Curtailing Facebook

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I recently went through my list of Facebook “friends” and changed about 900 of the 1000 or so into “acquaintances,” which — in theory — will keep all but the most important of their posts or activities from showing up in my news feed. I also went through and “unliked” nearly all of the hundreds of pages/causes that populate my feed with their updates (keeping but a small few that met criteria which I may discuss later).

This is the half-measure that I am going to try out in lieu of abandoning Facebook altogether. I’m not sure if it will work.

Here are some initial thoughts and reactions:

There’s Only So Much of Me to Go Around

The experience of the change immediately reinforced what I had begun to realize about Facebook specifically, as well as my life in general. Simply, I have a very finite amount mental/emotional/spiritual space, and it becomes cluttered more quickly than I ever expect.

Tools like Facebook give us the illusion, since we are able to make and manage more social connections, that our capacity to engage them (i.e., to care about them) has increased. It hasn’t.

Furthermore, we think that we can introduce, through use of tools like Facebook, thousands upon thousands of new connections, new bits of information, new stimuli and, yet, still selectively pay attention to, care about, respond to only those that are important — without any loss or negative impact. (It is not I, but those other fools that are affected by advertising.)

I have been noticing this in a variety of areas of my life, mostly in ways connected with technology. To use Covey’s classic imagery, we readily expand our sphere of concern far beyond our sphere of influence, which then contracts as a result. We are concerned about vastly more and, thus, concerned about each individual matter far less, and all the while, our ability and inclination to do much of anything about anything dwindles.

I tended to think that having a Facebook app on my phone, which is connected to 1000s of people and advertisers at all times, doesn’t affect me as long as I only open the app an appropriate amount of times throughout the day for an appropriate duration of time. I tended to think that having a streaming music service doesn’t negatively affect me or change how I think about or value music, as long as I don’t play it too much or play the wrong type of music.

I’m just not so sure about this any more. Inevitably, I find that Facebook and those thousands of connections have changed how I think, feel, react, and regard. Even when I close the browser or turn off the app, spiritually and emotionally the clutter remains.

I am more and more experiencing the truth of McLuhan’s insight: despite what we think, the medium is perhaps more potent than the message it mediates.

Nixing the Entertainment Fix

As said, I had played around with the idea of these and even more drastic measures regarding Facebook for a while. What I underestimated was how immediate and profound were the subjective effects of cutting a list of 1000 people down to 100 with whom I am making a conscious choice to engage.

Instantly, the news feed is no longer a news feed. It is no longer a diversion that I can turn to for an entertainment fix. Suddenly it represents actions, needs, responsibilities, things that I do or don’t but ought to care about.

It is not that those 100 people (close friends, family members, etc) weren’t there before. They were there, but they were diluted in a sea of irrelevance presenting itself as news/content/entertainment to be consumed.

Removing the Soap Opera Effect

Now, I realize the tendency of the newsfeed of this supposed “social network” to simply become, for one, a source of diversion, of a quick entertainment fix, and also leads one to begin seeing all the people represented therein as the same. It starts with those who really are obscure to one’s concern (the celebrity stories, the friends of friends from whom one can never remember accepting a friend request, etc.). Then, it moves inward to those one is acquainted with but has no ongoing involvement. Finally, it proceeds to even those close family and friends that one would/should (if one could) care about/love/pursue/engage with for their own sake.

They all become simply content for my newsfeed — the characters that populate the soap opera that is always playing in an open browser tab and in the app on my phone.

Frog in the Pot

We know this. All these things are cliche, passé. We know, and we resolve to not be affected. But we are, and we persist! Thus, we must question whether we really knew or understood the implications of the situation in the first place.

As my father is so fond of referencing, this is truly a “frog in the pot” scenario. We continually look around and observe the pot, the water, and the increasing temperature, but insist that the heat is manageable now, and we’ll certainly jump out if it becomes otherwise. But, the whole point is precisely that from within the pot one has the worst vantage point on both the current and future state of affairs.

Good Servant, Bad Master

Of course, even what I have recently done has been but a half-measure. I am still, for now, on Facebook.There is a case to be made for such measures in such cases though.

Whether or not I perfectly interpreted the work or its implications, one of my takeaways from Neil Postman’s eye-opening book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology was the value in a seemingly arbitrarily holding oneself back from the “cutting edge” when it came to technology. It is not that there is some ultimately “right” or “safe” level of technology for a human person to inhabit (computers, pen and pencil, stone tablets, the spoken word). But if the concern is whether or not I am able to evaluate and manage the influence of technology on myself and my family, there is something to be said for intentionally staying behind the curve.

