This past summer I took a bit of break from social media, which I’ve done periodically in the past for a few weeks at at time. As always, the time off offered some good reminders and fresh perspectives (including what I love about social media, but that’s another post). One insight that I’ve been thinking about lately is writerly obsession and our use of in-between time.
“Writers are not all here, because a part of them is always ‘over there’—’over there’ being whatever world they are writing about at present. Writers live in two worlds—the real world of friends and family and the imaginary world of their writing…. Each is compelling in its own way and each makes its demands on a writer’s time.” ~ Terry Brooks, Sometimes the Magic Works, page 5
Social media becomes an easy substitute for the kind of obsessive thinking that is good for writers, a kind of positive distraction. Think of the last time you were truly engrossed in a writing project. You went to bed thinking about it, you woke up thinking about it. If you were lucky, you dreamt about it. You may have bored your family and friends by talking about it. Like Terry Brooks, you went through your day only half present, because the other part of your mind and heart and soul was somewhere else—with your writing. This meant that any in-between times in the day—waiting in line at the Post Office, sitting in a car wash, watching a pot of water come to a boil—would be jealously snatched as writing time, if only to think more about the words you would put on the page as soon as you were able.
This was how writing worked for me at the beginning of my writing career, when our son was very young and before 24/7 internet and smart phones. I admit it happens more rarely these days. Those in-between times are too easily filled with checking email or Facebook or Twitter, playing Words with Friends, seeing if a friend has posted a new Instagram photo, or, these days, compulsively checking election news and polls.
When I do sit down to write, it takes much more effort to gather momentum than if I’d been quietly obsessing all day long. And if I can’t think of what to write or how to continue from where I left off, rather than stare into space until I figure it out, my phone is always within reach.
This summer I have taken a bit of a social media sabbatical. Only after a couple of months now have I started dipping into Twitter, and, to a lesser extent, Facebook, and have yet to add the apps back to my phone.
Next week I’m going to write more on my reasons and what, if anything, I’ve learned, but first I’d love to know if others have done the same. Reply in the comments, drop me an email, or answer on Twitter or Facebook (yes, I see the irony).
Have you ever taken a break—complete or partial—from social media? What was the result?
I am still figuring out how best to engage social media (mainly Facebook and Twitter) in ways that feel authentic, nurture relationships and connection, and don’t sap time and energy away from creative work. Why this is such an issue for me I don’t entirely know, but I got a bit more insight from Gretchen Rubin’s most recent blog post about why she doesn’t read reviews of her work or profiles of herself. These two lines in particular struck me (emphases added):
“I’ve found that I’m happier, and a better writer, when I don’t read these pieces.”
“For the kind of writing I do, I need to be honest and open-hearted.”
While her post isn’t about social media, her reasoning strikes a chord. I am happier and a better writer when I spend less time with social media. Also, when writing, I need a wide inner space to attend to and transcribe my inner voice without thinking too much about how my words will be received or “liked,” whether in general or by someone in particular (which is different from keeping readers in mind in terms of clarity and sound writing).
I am fortunate that my Facebook friends are diverse in terms of where they live, what is important to them, how they vote, what they believe, and how they spend their free time. Finding a way to participate in this enriching, invigorating virtual sitting room without allowing it so drain my emotional or creative energy is the goal.
How to do that is something I am still figuring out, but I have changed my mind about deleting my Facebook account and have instead, for now, deactivated it. I was convinced by too many friends that saying goodbye forever may be a decision I would regret. In a few weeks I plan to re-activate Facebook, but with, I hope, some clearer personal strategies, such as 1) using lists to tailor with whom I share more personal statuses and photos versus general resources and 2) setting aside and scheduling specific, finite times for social media engagement.
That’s not to say I do not continue to have misgivings about Facebook’s business model. All of us too easily forget that Facebook is a business driven first and foremost by internet marketing, not a public service, as Paul Levy, a senior researcher at University of Brighton, reminds us:
“The free service Facebook offers to its 1.2 billion users is free because of the advertising revenue the site generates from the time that users spend on the site. This model drives a need to keep users on the site as much as possible.”
