My husband has lately been saying that if a product you find online is free, then you are the product. It’s obvious more than ever, with Facebook. I joined in 2007 when it was just for kids in college, and my first college – a little community college – didn’t even have the invitation, special permission, or whatever was needed for it. When I enrolled in a four-year college, I spent my time carefully building my profile, plugging in my musical interests in the hopes of finding like-minded people at the university. I still had a MySpace, and I probably had a song embedded in it. Maybe “Cosmonaut” by At the Drive-In, or “Napoleon Solo.” I treated Facebook as an extension of MySpace, Xanga, Blogger. I bought books and DVDs from Amazon. It was probably less than a year when my cousins in high school appeared in my recommended friends. Then my mom. Then my grandmother. Then coworkers. Then products and companies. The news feed that nobody wanted, and that nearly caused us to leave Facebook, but we stayed anyway. We became acclimated to it. And as it opened to the wider world, I removed little bits of myself: untagging the unflattering photos my college roommates had posted, removing the movies and music, especially when they sprung to life and began posting. Nina Simone was dead, but she still appeared in my news feed, alongside ads for a shirt I had looked at two days ago. Could she see what I ate for breakfast? Did she see how many f-bombs I dropped? Could my high school acquaintance’s mother see that? All of them were invading the home page. And then eventually I found myself making pages for my workplace, moving the strings invisibly the way somebody resurrected a digital version of Nina Simone. The share button followed soon, and that was the end of Facebook as a way to express original thoughts.
I was late to the smartphone game, and I saw Facebook and other websites changing with the technology before I decided to shell out the monthly payment to AT&T in 2014. I can trace a darkness that came into my life, a sense of loss that I’ve never been able to fully explain, that appeared early in 2013. It predated the smartphone, but the smartphone didn’t help. If I had lost a part of myself back then, the smartphone took more of it away with distractions, as I thought it would. The hours I had spent sitting on the couch doing nothing but browsing the internet on my heavy laptop became hours spent sitting on the couch doing nothing but browsing the internet on my smartphone. Playing the same games, over and over. Interrupting my workday to feed butterflies, water farms, collect energy to build an aquarium, check Facebook. I felt guilty that I wasn’t reading any of the classics, going on adventures, doing all these things I actually wanted to do, and my eyes and head felt tired from reading small print on a little screen.
The smartphone, and Facebook, have solved some real problems for me: a GPS to go with a new car in a new state, having my recipes right at the grocery store, my music nicely organized, a nice camera, a health tracker, a mobile writing device, allowing me to keep in touch with relatives and friends in different states. But it caused me real problems, too. The feeling that I have lost some self-control, the ability to delay gratification. I open the fridge door as easily and as compulsively as I scroll through a social media feed, without fully realizing I’m doing either. I find myself wanting to open up my smartphone when I’m in a doctor’s waiting room. Sometimes I’ll go to change the song on my phone when I’m driving, and instead I’ll open up my email as if I can’t control my own hand. I hear of people who can’t stand in an elevator without reaching for their phone. I wonder if I’m not too far off from them. I’ll go for a walk, intentionally to reconnect with silence, and find myself opening up the browser to see how much a home in my neighborhood sold for. Then, when I see somebody else on their phone while walking, I’ll feel judgy.
There are other things too, other ways the smartphone and Facebook have taken parts of me away from me. The ability to reach so easily for distractions makes me feel like I can’t even hear my own voice sometimes. I no longer have to sit in silence with myself, have be slightly bored and let my mind wander and see where it goes. Going to the woods and hiking is one of the few times I get to connect with myself, but I’m still doing something. Just sitting outside and doing nothing is difficult. At the very least, I want to turn on a podcast or audiobook. It’s so seductively easy to drown out the sound of myself.
You can’t make a space for digital things like you can with actual objects. The file box goes here. The socks go there. And you make a mental map of where things are, and you can reach them, feel them. I’ll put things in an Evernote folder, or in Google Drive. Or was it on the little Chromebook storage space I have? The external hard drive? No, the memory card. No, the other memory card. Until I use the search function and realize I gave it an unhelpful name, but usually by then I’ve become distracted by one of the dozen Chrome tabs I have open, sometimes from days before, yet another task on the to-do list that I keep constantly being pulled away from by clickbait. It happens at work, too, all the time. I’ll go to follow up on an email and end up looking at oil diffusers on Amazon, or look up camp songs and find myself on a Wikipedia article about trains. I feel terrible about it, but it’s so pervasive, and my workplace’s use of chatroom-like communication tools means I am constantly derailed and have to isolate myself, shut down every window and put in earbuds to listen to familiar music, in order to get any deep work done involving a computer. And then I have to hope I can find it again in another month when I need it. I used to be so proud of my work ethic, but that was in the days when my main work tools were warehouse totes and non-slip gloves, brooms and pails, paging lists and brown paper and twine – real things, not internet browsers. I still excel at real things in my work, and I would spend more time seeking them out – opportunities to touch cardboard boxes and books and felt and ukuleles and construction paper – if I could stop falling headlong into article loops and open tabs. I don’t want to be scatterbrained and unable to focus, forever staring at a computer screen and wondering what it was I was supposed to actually be doing. I wonder if my coworkers are doing the exact same thing.
