Signal and Noise – Facebook, We Need to Talk

Continuing the emergent theme of January for this blog, I thought this post could discuss some of the thoughts that have been mulling around in my head for the last few months.  Once again, in the spirit of pulling back and simplifying, I’ll briefly comment on some thoughts I’ve had about Facebook (specifically) and social media (generally).

This won’t be a think piece about the problems with the various platforms, their social responsibility, the degree to which they are or are not responsible for the behaviours of their users, etc.  There are many great articles written on those topics that have spun out as a consequence of the American Presidential election late last year.  I have nothing new or clever to add to that conversation.

Instead, I want to focus on my relationship with social media – how it has affected me and my behaviour.  You, my dear reader, may or may not agree with my attitude towards social media.  That’s ok.  I’m not speaking to any sort of norms here.  I don’t think people should adopt my views if they don’t want to.  Your relationship with social media is wholly bound up in a different set of lived experiences which is not guaranteed to overlap with mine in any meaningful sense.  I will be describing my experiences here.

Birthday 2015

In 2015, I set a challenge for myself to cut back on my Facebook use.  I felt that I was spending far too much time endlessly and mindlessly scrolling through Facebook.  This challenge was motivated by a desire to be more productive in my life.  I wanted to consume less and produce more; I felt this was important for me to grow as a person.  Facebook was a constant and daily consumption habit where I binged on updates from my network of friends and family.  It was less about a sense of fear of missing out and more about seeking updates to what people were doing and things they found interesting.

So, on my birthday in 2015, I deleted the app off my phone.  The experiment wasn’t very successful as I logged into Facebook using my phones Chrome browser (I had legitimate reasons to need onto the site initially since my job at the bar uses a Facebook group for scheduling shifts).  When I didn’t log off from the browser, I essentially was left with Facebook on my phone.

It took until around September of 2016 to wise up to my usage, and I deleted the Chrome app from my phone.  For the last 4 months of 2016, I abided by the spirit of the original challenge and things were good.

Birthday 2016

Every year at the outset of my birthday, on the stroke of midnight, I deactivate my Facebook account for 24-hours.  I do this for a number of reasons.  It allows me to be more present in the day.  It allows room to reflect and introspect.  I don’t have a constant deluge of notifications from people wishing me a happy birthday (especially from people who only message me once a year because Facebook tells them it’s my birthday).  And it removes a mindless activity so that I can do more productive things with my birthday, such as exercising and volunteering.

This year was no exception on that front.  What was unique was that my birthday was buttressed against several days of travel and time with family.  For the better part of  the next five days,  I was busy with family and Christmas, and was never near a computer with enough time or the desire to check Facebook.  I realized only after my family expressed concern that I had possibly unfriended them (and my fiancee joking that she was no longer engaged to someone on Facebook) that I finally logged back in.

Upon logging back in, I realized that I hadn’t really missed the experience.  The first few days did have me missing Facebook in moments of boredom, but otherwise I hadn’t really missed using the service.  I was actually a little sad that I was giving in and returning to the service because it became a game to see how long I could go without using Facebook.

I also realized that I felt happier in my ignorance.  Well, that’s not true because I still followed the news and read articles; I kept up with current events.  But in not paying attention to the micro-updates in peoples lives and in unverified news, a weight had lifted from my psyche.

Signal and Noise

When I reflected on these thoughts, I realized that I should maintain some element of distance from using Facebook going forward and disengage.  My rationale has changed a little bit since 2015.  I still seek to favour production over consumption, but since the election, using Facebook has become, for a lack of a better expression, less fun.  Through a combination of fake news, false information on memes, politicization, activism, expressed attitudes and values I disagree with on many levels, and uninteresting updates, I don’t enjoy using Facebook like I once had.

What I realized is that the signal-to-noise ratio had skewed too far in the noise direction.  I personally don’t find Facebook all that useful outside of some very limited cases.  I was having a hard time filtering out all the distractions.  There are a number of reasons for this that, if I genuinely sought to address, I could fix.  I could start hiding posts, or reporting fake news.  I could unfriend people I don’t associate with, or I could hide posts and stop following updates from people in my network.  I could curate the experience to better suit my tastes.

There are two big reasons why I don’t follow this route.  First, I’m conscious of trying to avoid setting up an echo chamber that reflects back only things I agree with.  I value diversity of opinion, even if I disagree with it.  What I’m seeing on Facebook is not opposing viewpoints expressing themselves constructively.  This may make me a bad person, an abuser of my privilege, or a bad ally, but I don’t find value in only associating with people who narrowly share my values and beliefs.  It’s especially bad when I agree with the cause, I agree with the conclusions, but I disagree with the message or argument presented.  I value setting aside individual differences for common purposes.  I value good, sound arguments.  I value constructive input and critiques.  I value testing assumptions and arguments to ensure the burrs are smoothed out.  A consequence is that this does end up challenging my beliefs less; on that front, I acknowledge the consequence of my action.  I don’t have an adequate response to this and I need more time to reflect on it.

But the second reason why I don’t follow this route is that I don’t feel invested in the desire to fix the experience I have on the platform.  Instead, I’m much happier to step back from the noise and seek other areas of my life where I can boost the signal of things that matter to me.  I can focus on paying for news that I value (I recently purchased a subscription to The Economist, and a subscription for The New Yorker was gifted to me for Christmas).  I prioritize time with friends and family.  Being present with them is more important than cursory updates.  And I have the time to satisfy my desire to be constructive – making things, collaborating with friends, and learning.

To me, Facebook is an endless well of distraction.  Are there useful things on there?  Sure.  Are there important things on the platform?  Absolutely!  The activism and awareness campaigns that have popped up in the last year are a testament to how the platform can be useful to getting the conversation going for a mainstream audience.  I would never want to take that away from the experiences of others.  What I have a personal issue with is what the behaviour represents about me.  Facebook is a crutch I use to distract and occupy myself when I’m bored or procrastinating.  I seek out the notifications and the feedback.  I seek out validation and approval.

Facebook is built specifically to take advantage of this biological system in our brains.  I won’t go so far as to say it’s addictive, but I will say that the site is engineered to get people to frequently come back to the platform multiple times per day through posts, notifications and suggestions.  It leverages my desire for novelty and new content is frequently just a refresh away.

The same can be said for other platforms such as Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram.  I suppose where my bias shows is I’m less critical of Instagram because I can curate my experience better around my interests and hobbies.  On top of that, I find the experience purer on Instagram because I use it to share things I do and find interesting in my everyday life.  These are things that I experience and these are things I make.  It’s constructive, rather than consumptive.

Moving forward, I’m seeking to engage less with social media.  I don’t hate or think Facebook to be evil.  It’s a tool like any other.  My goal is to scale back my use and be more mindful.  I want to signal-boost the important things and tip the scales away from consumption into something more constructive.

Produce, not consume.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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