Friday, January 6, 2017

Facebook - A Cautionary Tale

Ah Facebook. Some people love it, some people hate it, very few are indifferent about it.  It is an incredibly influential entity of our current time, which is fascinating because it's only been a part of the public consciousness for fewer than 10 years.

As I've said before, I am not wholly anti-Facebook. I think Facebook can be great when used healthily and in moderation. (Kind of like sugar.) For myself personally, Facebook has been a great asset in promoting my music and performances and for staying in touch with people whom I was sorry I lost touch with years ago.  I haven't been on much since my last post about it, but I did recently check out the tributes to Carrie Fisher and some of the "In Memoriam" compilations from the end of the year.  As usual however, along with those touching and uplifting posts, there were the all-too-typical vitriolic rants about politics, religion, conspiracy theories, and the generally dismal opinion of the current state of things.  I also was privy to many shiny happy holiday highlight reels posted by people I know, many of whom are living vastly different lives from the ones they are projecting into the world.

This last jaunt made me realize 2 things: 1. Sharing the good stuff in spite of the difficulties is probably a coping mechanism for these people.  They are putting the positive out there in the hopes that their real lives will eventually mirror their shared ones.  Not a bad idea. Of course, this is also a mode of escapism, but maybe that's what these people need right now.  2. The people who post every meal, every Christmas gift received, and selfies everywhere they go must have a pathological need for attention and approval.  Which is kind of a shame.

For example, I know someone who posts A LOT.  A photo and description of her breakfast, followed by a selfie on the way to the gym, followed by something funny she saw at the grocery store, followed by the book she's currently reading, followed by something inspirational she saw online, followed by the pile of onions she's chopped for dinner, followed by her son's soccer game after school, followed by her glass of wine and Netflix selection for the's several personal posts nearly every day.  And on every single post many of her Facebook friends post positive responses and comments. All of those posts encourages her to post more and it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.  I totally get it - I mean, who doesn't want immediate gratification and approval from our own personal cheerleaders because we went to the gym or made a nice dinner? But I think a person can become dependent on those responses, so therefore her trip to the gym doesn't "count" if no one else knows about it and gives her a virtual thumbs up for going.  It's not enough to simply share her expert dicing skills in the dish she prepares for her family, she has to get kudos from people outside of her house to reassure her that she's skilled and admired and worthy of the accolades.

What is that?

I read a study that measured people's happiness after quitting FB and the researchers found that after only 7 days, the quitters were 88% happier than the non-quitters.  Are you kidding me? Those are some mighty significant results I think.  Not only did so many of these people feel happier overall, but they also felt less angry, less alone, less depressed, more decisive, more enthusiastic, and enjoyed their lives more.  Makes sense - if you're living your life according to your terms without having to worry about posting your actions; and then seeing the reactions you might get as a result, it takes a lot of pressure off of yourself and opens up a world of freedom to do what you want no matter what anyone else thinks.

No. Matter. What. Anyone. Else. Thinks.

Facebook is designed to be all about putting yourself out there and therefore opening yourself up to feedback.  And for some people, getting no feedback is worse than receiving negative feedback. No feedback means that people may not have even bothered to look at their posts! And if they didn't have their post looked at, and/or they didn't receive comments on it, then it might as well not have even happened.  It wasn't validated in any way, so the person posting isn't validated either.

Why do some people seek this day to day, seemingly minute to minute approval from others?

Again, I'm not talking about sharing photos of proud moments or family reunions or special occasions or trip slide shows.  These keep people updated and tend to bring a sense of joy and inspiration to others when they see them. (i.e. "The Smith family went to Australia! We're going there next year so let's call them for travel tips." Or "Do you remember Jenny from Nevada? Her mother has cancer, let's be sure to send her a card." Etc.) I do not have any problem with using FB that way, in fact, I welcome the opportunity to find out about these things. Used in this way I think can be beneficial.

But another problem that I have with Facebook, and I know I'm not alone in this, is that it can be a huge time sucker.  I was talking with an acquaintance who said to me recently, "The kids were with my ex over vacation and I was so bored that I ended up going on Facebook for 2 hours!"

She was bored, so instead of doing something fun or productive with her time, she spent that time sitting all alone, staring at her computer screen, watching what other people were doing.  (And this, by the way, is from the woman who is always too busy to read the books for book club!)  This made me think, how many books have gone unread, or unwritten for that matter, because people were squandering their precious free time by gaping at other people's lives?  How many pictures have gone unpainted, how many songs have gone unwritten, how much fashion has gone have gone unsewn, how many museums have remained empty, the list of creative and inspiring things people could be doing with their time is endless.

