Six months ago I made an announcement that shocked my friends and family: “I’m quitting Facebook.” You’d think I had just announced my intention to give up oxygen.
“But how? How will you keep in touch with people? How will you know what’s happening?” Good questions, all of them. Didn’t the latest research show that we get the same shot of dopamine from checking Facebook on our phone as we get from smoking and other addictive behaviours? Stopping smoking isn’t easy, and there are nicotine patches and multiple other tools to help you quit. There’s no patch for quitting Facebook, at least not yet. Nobody can survive without social media, not in this day and age, and especially not in Dubai, I was told. But here I am six months later, still very much alive, with an intact social life. And I haven’t regretted my decision for one minute.
Questions about how I would survive without Facebook were matched in number and intensity by ones about why I was doing something so crazy. So why did I decide to do it?
I had asked myself if I was happier before or after social media started playing a significant role in my life, and it eventually became clear to me that Facebook did not improve my quality of life — quite the opposite. Social media has been sold to us as a panacea for all human ills, a means to connect people and foster harmonious living. But I knew from personal experience and that of friends that this isn’t how things were playing out. We’ve all known for a while now that the big promises made by the champions of social media simply cannot be delivered on.
Yes, more information is now available to more people than ever before, and almost any event anywhere in the world is captured from multiple angles on multiple devices and shared with others all over the world instantly. Yet we seem to be more divided than ever before. What use is 500 different videos of the same event when two people cannot even agree on the meaning of one?
More unity, more understanding? Don’t make me laugh. How many friendships have ended in the last year due to Facebook arguments about Brexit, or Donald Trump, or India-Pakistan politics, or… the list goes on. In the days of old media, editors would give audiences not just what they wanted, but also what journalists thought people needed to know, whether they wanted to or not. This gatekeeping function is not without its flaws, but what has replaced it is even worse. Now, you get shown more of what you already know, like and agree with. Instead of being exposed to a wide variety of different views and opinions, what you see from day to day in your News Feed is based on your past likes and dislikes, as well as on your friends’. The result is a slow descent into separate echo chambers, as people with different views find themselves in virtual silos where everyone agrees on everything, and especially on the fact that those who hold opposing views are deranged or evil.
Use Facebook a lot, and you will also soon find yourself at once removed from reality. Instead of experiencing life directly, you start doing so through your Facebook News Feed. Life is now curated for you by the latest, ever-changing algorithm thought up by the computer science graduates working at Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook fortress in California.
Instead of living in the moment, you’re staring at what’s in front of you through a smartphone screen as you take a photo to upload to your timeline, complete with a clever comment likely to elicit those electrifying ‘Likes’.
Software written by a group of people whose motives you can’t possibly know are now not only shaping your perceptions of the larger world out there — it’s also changing how you experience and approach every moment and event in your personal life.
You don’t need to be of a paranoid bent or a luddite to see how this is a situation that comes with some seriously worrying implications.
Life before and after Facebook
Some of us aren’t old enough to remember a time before social media, but most are. If you find yourself asking how you would ever cope without Facebook, just think back to the time (not that long ago!) when you did exactly that. That’s what I did. I went back to connecting and keeping in touch with people in the same ways I used to do before the rise of Facebook. There are phone calls, SMSes, instant messaging, and — this may sound revolutionary, depending on your age — physical get-togethers.
Resorting to some of the now considered antiquated means of socialising made it obvious just what poor a substitute Facebook is. I was no longer flooded by tonnes of information about every mood, move or meal a friend or acquaintance was having. But instead of feeling less well-informed, I discovered that my relationships were improving. What communication was there was natural, deep and heartfelt. A quick click or a comment on a status update sent into the digital ether with the hope that the News Feed algorithm will show it to the right people was replaced by real conversations between two or more human beings.
I was confronted with people who had different views, and we could talk it out like two civilised adults — there’s no quick “block” button in a real-life conversation. I knew that my conversation partners cared about what I said, wanted to hear my views, and they knew the same was true from my side.
I know some people reading this will say that they don’t find Facebook to be a negative presence in their lives, that they’re not addicted, that it helps them keep in touch with more people than ever before. I’m sure there are people out there for whom this is true. But before you jump to the conclusion that Facebook has made your life better, ask the people closest to you if they think you’re a happier person now — the answers you get, especially ones received in person instead of on Facebook, may surprise you.