There we all were, scrolling away quite happily through our news feed. Consuming our daily dose of procrastination like the good, docile citizens we are, when somebody finally got their head over the parapet and realised that all was not as it seemed in the wonderful world of Facebook.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal was a huge black eye for Mark Zuckerberg. For a moment, the curtain was pulled back, and the Wizard of Oz was revealed as the mortal he is. The platform touted as the single most effective means for connecting people all over the world showed its dark side. Voter manipulation, fake news, mishandling and sale of user data and state-sponsored disinformation are just a few of the twisted tactics that have been used since the creation of the social network, not to mention the low-key monopolisation of online advertising using the ingenious algorithms designed by silicon valley geeks to ensure your custom goes where the highest bidder wants it to.
It certainly made me stop and think what the hell I have been doing since I joined Facebook over 12 years ago. I was worried about the amount of information about me that was in the public sphere, not because any of it was defamatory but more because it seems so easy to manipulate people in the online environment when you have a few key items of information.
Admittedly and thankfully, I am not guilty of over-sharing on Facebook. The constant updating of statuses, uploading of photos and sharing of videos always struck me as slightly desperate. It reminds me of the kid in the playground who was always trying to convince you that Bruce Lee was his uncle or that he was going to be in the starting XI for Manchester United last weekend, but he had to go to a party at Kim Kardashian’s house instead.
It’s often a vain attempt to convince people that our lives are infinitely more interesting than they are; that we have more money than we do, that we are better looking, more successful and more of everything desirable than is truly the case. It all boils down to attention seeking, and it’s further compounded by the fact that doing so makes us progressively more vulnerable to manipulation. It’s a vicious circle, and it’s hard to break.
With all of this in mind, I decided to take a break from Facebook for a month to see what might happen. I didn’t know if it would have a positive or negative effect or if it would have no effect at all but I was keen to find out. After all, I had been fine without Facebook for the 18 or so years preceding its arrival in my life so surely, I’d be fine without it now.
I started by deleting the app from my phone. That way, if I wanted to check my account, I’d have to manually log in on my browser, which is not very convenient and would allow me an opportunity to stop myself in the act. I also unsubscribed from all Facebook emails so I wouldn’t be tempted to follow any links in my inbox. These two steps made it difficult to unconsciously log on to Facebook, which is something I have been guilty of when I’m bored, or my attention wanders. I’ll skip to the end and say that I managed to go a month without using Facebook and there were both positives and negatives as you’ll see:
I was more productive - I was getting much more work done and doing so more quickly than I had been previously. I attribute this to the fact that my boredom crutch had been removed and I needed to do something to fill the void. Work is not necessarily thrilling, but when it becomes the only way to pass the time, I found that I was certainly more prepared to do it.
I got back into reading - Not online articles but actual books. Remember them? Those papery things full of words? If you’re anything like me, you’ll sometimes wander into a bookshop, pick out a book, pay for it and get a tremendous sense of pride that you’re doing something intellectual. Well done you. Then you get home, and that book goes on a shelf or under a cup of coffee and never gets read. I’ve done this more times than I care to count and it bugs me.
Well, as a result of ‘No Facebook Month’ I picked out some of those books and read them cover to cover, like a proper nerd. Reading is a rare and misunderstood pleasure these days, and I think everyone would benefit from doing it more often, not least because you get to pick what you read. TV is programmed for you. Your news feed is not in your control. You may feel like you’re acquiring the information you want or need, but it’s not the same as actively selecting a book and giving it your attention.
I got back into meditation – I like meditation, but it’s hard. Sitting still and not doing anything for 20 minutes or more is a method we employ against unruly children as a punishment for misbehaviour, so I understand when people say they can’t sit still and switch off for long enough to feel any benefit. I find it allows me to feel peaceful, even if only for a short while (I’m certainly no Buddhist monk) and it’s a nice feeling. The only problem is it requires consistency to make any progress, and I have not been very consistent lately. However, since I’ve suddenly got quite a lot of time on my hands, it’s become easier to be consistent as I feel it can fit more easily into my day.
Also, if you’re in any doubt about how much time you’re spending on your phone, download the Moment app. This app tracks your phone usage and even breaks it down into specific apps, so you can find out where you are wasting the most time and do something about it.
I’ll admit that at first, I was quite anxious about coming off Facebook, as I was convinced that I’d be missing out on something important. That anxiety was initially quite distracting, and it took a bit of willpower to overcome it and break through the one-week barrier. After that, it became progressively easier to avoid.
I’ve got to say. However, that was just about the only negative effect of giving it up for a month. Once I did go back on Facebook for the first time, I quickly realised what an utter crock of worthless shit it feeds you. I had upwards of 100 notifications, and as I scrolled through them, it was shocking how many of them were actually of any use or interest. I counted three updates which were sent because a person wanted to communicate with me. The rest were all adverts, friend suggestions, ‘so-and-so updated their status’ or something similar and completely useless or uninteresting.
What was also interesting and unexpected was that Facebook started to email me after a few days off, despite the fact that I had unsubscribed from all emails. I guess that goes to show what your privacy and settings are worth when you try to unplug from the machine.
This may be coming off as a big anti-Facebook rant, but the truth is, I am 100% behind tech which brings people together and improves our lives through shared experience and knowledge. I know that services like Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger are brilliant and I use them regularly. The difference is that when Whatsapp pings at me, I know it’s a person trying to contact me, not an algorithm.
I believe that with some fairly minor adjustments, we can make technology work better for us as individuals but left to their own devices, developers and app designers will continue down this path of exploitation. This is not because they’re terrible people; they’ve got a job to do, and they are doing it unbelievably well. It’s because we’re allowing it to happen by not being responsible for our involvement and usage. Perhaps if we take a step backwards as individuals to examine what we’re doing with the tools we have, it will inform and enable us to take two steps forward in a slightly more productive direction as a whole in the future.
If you are interested in delving into this in a bit more detail, I recommend taking a look at the Time Well Spent Foundation (http://humanetech.com/) It’s a non-profit organisation which seeks to reverse what they call the "digital attention crisis" and their website is full of useful tips on how to regain control of your devices amongst other things.