A friend’s request on Facebook that others unfriend him was what brought it into focus for me — the idea that we’ve crashed into the limitations of social media, that Facebook as a platform and a tool is inadequate for what it’s attempting to provide, what it can’t provide.
Last Saturday, as everyone in North America’s feed blew up with updates related to the Women’s March, he wrote:
“I love and respect each of you but I am terribly fatigued by rhetoric, anger and politics.”
At first, this struck me badly, as a response to the specifics of that day. I had been at the march and was exhilarated by the event. I thought I knew how my friend had voted in the last election, and that we had voted differently (turns out I was incorrect, but not in the way I thought). And yet …
I knew the feeling. I too am terribly fatigued.
When I stopped delivery of my daily newspaper, I started to scan Facebook and Twitter instead. I am thinking about re-starting my daily subscription—or creating an RSS feed to scan over breakfast.
It’s not just fake news or discourse coming from the other side. I’m exhausted by the volume, tone, and velocity of social media, Facebook especially.
My exhaustion is, in important ways, a function of Facebook’s phenomenal success. What was once a modest way to connect with distant friends has grown into a way to broadcast all manners of things to large numbers of people, near and far.
I value people sharing an opinion, a milestone, a struggle, a recommendation, a call for help. I appreciate people celebrating their joys and sharing their challenges (really, this is not a call for people to stop trying to connect).
But when many, many people share at once, as happens in the current political situation, the volume of personal broadcasting is overwhelming and much of it is strident. I liken it to going to the supermarket and running into everyone I know in town—three times a day, every day—and half of them are angry.
And that’s only the beginning of the overwhelm.
Beyond personal sharing, Facebook has become entertainment. It’s become celebrity watching. It’s become a primary source of news. It’s become commerce. It’s become the soap box, the confessional, the debate club, the healing circle, the corner bar, the octagon. It’s become the commons, where it performs the audible miracle of allowing me to hear the roaring street AND the individual voice at the same time.
The secret for Facebook was taking all these experiences and concentrating them into one experience. It took many of the informational, conversational and emotional inputs of one’s life and put them into a single feed–like a master chef who takes many disparate elements and, through the use of a pot and some heat, creates the most delicious, seductive reduction. You could check in on almost all aspects of your life—excepting money—at the same time.
Which was exhilarating. Until it became less exhilarating. Then annoying. Then concerning. And now, many times, tiresome and distracting.
I’d been feeling an allergic reaction to Facebook beginning before the election season. It manifested itself in the usual complaints: oversharing, humblebragging, etc. And let me beat you to an obvious point: I’m as guilty as anyone. I’ve mined my life for likes. Shared a photo of a son in a hospital bed without asking his permission. Shared a family death before I was sure every person who shouldn’t find out on Facebook had been told, then looked at someone who was offended as if THAT person was some sort of social Luddite.
And when I review my behavior, I think, the problem was not sharing. The problem was sharing with everyone I’m in relationship with on Facebook at the same time.
Looked at plainly, I did it for several reasons:
To that last point, I’ve been thinking about who I want to talk to. And I’m realizing that I need to be far more intentional about Facebook, because this marvelous tool, and its ubiquitous feed, has changed my relational taste buds. Because what you say on Facebook, you say once, to everyone you know on the platform, in a single way.
I suspect that, in this particular season and maybe in every season, this is not for the better.
Because that’s not how it is in most of my life. There, I talk to specific people and groups about singular parts of my life, in many different ways. Based on what we know about each other. Based on what we don’t know, or maybe don’t want to know, about each other. With some people, I joke. With some, I’m earnest. With others, I press. I’m curt. With some, I do most of the talking. With some, I simply listen. With all, the relationship is bent by the complexities of experience, viewpoint, and a thousand other things.
With Facebook, something is lost in the equation. I can respond on the platform — I do, every day. I like, I “react”, I comment. But “liking,” “reacting” and listening are not the same thing. And on the posting end, to post on Facebook and not receive a sufficient number of “likes” (you know your number) feels like one has been ignored. And being ignored on Facebook doesn’t feel good.