Not to mention, what is so wrong with being a little bit bored from time to time?  Think about it: If we're not constantly rushing around, hurrying from one thing to another to make sure we're never bored, then we may actually get an opportunity to figure out what we'd rather be doing and assess what our true passions are.  It's only when we have nothing else to do that we can realize what it is we'd LIKE to be doing instead.

My friends and I never complained about being bored to our parents because that would have inevitably resulted in us being assigned something productive to do around the house.  So how did we occupy ourselves and procrastinate without social media? In other words, what were the time suckers of our childhoods?  I was a reader, some kids spent hours on the phone, some hung out at the mall, and some played sports with the neighborhood kids.  While these activities definitely kept us from doing things like our chores and homework, we always managed to take care of our responsibilities anyway.  Why? Partly because parenting was different back then and there were serious consequences when our household chores went undone.  But even more than that aspect, I believe that the biggest reason we didn't get completely immersed in our distractions was because they all had definite ending times.  The book eventually ended so I could put it down and attend to my obligations.  The mall eventually closed, or we had a set pick up time so we couldn't stay there forever. Stickball games ended when the street lights came on so everyone could go home and eat dinner.  We didn't expect to do any of these things without a defined completion time.

But Facebook isn't like that.  Nor is YouTube or Twitter or other social media sharing sites.  Because the internet has billions and billions of data items on it, and that number is growing every single day.  This means that even a casual user can literally never be done with it. (As of September 8, 2016, there were 4.3 billion Facebook messages posted every day and 5.75 billion Facebook likes posted each day as well.)  Once you click on one video to watch, another one pops up that's similar, and then there's another followed by another followed by another ad infinitum. So it's very easy to see why people end up spending so much time on Facebook (and other sites too) - with a book you can put it down when it ends but with the internet, there's never an end.

I am by no means longing for the simplicity of my youth when books and 3 television channels were our main sources of entertainment.  Not at all!  But I do think it's worth remembering the time before social media sharing when we did things that we enjoyed without constantly thinking about showing them to everyone we knew. There wasn't pressure to keep our hair perfectly done at the pool because there was no danger of someone snapping a photo and sharing with with the world.  We could go to a restaurant and simply enjoy a meal without feeling the need to take a perfectly framed picture of it to prove to others that we know good cuisine.  There wasn't the stress in the back (or front) of our minds that we had to do certain things or go to certain places to make sure we were keeping up with everyone else's accomplishments that we were hearing about multiple times during each day.

Facebook can be a wonderful tool of support when people need it. I personally received a lot of loving messages of encouragement from dozens of people when I was going through my failed back surgery and complications.  And I think if someone wants to go on it every few weeks to catch up on people or news that's perfectly fine.  But when people focus all of their energies on doing things just so they can post them, or when they spend copious amounts of time watching and envying other people instead of concentrating on their own lives, or when hard-hearted souls decide to broadcast their prejudices to demean and belittle others, then I think it's a detriment to our psyches.  Children have committed suicide, marriages have broken apart, and life-long friendships have ended due to people placing excessive meaning on what they see on Facebook.  I'm assuming that Facebook wasn't the only reason these tragedies occurred, but it certainly seems to have played a tremendous part.

One more time, I'm not scorning Facebook as an entity. It is the best way we currently have to find and keep in touch with people we'd previously lost touch with.  It's a fun, efficient, and no-cost way to get the word out about life events like new jobs, new homes, new family members, and birthday milestones.  It helps artists publicize their gigs, business owners to drum up new customers, and a great way to solicit advice from a vast cross-section of the virtual population. But when it becomes the barometer by which you measure your self-worth, your main motivation for what you do, or an endless black hole into which your real life goals and dreams disappear,  I believe it can be dangerous.  I encourage you to find another way to fill your leisure time with something that is REAL, that satisfies and sustains you, and that is creative, invigorating, relaxing, and truly fulfilling. Volunteer at a community garden, knit scarves for your grandparents, paint the walls of your bedroom a new color - whatever makes you happy and fills you up while remembering that the activity is just for YOU. There's no need to post the results because it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks about it. If those things are too strenuous, then find something to do that's pleasurable but has a definite ending point. Watching Netflix, reading comic books, baking cupcakes, whatever - but they should be things that you enjoy that don't have the potential to go on forever.

Life is short.  It's up to you how you want to spend the time that you've been given. Do you think anyone's final thoughts on his or her deathbed are "I wish I'd spent more time on Facebook?"

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