By Tom Robotham
A strange thing happened to me a couple of months ago: I woke up one day and had no desire to open Facebook.
For many people, that wouldn’t be noteworthy. I have a number of friends who rarely look at the site. But for me it was significant. For well over a decade, posting on Facebook was part of my daily routine—and I have to admit, it enriched my life in many ways.
First and foremost, it facilitated connections with old friends. I’d stayed in touch by phone or email with close buddies from childhood and college, but with the advent of Facebook our contact became more frequent. Then there were those friends with whom I’d lost touch entirely. Suddenly, I was catching up on their lives. In one case, a Facebook connection even led to a lunch in my hometown with someone I’d had a big crush on in middle school but hadn’t seen or heard from since.
Facebook connections have also sparked new relationships, as public comments led to private messages, which in turn led to meet ups at bars or coffee shops.
The platform, moreover, allowed me to share my most passionate convictions, from my love of certain records and books, to my firmest political beliefs. During the Trump nightmare, posting political commentary took on a sense of urgency greater than it ever had before, and although I knew that my posts weren’t likely to change anyone’s mind, the reassurance I got—through “likes” and approving responses—was invaluable. Trump’s incessant and vicious gaslighting, after all, was intended to make us feel as if we were alone and losing our grip on reality. Facebook connections with like-minded people helped keep me sane.
SO WHY DID I LOSE INTEREST?
The fact is, I’m not entirely sure. The other night a friend asked if it was because we’re finally free of Trump, and I told him that was probably part of it. The aforementioned sense of urgency is no longer there. But that can’t be the entire explanation. As I noted above, much of what I posted—even during the Trump years—had nothing to do with politics.
During my hiatus from the platform, I’ve thought about sharing such interests—my enthusiasm for the Netflix documentary series Our Planet and the Showtime drama Billions among them. I’ve considered, as well, posting a celebration of my first vaccine dose, a meditation on the return of baseball, and an ode to the joys of listening to music on studio headphones, which I’ve been doing lately. But the urge to post was short lived.
For now, at least, I’d rather write about such things in this space and elsewhere, which is a different undertaking altogether. When we write for print publications, we have ample time to reflect—over the course of days or weeks—on what it is we’d like to say. Engaging in such writing is akin to cooking a stew: It takes time to assemble the ingredients, add them to the mix step by step, and let them simmer for a long time before offering it up for consumption. Theoretically, one could do the same thing on Facebook. But the site is not designed that way; it’s engineered to elicit immediate responses—the equivalent of zapping something in a microwave rather than cooking slowly and meticulously.
THE MORE TIME I SPEND away from Facebook, the more I realize how thoroughly I had succumbed to its manipulations. And in spite of those enrichments that I mentioned earlier, my activity on the site often led to regrets—especially after I got sucked into political arguments.
Another consideration is the way in which simply scrolling through Facebook dissipated my focus. Way back in 2008, Nicholas Carr wrote about this phenomenon in an Atlantic article called, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” He doesn’t mention Facebook, per se, since at the time it was just beginning to conquer the world, but what he says about spending time online in general applies to Facebook in spades.
“Over the past few years,” he wrote, “I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages.”
To my mind, his argument is not merely compelling—it’s irrefutable.
I’m also reminded of the scene in the movie Bruce Almighty in which Jim Carrey can hear what everybody in the world is thinking. Scrolling through a Facebook “news” feed can sometimes feel that way: in the course of a few minutes, you might see political rants, personal expressions of grief, close-up photos of somebody’s accident wounds, local gossip, pictures of people’s lunch and all manner of other things. It’s occurred to me lately that our brains are simply not built for this volume of exposure—all at once—to the private lives of others.
DON’T GET ME WRONG. I’m not passing judgments. If you continue to enjoy the platform, more power to you. What I’m offering here is simply a personal testimony to how it affected me—and that has as much to do with the headspace in which I’ve been dwelling recently as it does with the design of social media.
In recent weeks, I’ve come to remember how much I need large swaths of solitude. I always have. And I used to embrace that. Some of my fondest life memories, in fact, are of solo trips the mountains (as I noted in this space last month), or to big cities, where I could walk for hours in a state of public solitude, to borrow a phrase from the great acting teacher Constantin Stanislavski.
I recognize the apparent irony, of course. The pandemic, after all, has given me more time alone than I’ve ever had before. But solitude is a particular state of mind that is not automatically achieved simply because you’re not around other people. To dwell in solitude, one must quiet the mind. Spending time on Facebook, I’ve come to realize, makes this utterly impossible for me. There’s just too much psychic noise.
As this realization has settled in, I’ve come to appreciate actual social connections all the more, whether in person or during long telephone calls with far-flung friends.
In spite of all this, I’ve kept my Facebook page open—and I still check it briefly about once a day to see if I’ve missed anything important: a private message, a significant news item I’d not seen elsewhere, or, god forbid, the death of someone I know. (Unfortunately, I’ve learned about quite a few of those from Facebook over the last year.)
I’ve also continued to post links to VEER, whether to alert readers to a new column of mine or just to make people aware that a new issue has hit the streets. At some point, I may start posting other things again. But as of now, I still have no interest in doing so—for while the benefits once outweighed the costs, they no longer do. When I’m not actually in the company of cherished friends, I’d much rather spend time in the company of nature, books and music—or simply dwell in the serenity of silence.