I intentionally say “find myself,” and use passive language when talking about how my habits have changed. I feel as if I have been acted upon, as if it’s not fully me pulling the strings. I am being violated, constantly, involuntarily, every time I go online. Facebook, Buzzfeed, even the New York Times website has conditioned me, and everyone else, to click from one things to another, each thing engineered to capture our attention and make it seem as if it’s important or worthwhile. “This thing is happening and it means this.” “The best things to do this.” “Cure your thing with this one weird thing.” “Don’t ever do this if you own this.” We are the product. Our time is the product. And we keep giving it freely. Amazon now has the Interesting Finds section for beautifully presented, almost completely useless objects, and today I noticed that they have ads within search results now. Whenever I log onto Facebook, I am bombarded with ads, with news I don’t want to see and can’t remove. When web designers realized that we were ignoring the sidebar ads about lower our mortgage rates, they figured out a way to force it down our throats, to make it appear as if it’s legitimate, relevant, put it right in our faces. Facebook forces notifications at me that my friends have regurgitated another thing designed to steal their time and my time away from me, or something they posted ten years ago. And when they do make something original on another platform, the mechanism is the same. Etsy shops, Instagram photos, personal blog posts have the same gravity as stories about rescued kittens in Minnesota that they will never see. My friends have lost their voices too, if they ever knew Facebook in an era where you could have one. And barely any of this is actually real. This isn’t really how my friends are doing. This isn’t really their hobby, what they do on weekends. This isn’t authoritative, no matter how many times it claims to be “the best” or “the only” or some other superlative. Listen to it enough, and you realize there are hundreds of opinions, none of which seem to speak your truth, if you can even hear your own truth whispering quietly among all the noise.
I’ve been wanting to write about this for months, really. I sat down today because I re-installed Facebook on my phone, begrudgingly, because I thought it would be the easiest way to list something for sale. Then I saw chatter, before I could even scroll down, about what the Trump administration has done. (Looking at the date of this post you can trace what it is, but this seems to be a daily occurrence both with the administration and with Facebook.) I saw people saying how terrible this terrible thing was. I saw people sharing articles making Nazi parallels. I saw other people replying with mythbusting articles. I saw people I considered levelheaded and worthy of respect suddenly turn nasty and condescending as they tried to prove they belonged to a more compassionate set of humans than the individuals and groups they were currently demeaning. I saw other people dig in their heels. I saw others, much fewer in number, sharing original thoughts, people who had shared other original thoughts on Facebook when other terrible things had been done and then discovered by the world through shared links in news feeds. Buried among the replies to those thoughts were more arguments, slightly more civil, but picking apart the language of several articles. I thought of how I know what the term “virtue signaling” means, and wondered what happened to “slacktivism” in the last couple years. I felt exhausted. How does anyone have time for this, to read every news source’s article on a news topic, just to weaponize it against a stranger on the Internet? How does this not make other people as physically sick as it makes me, as sick as the original terrible thing made me feel? Why do people keep doing this to themselves? How do people keep doing this?
This is why I don’t look at Facebook anymore. Why I don’t read the news. Why I suddenly deleted all the downloaded podcasts in my queue that dealt with racism and politics. Why I fantasize about throwing my smartphone in a lake and living in an off-the-grid cabin in New Hampshire. Why I don’t care if journalists and Action Together emailers and particularly loud voices in my Facebook feed think I’m an irresponsible, terrible person for not subjecting myself to every outrage available to find on the internet, specially designed for me to click on them and keep clicking, until I feel despair and do nothing anyway. For believing that if I really want to see things change, I can do better than repost an article on Facebook to be seen by likeminded folks or criticized by non-likeminded folks. Instead, I can work at my public service job. I can donate time and money to my church. I can do things for my friends and family to show them I love them. Lately I’ve taken to letter writing, sending them sticker-laden envelopes filled with the most beautiful stationery I could find, spending five minutes to an hour putting pen to paper in an attempt to show them, between the lines, that they are important to me, more than somebody who might hit “like” on something I just shared.
I can thank God for the gifts I have, the physical comforts and the talents like sewing and writing and guitar playing, and try my best to share them with others as I’m doing now with writing, and I can pray for the safety and health of those less fortunate, and self-awareness and sympathetic understanding for those who are fortunate and have good intentions but fall into the trap of Facebook and the nastiness it so easily manifests. I can thank my senator and be glad that my governmental representation aligns closely with my beliefs. I can extend kindnesses to strangers, remembering the engraving on the back of a pendant I have that begins “let me be an instrument of peace.” I can choose to do something about the one or two issues that I really, really care about, and I can do something about it all the time, out in the world, where things actually happen. Online I can choose to look at We Rate Dogs, post photos of flowers to Instagram, and deal with Facebook Messenger only a days a week as necessary, and let that be my social media intake. I can choose to go out and live my life and hear my own voice again, and let it be heard.