My Forty-Six Days Without Facebook
(And How I Lived To Tell About It)
I was off FB for lent. And it was awesome. No, I'm not a practicing Catholic, but I've found the exercise of depriving oneself of something you overly imbibe in to be a fantastic discipline. It's only once a year and lasts just over a month, so pretty doable. I included the Sundays, which apparently you don’t have to, but it was all or nothing for me. And yes, I realize the irony of having posted how great it was to be off of Facebook ON Facebook, but where the heck else was I going to talk about it besides here?
During the first few days, an enormous amount of willpower was needed. Touching that blue and white "f" was an automatic gesture, done without intention, simply a muscle memory tick. Resisting that motion was in and of itself telling. It was an addiction, I realized, regardless of how banal and harmless it seemed. I always knew how much time I wasted on FB, but I managed to justify a fair amount of those forever-gone hours. “I like to see what people are up to!”… “But I have to give my two cents on the issue!”… “I have to post my pithy comment to feed my ego!” On and on it went, until two hours later, I realized I was running late for work and my elbow had frozen into a crooked position.
Throughout the first week of deprivation, while some of my bar patrons were ordering soda and juice instead of whiskey and beer, I told them what MY renunciation had been. I prefaced it with a self-deprecating, “Well, I know it’s not much of a sacrifice, buuuut I gave up Facebook.” Their faces would drop. An immense seriousness came over them. I could sense their desire to take my hand in sympathy, to give it an understanding squeeze. Some told me they could never commit to that. Others gave me that stunned stare like when you learn someone died in a weird way and you don’t know what to say to the family. I realized giving up this vice was something I could perhaps begin bragging about.
After about ten days, I noticed my thoughts leaning towards FB a little less often. This led me to think about how often I had thought about FB in the first place. This is what I found to be most enlightening, but also most disturbing. Yes, I wasted a lot of time on the site, but I waste time doing all kinds of useless things (sitting in bars, re-watching Netflix series, pretend online shopping where I rack up my cart with loads of gorgeous shoes then never buy them). The difference in these time stranglers is that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. Not just physically, but mentally. You go to a bar, you see some people, you converse, you leave. You might recount an interaction, or wonder how your tab got so high, but then it’s on with life.
With FB, there is never EVER an end. It makes my mind forever gurgle with vague storylines of people's lives even when I’m offline. I have formless ideas of their angers and defeats, their joys and accomplishments. Often of people who I’ve met but once, or haven’t seen since high school. Gossip, accusations, birthdays, announcements, events, revelations, frustrations, warnings, musings. Every day I skimmed over a schizophrenic diary of 1,481 friends, often adding my own non-sequitur. I consumed thousands of appetizers, rarely a main course, not even knowing if I was hungry.
Still seeing the app on my phone was like driving past an ex’s house. I wanted to see what he was up to, but I knew I couldn’t be creeping around. Swipe to the next screen, Nicole! Swipe to the next screen! Instead, I did a lot of checking in on the weather and my emails, replacing one tick for another. However, this information was far more static than the dangling carrot of a “ ↑new story↑”, and quickly led to boredom or sleep. I began reading more, writing more, and getting more zzz's. Maybe there was more to this than I had expected.
After the second week sans FB, I started to notice a deeper change. My FB-free anxiety had subsided substantially and I no longer carried that churning curiosity of “today’s memories” and random observations. I suspected my attitude toward FB would change through the lenten sacrifice, but I didn’t know my brain chemistry would actually begin to feel different. Without sounding *too* hippie new age, my cerebral matter felt to be at a lower temperature. A static had been turned down, cooling the engines, allowing operation at a more optimum speed. I’m being serious. My brain felt different. Whoa.
By weeks three and four, I felt contently disengaged from the site, thinking of it rarely. In full disclosure, I did have to hop on a few times to find out a person’s name spelling, an event’s address, and to jog my memory of a contact. I would click on the site with great trepidation, fearing the wormhole would suck me in and I’d break my streak of self-restraint. Invariably, I would see a post or two simply by clicking on the homepage, but rather than yearn for unread notices, I was surprisingly uninterested. I stayed true to the business I was busy with, and logged off immediately afterwards. I was in control and it felt great.
Nearing the end of Lent, I had a conversation with a friend about some FB drama that was happening. “Oh, that’s right! You’re not on FB. Well, let me tell you what is happening….” She went on to describe this post and that comment, this rebuttal and that criticism. I found her condensed recount just as relevant and amusing as skimming through dozens (hundreds?) of remarks, and far less time consuming. It’s not even so much the totality of the discussion that’s distracting, but rather it’s the method in which the story adds up. I feel continually yanked back into a different train of thought every 25 seconds, three minutes, 45 seconds, two hours. It’s like waiting for the next page of a good book to arrive via snailmail, then donkey, airplane, fax, UPS, email, your neighbor,…. all with varying speed and context. You get a page while you’re in the waiting room wondering about your health. You get another page and now you’re on a friend’s couch enjoying a funny conversation. The next page comes while you’re stressed at work. Then you think the story is done, and you get another ten pages on your desk at 2am. It’s this constant ping-ponging of conditions with which some of us consume FB’s threads that creates a ticker tape of unresolved stories and broken up trains of thought. The brain acclimates to a low, dull disquiet, the gnawing considered normal.
I wasn’t fully conscious of FB’s building affect on my thought process over the years, but removing it from my life for forty-six days most certainly revealed it. Our thoughts are either deliberate, or they are filled by outside forces. Where there was no thought of “XYZ”, now there is thought of “XYZ”, but where did the thought come from? Where I wasn’t thinking about Tim’s dog, now I am thinking about Tim’s dog just because I logged on to FB. I needed to be more caring in how I filled my thoughts. I’m not saying Zucherberg has some furtive agenda, but damn, when your habits change, your brain feels different, and your energy’s intentions are redirected because of a website, that’s some heavy stuff. The site had ingratiated itself into my life to such a degree, I didn’t realize it was me doing the cultivating.
Trust me, I haven’t sworn off FB. I love it for its entertainment value and event advertising. What I’ll additionally enjoy now is being on the site with intention, knowing why I’m logging on, and knowing when to log off (for crying out loud). Knowing I’m not obligated to be on FB seems obvious, but it kind of wasn’t to me before lent, embarrassing as that is to admit. So, if I miss your birthday on FB, my apologies. It wasn’t intentional. And yet, it was.