“If you thought you were going to start your new year with a clean sheet, then, as a social media user, think again. Facebook’s new and revised terms and conditions will see it observe your behaviour, location and the sites you visit in even more detail. In order, no doubt, to create further features to keep you engaged. Inevitably, these will also throw up further issues of badly targeted content and intrusion into our personal lives – a double-edged sword that can bring pleasure, or pain.” Read more
I do not think that these concerns are hyperbole or sensational. Beyond how Facebook may use our information, there is also the fact that our friends-only posts can, of course, be shared or saved by any of those friends through screen shots or cutting and pasting, which is not a problem if our friends list is very small and intimate, but many people’s Facebook friends also include acquaintances from many areas of our lives.
Finally, news outlets can use social media photos and statuses in lieu of more solid reporting, such as after deaths of public figures or even non-public figures who are involved in newsworthy accidents. Consider this advice for reporters covering deaths, from the textbook Reporting for Journalists (2nd edition, by Chris Frost, Routledge, 2010), my emphases added:
“Often news desks will ask you to get photographs. Always ask permission to borrow photographs and ensure they are returned. Remember that official school photographs may well be copyright of the photographer, so make sure you take some home-produced snaps in case there is a problem later. You won’t want to go back again. Accessing their Facebook page is the best way around this problem as you will be able to get a photo that can easily be used on a website, paper or broadcast and that does not require you to return it (although it is still their copyright). If you are unable to access their Facebook page because of the privacy settings, ask a member of the family to e-mail you a picture either from a Facebook page or direct from their photo album.”
Note that anything that has a “public” Facebook privacy setting, including all cover images, could be used in this way, regardless of whether our Facebook friends (or friends of friends, if that is our default setting) agree to share their own copies.
For now, my quest for an authentic social media that feels right to me is ongoing and in progress. Please share your own experiences and ideas in the comments.
Have you ever wondered if Facebook is worth it? Has it begun to feel a bit unreal, as though you are Alice falling down a rabbit hole?
This post is not for people who love Facebook and rarely doubt its role or value in their lives. In no way do I want to argue that everyone or anyone in particular should leave Facebook. I know plenty of people—many good friends—who have found ways to make Facebook work well for them, whether they interact with it several times a day or only occasionally.
Also, if you already know that you like your life better without Facebook—maybe you no longer have (or never had) an account or keep an old one around like that pair of jeans you might fit into someday, just in case—then you don’t feel the ambivalence I want to address here.
This post is for anyone who uses Facebook with ambivalence. To quote The Clash, “This indecision’s buggin’ me.”
1 : simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action
2 a : continual fluctuation (as between one thing and its opposite)
b : uncertainty as to which approach to follow
Leaving Facebook, Part I: Deactivation and non-status living
During the winter holidays I deactivated my Facebook account for about a month. Our son and daughter-in-law were coming for an extended visit, I had a lot of work to do before they arrived, and I wanted to be able to focus on enjoying their company as fully as I could. When I returned to Facebook, I promised myself I would not lapse back into using it as a fallback activity whenever I didn’t know what else to do or as a transition between tasks. You can probably guess how well that worked out.
During deactivation, though, I didn’t think much about Facebook at all. Sure, the first few days brought gnawing regret for what I might be missing: holiday photos, links to interesting resources, newsy family items, the latest memes, the oh-so-easy sense of connection that comes from increasing a like button counter. It didn’t take long at all, however, to begin to experience life in pre-social media, non-status ways.
Without the crutch of Facebook, I found myself (pause here to consider the full connotation of that phrase) thinking and reacting in ways that were only a few years ago normal. When meeting with friends in person, I had more to talk about and could ask to see vacation and other photos, no longer preempted by “I already saw that Facebook.” I read slowly to the end of provocative or funny or insightful articles without interrupting my own concentration after the first or second paragraph with the thought of sharing it on my wall. When working at home during the day, I switched from a Word document to checking research information on the web and back to my writing or indexing without the inevitable “Facebook check” interludes.