I don’t imagine I will delete the app and step away from Facebook. That doesn’t solve the larger issue, because even if you skip on the amazing sauce they serve at Zuckerberg’s Diner, you still need to eat. And I want to eat. I yearn to connect. I yearn to share my truth. But for me, connection and truth-telling do not translate well as wholesale transactions. (There are people who very ably integrate Facebook with what seems to be their whole lives. I would love to understand how they do it. I plan to talk to them about it.)
I am thinking now about what is the best way to be in relationship with people, rather than the easiest. And in that spirit, how should I approach Facebook?
I’m thinking that I’ll use Facebook to share “thought” things — when I write things like this AND, importantly, when I want to offer emotional or personal support to people and values that matter to me. I think such things benefit from airing in the Commons. Oh, and you’ll get the occasional personal/familial milestone. (Note: My 25th anniversary is just two months away.) Twitter (@kevdonahue) is likely to be more spontaneous, but again, it’s a singular broadcast to a varied audience. I don’t expect it to resolve this tension for me.
I don’t know if anything is going to “solve” this, actually. FACEBOOK IS SO DAMN EASY. Especially for guys, who often aren’t skillful at or don’t want to put in the time to cultivate practices of intimacy and connection.
So back to my friend, who suggested that one way to solve this Facebook issue was to unfriend. I offered this:
“We are not going to re-engineer [Facebook] into something else. My intention in 2017 is to develop or return to tools that do what I want. Three thoughts: 1. want to set up a scheduled phone call? Things that aren’t scheduled rarely survive these days. Maybe we include others. 2. Scheduled email. Or maybe mail it. There’s something about words put down physically that makes me think about them more. 3. I use an app called Path for family stuff that I don’t want to put on Facebook. You are family, and I’d be happy to include you in my family there.”
So that’s my “broadcast” plan. My “listening” plan is to restrain my checking of Facebook and Instagram to twice daily. Twitter is going to be harder. No promises. If you need me to see something, email or text. Yup, old school. I’m going to try this through February. I expect it isn’t The Solution, but an opening position as I renegotiate social media. Because in this time and these circumstances, this no longer works for me.
If you are feeling similarly overwhelmed and want to not count on Facebook to connect us, you’ll be able to find my longer thoughts at Medium (www.playful.li) or WordPress (www.kevdonahue.com). And friend me on the app Path (available on iOS and Android, my gmail is kevdonahue). For me, Path is old Facebook — no brands, no sharing news (real or fake), all photos and drop-ins and experiences and favorite songs and words. I don’t promise it won’t be political at times — today I posted a checkin from the protest to the Trump Administration’s Executive Order on Immigration — but the post before was a four-plus-decades-old photo of my wife as a young girl. You want to know how my mom is looking and doing? For the foreseeable future, that’s Path. (And, by the way, she is feeling and looking great!)
If you love Facebook, please, keep loving it. If it informs, connects, frustrates, and delights you, continue to be informed, connected, frustrated, and delighted. I’d be interested in hearing how others skillfully “receive” Facebook in their lives.
And if any piece of this affirms a thought or a feeling you’re having, sit with it and do your own discernment. Think creatively about what is best for you — and pursue that.
We are coming to some sort of decision point about technology and relationship. I don’t know where it takes us individually or collectively. Frankly, the “collectively” part scares the heck out of me right now. It seems the viral nature of social platforms and the self-confirming tendencies of human nature lead to unreality bubbles. But it’s not for me to decide how everyone will use these tools that have wound themselves so sinuously into our lives. I can only do that for myself. And my intention is to pay attention in a way that doesn’t eat me alive or send me chasing my own anxieties and preoccupations.
Which brings me to a quote I read in a really good post (Distraction is ruining the country, on BackChannel), from somebody named Herb Simon, in 1971:
“In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
Wishing you riches of attention,