The Ties That (Oughtn't) Bind

Posted on August 16, 2017

The First Step

Hi, my name is Jimmy and I’m a Facebook-aholic.

An amusing thing to say, certainly. But when I say it there’s just a bit of a serious edge. I remember in college the running joke was how addictive Facebook is, and I now take this seriously. Like a sober addict from drugs, I refuse to use Facebook at all. There are people out there who can have a Facebook account, accumulate friends, and rarely check it, going to it only when they need to contact that long-lost relative or use its more sophisticated features to organize an event. I am not one of those people.

If I were to reactivate my Facebook account — and the fact that it is impossible to fully delete it should be considered unethical behavior on their part — I would immediately descend into hours of reminiscing.

Let’s re-read that conversation with that girl who clearly had a crush on me that I didn’t know what to do with — would I be able to handle the situation better now? Let’s look back through years of message history randomly. Oh, someone has posted a political view I disagree with, and has implied that everyone who disagrees with them (that’s me) is a horrible person! Let me argue with them even though they’re clearly set in their ways.

Four hours later, exhaustion will finally force me to fall asleep, and the next day, at work, I will continue the boneheaded political argument with the person I used to know a long time ago, checking in on it every time I use the restroom. Someone is wrong on the Internet. Generally in an intentionally infuriating fashion. To be clear, I’m not even talking about partisan politics here, which is a whole ’nother kettle of fish.

Arguing against people you think are so severely wrong, especially when they’re so clearly ignorant about basic facts, is very addicting, and feels like a human duty. Don’t we care about the society we live in? Don’t we worry that if enough people actually believe this trash, bad things will happen, as clearly they already have started to? Even now, I find myself compulsively writing and then deleting haphazard points against memes and types of articles that have particularly rankled me, even though it greatly distracts from the flow of what I’m writing.

Meanwhile, the trolls, who at this point is everyone you disagree with, claim you’ve conceded the argument if you’re not quite as up on it as they are. How dare you not use your phone for five hours? It must be because you were struck speechless, not because you have a job and a life, and maybe whatever point they raised required an actual nuanced response — if only to get through the walls you already know they have up to the straight-forward one.

Meanwhile, instead of optimizing for substance and edification, the journalism on the Internet — especially that on Facebook — optimizes for rage and clickability.

End result: You get many of the same brain chemicals produced in your brain from Facebook that you might get from an addictive drug (like, say, caffeine — reading my writing is no place to feel smugly superior), in equally ill-earned circumstances. Someone liking your comment on Facebook is not worth the same as a friend complimenting you to your face, but it happens way more often and way closer to on-demand. Making a well-liked point against an Internet troll is not the same quality as defeating an enemy, standing up for a friend in a non-cyber situation, or even getting a good zing against someone you know personally — but it sure is easier to get to. Reading a good article in a magazine — even an online magazine — is much more rewarding than reading whatever hyperpartisan or just hyper-clickbaity trash-of-the-day went out.

For all of these things, we prefer the real thing. It’s just, I personally won’t seek out the real things when the fake thing is so readily available.

And I’m not opposed to moderate Facebook use. I just literally can’t do it. Everything described above plays on my emotions so vibrantly and perfectly.

Giving Up Facebook — The Virtue of Boredom

Sometime late in 2016, I made the conscious decision to block Facebook as a website and an app from my phone (via parental controls — there’s no way to do this without also blocking whatever Apple arbitrarily deems inappropriate). This turned out to be insufficient; I had put in the block, I could just as easily take it down, and one day when I was feeling tired and crappy, I just browsed Facebook until I had found 5 hours gone.

Account: Deactivated. After Facebook tried to play on my heartstrings by showing me pictures of friends who would supposedly miss me (though I’ve been just as in touch with most of them, really), it messed up by showing me someone I’d just recently had a disastrous attempt at dating with. Hah! You don’t know me Facebook!

Here was my theory: I’d be more inclined to do interesting and cool things, like read a book or go for a bike ride or play piano or meet up with friends in the park, if I had fewer relatively sucky but relatively accessible things around like Facebook to addict me.

My theory has worked in the past. I learned a lot of piano as a teenager practicing whenever my parents insisted that I be visibly ready to leave the house, in spite of the fact that I knew that we wouldn’t actually be leaving for at least another ten minutes. I also practiced or read whenever we had guests and I didn’t know what to talk about, or wasn’t sure whether what I wanted to talk about was appropriate, or even if I was just bored of the conversation.

Unfortunately, nowadays we don’t need Facebook as an excuse to stare at our smartphones. While I would never go back to having a Facebook account, I certainly haven’t done enough to clear myself its downfalls.

A Productive India Trip

So here I am in India. I’m writing an essay right now. I’ve been actually spending much more time reading and learning a new skill (the Hindi language, which I so far have only a very limited knowledge of). Much to my advantage, I don’t have someone to go out with every day here. If I want to call or text my friends, my windows for doing so are awkward and limited. What better time to set some new, productive habits?

What habits are these, you may ask? Well, I’ve blocked my computer from accessing most of the common websites I browse and sworn myself to reading absolutely no articles on the Internet unless they are explicitly sent to me. I also blocked from my computer my webcomics — I get the new updates e-mailed to me and if I go to the website itself I’ll just browse the archives on repeat.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in India working, and when I haven’t been working i’ve been trying to explore. It’s been extremely productive and focused work, partially due to the fact that this iteration of my program has more collaboration and more external organization — in the New York office it was my students and a single informal teaching assistant, whereas here I have a co-instructor for every topic.

But the single biggest thing, and the biggest reason I’ve been doing more stuff I actualy enjoy, is that when I do have some downtime, I have so few options to entertain myself with. I bring my Hindi study materials and my Kindle with me everywhere, to read on the terrifying car rides. Perhaps I’ll bring the improved habits back home with me.