Leaving Facebook, Part II: Celebrity culture, voyeurism, and the icky factor
What brought me back to Facebook? I think it was wanting to see some photos of family members that I knew had been posted. Regardless of the reason, it didn’t take long for my old habits to return. While I never have spent hours on social media or felt addicted, it still took too much time and provided too little lasting enjoyment.
“It’s always tease tease tease”
So, several weeks after my initial winter hiatus, I began to ask the Facebook question with more urgency than before: Should I stay or should I go?
If I left, what would I miss (not “miss out on” but truly miss)? The ease of staying in touch with friends, especially friends from my youth or those who live far away. The sense of community that comes from being one of dozens of people to offer congratulations on an accomplishment or condolences on a loss. The reassurance that I am not one of the face(book)less, that I belong.
These are not minor considerations. On the other hand, my time on Facebook was feeling more and more like an Alice in Wonderland existence, a bit surreal and inauthentic. I couldn’t stop wondering about the strange fascination we have with peering into others’ lives. A book I indexed recently likened it to celebrity culture run amok, in the sense that scrolling through news feeds and profiles is like reading People magazine. I felt increasingly uneasy and even voyeuristic about the public nature of much that felt private. I found it harder and harder to justify the opportunity costs—what I could be doing or thinking or creating if I were not checking Facebook.
Harder to explain is the general “icky” factor in terms of how I felt about own reactions. I consider myself to be an open person in the Big Five personality sense and value tolerance, but can anyone really avoid the tiny, silent, often unconscious judgments we make about how “other people” use Facebook? Ick.
One extra consideration, though, that gave me some pause was that, as a writer, I sometimes used Facebook to share new blog posts and connect with readers. Writers and other creatives today are urged to have a strong social media presence as a part of their platforms. Would the trouble be double if I decided to stay—or to go? Would my website and newsletter and Twitter be enough?
You might say that I should just have the discipline to check Facebook once or twice a day for five minutes and leave it at that. I wish I could. I have tried. I know some people can. But I don’t want to lurk and not participate—it feels rude to post something then disappear while others respond—and five minutes are never five minutes once I start liking and commenting and sharing.
Pulling the Plug
In the end my decision to go rather than to stay had less to do with time and more to do with wanting to experience life and people differently. Before deactivating my account, I downloaded an archive of my content and made notes of a few birthdays that I wouldn’t otherwise remember. The archive includes a list of my friends, so I am going through that list to see who is on Twitter and Instagram (neither of which affects me negatively for some reason), what email addresses I have, and whose contact information I still need to obtain. I plan to email a lot of those friends individually in the coming weeks and months.
In December I posted a status that I would be in deactivation mode for awhile, but this time I decided to slip away quietly. There is the risk that a few people might wonder if I have unfriended them; however, anyone who knows me well would, I hope, not make that assumption too quickly, as I have never intentionally unfriended anyone.
This time around I have also gone beyond deactivating to deleting [see my April 14, 2015 update on un-deleting]. Why? Because my uncertainty about Facebook’s effects on our daily life, self-perceptions, attitudes towards others, empathy, and compassion reached a tipping point. Because I am 50 years old and feel an increasing pull toward creative generativity and a decreasing amount of energy to fritter away. Because I am confident that I will maintain contacts in other ways, maybe not right away, but in time. Because I want to exercise my freedom to make my own decisions based on what feels right to and for me.
Because I can.
Life somehow goes on.
If you feel ambivalent about Facebook, watch the video below and don’t be afraid to give yourself permission to deactivate, delete, or just decompress for awhile. Or, if Facebook is for you after all, skip ahead to enjoy The Clash singing “Should I Stay or Should I Go.”
Toward greater meaning and authenticity, more daily words, and better writing
Lisa Rivero has written professionally for over twenty years. In this blog, she shares her own writing journey, experience from teaching college-level writing and creative thinking, and resources and ideas for writers and other creatives.
"If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?" ~ Hillel the Elder