Friday, August 29, 2014

Facebook: Internet Time Vampire

Facebook holds tremendous appeal for professional writers.  It allows us something we don’t normally have much:  contact with other people.  Writing is solitary work.  We are typically holed up in an office every day (or night, depending on one’s schedule).  Unlike a regular job, there are no coworkers, no sociable lunch or coffee breaks, only the writer, the keyboard, and the screen.

Then Facebook came into our lives.  Suddenly, we had access to old friends, new friends, total strangers who share our interests, other writers we’ve admired from afar, and a lot of smart, funny, entertaining people.  Oh, sure, there are the people from high school you hoped never see or think of again in your life, the health food hucksters posting memes that claim eating two handfuls of cashews has the same affect as taking a Prozac (I’m looking at you, Dave Sommers and Raw Food Family, you lying sacks of shit), and the spammers who send you messages in broken English promising friendship, sex, or a buttload of money you’ve inherited from someone in a foreign land to whom you did not know you were related in exchange for a nominal bank fee (“nominum banks feet”).  But you can get rid of them easily enough.  The real draw is all those fun and interesting people on your friend list.  Sure, they aren’t really friend friends because you’ve never met them, but a kind of friendship can develop that often becomes surprisingly significant in your life.

Facebook gave me a place to promote my books.  That’s why I opened an account in the first place.  But then I started getting to know some of the people and enjoying their online company.  This is a good thing.  But, also, it’s a bad thing.

The reason writing is solitary work is that without the solitary part, NO WORK GETS DONE!

As previously stated, I started out just promoting my books.  I tried not to promote too much because I know how annoying and tiresome that can be, so between promotional posts, I occasionally would interact with people.  Well, it was “occasionally” at first.

Usually, my birthday passes quietly and mostly unnoticed, and the older I get, the more fine I am with that arrangement.  Unless my wife has the day off from work, I usually spend it alone and working.  But on Facebook, suddenly a whole lot of people were wishing me happy birthday.  Some of them even sent me gifts!  I was surprised by the tremendous lift I got from this.  It was a real shot in the arm.  I made it a habit to wish happy birthday to everyone on my list every day, because who doesn't enjoy being wished happy birthday?  But after I’d been doing this for a while, I didn’t want to stop because that seemed like a kind of jerky move to me.  I had wished happy birthday to some people, but I would be ignoring others.  Keep that in mind because I’m going to come back to it.

When Robin Williams committed suicide, it began a discussion on Facebook about depression, bipolar disorder, and suicide.  The number of people among my Facebook friends who suffer from, in varying degrees, these and other similar troubling problems is astonishing — but it’s not really surprising.  These problems haunt a significant number of people in the overall population.  Prone to depression myself, I am among them.  This is extremely relevant in light of something revealed about Facebook earlier in the summer of 2014.

Facebook along with Cornell University and the University of California - San Francisco — conducted an experiment on 700,000 Facebook users without their knowledge.  The purpose was to study “emotional contagion through social networks.”  Here’s an excerpt from the Slate article linked above (please read the article) by Katy Waldman:

“They tweaked the algorithm by which Facebook sweeps posts into members’ news feeds, using a program to analyze whether any given textual snippet contained positive or negative words. Some people were fed primarily neutral to happy information from their friends; others, primarily neutral to sad. Then everyone’s subsequent posts were evaluated for affective meanings.

“The upshot? Yes, verily, social networks can propagate positive and negative feelings!

“The other upshot: Facebook intentionally made thousands upon thousands of people sad.”

(It’s worth noting, I think, that Cornell was one of 44 U.S. universities and colleges and scores of prisons, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies that participated in the U.S. government’s Project MKUltra, which conducted dangerous and sometimes life-altering and even fatal mind experiments on an unknown number of “subjects” without their knowledge or consent using LSD and other drugs, sensory deprivation, hypnosis, and various forms of verbal and sexual abuse and torture.  Fucking with people’s minds without their consent is nothing new at Cornell.  You may find this hard to believe, but I assure you it’s not a crazy conspiracy theory, it’s a matter of public record.)

Researchers from Facebook, Cornell, and UCSF found that, yes, they can alter moods.  Does that mean they should?  I don’t think the experiment involved that particular question.

Given the number of people on Facebook who suffer from a variety of mental and emotional vulnerabilities, this is rather disturbing, and it seems potentially dangerous.  But Facebook simply sniffs at such nonsense and claims we all gave consent when we agreed to the terms of service.  (If you read the Slate article, you’ll see that this claim may not be entirely accurate in this case.)  Add to that everything we’ve learned about the U.S. government’s massive surveillance of our internet activities and given its past history of experimenting on unknowing "subjects" and, even if you’re not paranoid, it’s a little creepy.

I’m not trying to scare anyone, I’m simply pointing out that Facebook isn’t just a “social network.”  It has become an active part of the daily lives of hundreds of millions of people.  And even when it’s not fucking with our psyches, it’s doing something else that’s just as significant:

It is sucking time out of our lives like a thirsty vampire on a neck.

I’ve had some health problems in recent years, and I’ve found that, when I’m feeling unwell, or if I’m experiencing stress or overwhelmed by day-to-day worries, I definitely should not be on Facebook.  Does knowing that stop me?  No.  Sometimes when I’m not feeling well and I’m finding it hard to concentrate, Facebook can be a tempting go-to activity instead of pushing on with work and trying to write.  This is a bad thing.  When I’m not feeling well, I tend to be bothered by things that normally wouldn’t bother me and I can become irritable, sometimes to the point of lashing out at others who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

For example, after I'd gotten into the habit of wishing everyone happy birthday every day and it had become a habit, there were days when I would get preoccupied and forget until the end of the day.  Did I dismiss this and try harder to remember the next day?  No.  I felt horrible about, sometimes horrible enough for it to alter my mood for hours.  I worried that people would notice I’d wished happy birthday to others but not to them and would think I had something against them.  If you’re familiar with how Facebook works, you know this is a ridiculous concern.  I knew that, too.  But did that stop me from feeling bad about it?  No.

Even when Facebook is not intentionally messing your head, Facebook can mess with your head. 

I’m not saying Facebook is entirely a bad thing.  It allows us to stay in touch with people we rarely or never see in person, connects us to new and interesting people, and can be used for productive networking.  But unless approached with some caution and restraint, it can be a bad thing.  And if you’re a writer who needs solitude to work, inviting a few hundred or a few thousand people into your workplace when you should be working is not a good idea.

As I write this, I have temporarily deactivated my Facebook account.  I just need a little time to reset my brain, some days and nights in which logging onto Facebook is not a tempting diversion or, worse, something I feel obligated to do.  If you find that Facebook has become the tail that wags your dog, you may want to do the same.  If you find that difficult to do, keep one little fact in mind:

To Facebook, you are a lab rat.