere in the middle, and are usually worth the effort, but if it’s a choice between meeting in person and any kind of electronic communication, I’m always going to choose the former. You could say I’m a digital introvert.
With the amount of travelling I’ve been doing lately, there are many people who I’d consider close friends who I barely ever get to see anymore. I’m fine with that, and so are they – I guess that’s part of why we get along. It makes the time we do spend together that much more worthwhile. I’d rather communicate with someone once a year if it means we can meet up in person and have an honest, heartfelt, meaningful catch-up, than communicate every day if it has to be by social media. If that’s not your style, Snapchat away, but don’t take it personally when I don’t want to join in.
Anyway, the people I know who use social media the least are generally the smartest and most interesting people I know, the ones who I care the most about staying in touch with in the first place. With a few exceptions, the social media addicts tend to be the people I’d rather avoid, which is hardly surprising given that most social media sites are deliberately designed to encourage the worst qualities in everybody – immaturity, attention-seeking, bragging, posing and posturing, narcissism and vanity. I don’t want that in my life.
Facebook does come in handy as an address book, but once again, it’s just not worth the downsides. Before deleting my account I went through my friends list to make sure I still have contact details for anyone I’d actually want them for. I hope I didn’t miss anybody, but even if I did, in this age of 24/7 connection, it can’t be that hard to find them again. If anyone wants to find me, well, this blog isn’t going away any time soon, so I guess my contact details will always be just a quick Google away.
On the Shortness of Life
Here’s another quote from that Pavlina post:
I basically asked myself which scenario seemed best over the next 10 years — going social media-free vs. continuing to use it. It wasn’t really a difficult choice to see which alternative was best. The thought of investing another decade in those services made me cringe.
Damn right. Something I like to remind myself of is that my time on this Earth is limited. I’ve got maybe fifty years left (that’s less than 20,000 days) if I’m lucky – for all I know I could get hit by a bus tomorrow – then I will cease to exist for all eternity. So, given the indescribable preciousness of time, the one thing I have that I can never replace once it’s gone, why would I possibly want to throw it away on anything except the absolute best that’s available to me?
Bear in mind that if you spend just five minutes on Facebook a day, which I’d wager is far less than the average person my age, that adds up to 30 hours a year – nearly four full working days. If you came into work on Monday and did nothing but refresh your news feed all day until Thursday afternoon, would you still have a job on Friday morning? Would you feel like your week had been well spent? Would you feel happy about the direction your life is headed? I’d probably feel physically sick and borderline depressed.
Really, when you say “no” to social media, you’re actually saying “yes” – to all the other things you could be doing instead. The time’s going to pass anyway no matter what you do, so you might as well make good use of it. And it’s hard to think of single less useful or worthwhile way I could be spending my time than idly browsing social media sites.
It’s for the same reason that I pretty much never watch TV anymore, or play videogames. (Although in both cases it wasn’t so much of a conscious choice to stop, I just gradually lost my interest – and I got more than enough TV and gaming in for one lifetime by the time I was 16.) Sure, there are some great TV shows out there, but it is really worth sifting through the haystack to find a couple of needles when I could be spending that time doing something that actually matters? I highly doubt I’m going to lie on my deathbed filled with sorrowful regret at all the things that could have been if only I’d watched The Wire. The same applies to social media.
Let’s take a brief detour to talk about porn. I promise this is relevant.
Y’see, humans have been using visual stimuli to get off ever since the first frustrated Neanderthal scratched a big-busted stick figure onto the wall of his cave. But it’s only in the last decade or so that, thanks to high-speed Internet, porn has advanced in ways that our horniest ancestors could never have even dreamed of, with HD, close-up, multi-angle footage of men and women of every size, shape and colour doing it in any position, available on-demand for free to anybody anywhere. (So I’ve heard.) No matter what your kink or perversion, it’s available instantly at the touch of a button, no credit card required, and boy, are we indulging.
It should hardly come as a surprise that all those digital dicks and virtual vaginas are having an impact on our collective psychology. Feminists will be pleased to hear that the scientific evidence is mounting: porn is reshaping our sexual psyches, and the only question is how badly.
Compounding the problem is that the topic is extremely difficult to study, because everyone (well, at least every man) grows up with porn now, and it’s practically impossible for researchers to find men who haven’t watched porn who they can use as a control group in their studies.
It used to be the case that teenagers would learn how to have sex by fumbling around and figuring it out for themselves. These days they usually learn by consuming gigabytes of hardcore porn before they ever get any first-hand experience, and that sets up a lot of assumptions and expectations that, to put it mildly, probably didn’t exist 100 years ago. Is porn changing the way we have sex? I don’t know for sure; I’m too young to remember life before the Internet and I have nothing to go on but anecdote, but it’s an interesting question to say the least.
I’m not on a moral crusade against porn, but I can’t help but wonder if sites like Facebook are doing to our social brains what sites like Redtube are doing to our sexual brains. Social media is to socialising what porn is to having sex, in that it’s a hollow imitation of the real thing, and it might satisfy you briefly in the short term, but in the long term it’s deeply, profoundly unfulfilling. And the long-term effects both on individuals, and on society as a whole, are still barely understood, and surely negative.
(I highly recommend the book Virtually You if you want to learn more about how the Internet is reshaping our minds for better or worse – not just in regards to sex.)
Pretty much everyone has Facebook these days. I don’t know a single person under the age of 30 who’s never had an account, even if they’ve since deleted it or hardly use it. Social networking didn’t really hit it big until I was about 16 (anybody remember Bebo?), but nowadays kids are growing up with Facebook from their early childhoods, and the implications are depressing.
Children as young as eight years old are creating online shrines to themselves where they can broadcast unfiltered messages to everybody they know, project false images of themselves, be under constant scrutiny, and publish things that are, in all probability, going to remain online, public, and identifiable with their real name, for the rest of their lives.
Instead of going outside after school and playing together in the sun – y’know, like kids, like humans are supposed to do – they’re spending the same time reblogging each other’s Tumblrs, tweeting about Justin Bieber, and downloading app after app after app which makes them think they’re “socialising” when really they’re not in the slightest. How can this possibly be a healthy way to grow up?
Yeah, I know that this kind of “the kids aren’t alright!” scaremongering has plagued every generation, and I don’t want to sound too alarmist. Really, I love living in 2014 and am generally grateful for the technology of our time. But still, I remain firmly unconvinced that social networking has, on the whole, been a net positive for our social lives.
Facebook clearly isn’t going to go away any time soon, but I’m sure its days are numbered, simple because, to quote Taleb, “bullshit is fragile”. What’s yet to see is whether it will be replaced by something new entirely, or by something equally insidious. My hopes aren’t high.
Until then, if my words make sense but you can’t bring yourself to ditch Facebook just yet, I highly recommend the Chrome extension News Feed Eradicator as an intermediate step, or SelfControl if you’re a Mac user. I’ve heard good things about other blockers like RescueTime and StayFocusd too, but at the end of the day the best blocker will always be the power button.
If you want to reach me from now on, you can find me somewhere far away from all social media, probably curled up with a book, writing a riff on my guitar, sat on my laptop in a Berlin café working on something I care about, or spending quality time with quality people, face-to-face – all things that actually matter to me and make a difference in my life, which is more than I can say for any interaction I’ve had with social media, ever.