One primary danger of technology — any technology — is simply its initial novelty and the fascination that it engenders in a subject. At its introduction, a technology is a slippery thing to grasp. The new user and, even more so, the technology’s creator are in precisely the worst vantage point for evaluating the net usefulness of a technology and its effects on our way of viewing the world and other people, one’s information and values.

Thus, there is good reason to consider holding back, enforcing a certain distance from the “cutting edge,” using technologies that are now boring, or intentionally limiting or truncating the functionality of novel ones, however arbitrary and counter-productive such limitations might seem.

It has been said that technology makes a good servant, but a bad master. What we underestimate is how easily the former can shift to become the latter and how subtle the change can be.

“I understand the technologies I am using and I would know if I am being unduly influenced or changed by them,” says the frog swimming in an already-quite-warm stew.

Gaining Perspective

So this is my experiment with Facebook for now. It may be temporary, it may be a half-measure, it may not work. But I am reaching for perspective and space to evaluate such things. If greater cuts must be made, then so be it.

On a separate but not entirely unrelated note, you should check out Marc Barnes’ essay on “Modesty and Act” which explores what it means to be a subject, and how one’s ability to act/choose is affected by the world. It is a fascinating piece that digs into this question of our perception vs. the reality of whether (and to what degree) we are influenced by fashions, technology, and the opinions of others.

A Couple Thoughts About Journaling…

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A character in a novel I was reading the other day remarked that he didn’t journal because he feared the self-focus would be a source of vice. While this is certainly possible, I think there are some wonderful benefits of journaling that perhaps outweigh this risk, particularly in our modern busy age.

A key benefit of journaling for me is the continuity in self-reflection that it yields. I find that a lack of continuity between days and events – caused by busyness or other distractions – often keeps me from capitalizing on moments of grace or from fully realizing and addressing instances of vice. In the busyness of daily life, worsened in many ways by our technology, I find it especially difficult even during brief silences to be able to take a deep breath, step back, and reflect on where I am going.

Particularly in the stage of the spiritual life where one is concerned with eliminating subtler vices and cultivating long-term virtues, the growth and progress (or regress) is slow and not always readily perceptable. This is especially a problem for instances of regress because without a wider birds-eye view of how things have been going, we can easily be complacent to ways we have been backpedaling or allowing occasions of sin. All in all, the primary practical effect of journaling for me is to see better whether and in what ways I have been drawing closer to God, or not, in all aspects of my life. I suppose it is, in some sense, simply the written equivalent of the daily examen.

Another benefit of journaling I have discovered lately is that it is the context which often yields my best writing. After pondering a bit, I think the reason for this is the mental audience I have when journaling vs sitting down to write for my blog or some other public forum. When I sit down to write a blog article, I seldom make much progress, and when I do, a sort of perfectionism and indecisiveness draw the writing out until it is so convoluted and overworked that I must often fight the temptation to simply give up and start over. I have begun to think this is the case because when I write for the public, this mental audience is quite loud, over-critical, and difficult to please. Of course this is more reflective of my own mind than the public itself, but nevertheless, when I try to write in this context I often get nowhere.

Observing this, I have taken recently to journaling first and allowing any additional writing to flow from that. In addition to the quiet, reflective recollection that I enjoy with journaling, I find often a natural and relaxed transition into writing about whatever topic or theme has been bouncing around my head recently (yes, this reflection on journaling started out in my journal). I think the quiet, reflective mood lends itself to this, but I think it also, again, has simply to do with my perceived mental audience. When I sit down to write in my journal, it is not simply a private mental exercise but also a prayer. When I journal, the audience is myself and God.

My life is not my own and neither is my destiny. Journaling is a bit like going back over a script one has performed and realizing previously unnoticeed details, subtexts, patterns, and designs. As I journal, I work these details out and see a bigger picture. Also, because our lives are the mysterious mix of God’s complete sovereignty as well as our free will, we are cooperating with the author’s pen when we reflect on the script and ponder our past and future steps.

As journaling thus, is a particular kind of prayer to my creator, it is no small wonder that the context is ideal for the act of sub-creation. To reflect and meditate first on the great manuscript always seems to open the door to lesser ones. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ words on originality:

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.
C. S. Lewis

What do you think about journaling? Do you journal? Do you do so intermittently or every day? What benefits (or disadvantages) does the discipline bring to your life?