Why I took a one year Facebook hiatus

29 October, 2012

First, the backstory.

I never had a healthy relationship with Facebook. Not many people do. I felt a constant urge to check it and see if something interesting was happening. It’s addictive, almost like a computer game that demands constant attention but can’t be completed. I found it to be a constant distraction.

This time last year, I stumbled across an alarming statistic on Twitter:

An average Facebook user loses 23 hours a month on Facebook.

Now, I’m not sure how accurate that is, but it works out to roughly 45 minutes of Facebook per day. If you scale that up to a typical lifetime, you’ve lost just over 775 days. That’s 2.7% of an average American’s life span spent on Facebook.

This woke me up. That’s a lot of time to lose — even before texting, email, and other social networks are factored in. It scared me to the extent that I decided to deactivate my Facebook for a while to see what impact it would have. American comedian Andy Borowitz’s quote perfectly sums up my reasons for doing so:

There’s a fine line between social networking and wasting your fucking life.

Perhaps one of my favourite articles talks about this culture of distraction and how we’re becoming increasingly reliant on distractions to plug time gaps where we feel mentally unstimulated.

As Joe Kraus puts it (substitute ‘phone’ with ‘Facebook’):

We threaten the key ingredients behind creativity and insight by filling up all our “gap” time with stimulation. And we inhibit real human connection when we prioritize our phones over our the people right in front of us.

He then goes on…

The effect of all of this is that we’re increasingly distracted. Less and less able to pay attention to anything for what used to be reasonable length of times.

It’s true. Some of us get so sucked into the virtual layer that we can sometimes be oblivious to the things around us. Almost using Facebook as a form of escapism from the task or social situation at hand. It’s a great tool for procrastination.

What strikes me is this: what we perceive as ‘normal’ is often ‘statistically normal’ — i.e. what everyone else does. Facebook has become so pervasive in Western youth culture that not having a profile is considered ‘abnormal’. Sometimes to the extent that people may consider you suspicious. James Holmes didn’t have a Facebook account.

From the outset my intention was to lay off for just a few months, which then extended to just over a year. Deactivating essentially ghosted my profile, whilst keeping my data intact.

Above all else it was a personal experiment to see what effects it would have on my day to day life. Suffice to say the impact has been very noticeable, and for the most part, positive.

The most obvious and noticeable takeaway was being able to stay focussed for longer periods of time and get into a productive flow. Facebook no longer demanded any part of my attention. Without the ability to plug it into gaps of boredom or solitude, I was forced into longer form, insightful thinking. It’s a bit like having a shower, without the shower.

As people weren’t readily available — and I wasn’t readily available to them — I made more effort to keep in touch. Apparently Facebook “helps connect people”, well not the way I see it. Real life conversations help connect people. A friend list, comment or status like on a screen is nothing more than that — it conveys no tone, senses or emotion. Removing the ability to digitally network amongst friends forced me to be more outgoing. Being out of touch and then catching up face to face makes it all the better, too.

Having no Facebook resulted in me plugging myself into Twitter a lot more. Social networking amongst likeminded folk is really powerful. The people I follow — for the most part — aren’t close friends, so I never run risk of getting sucked into reading or sharing anything personal or trivial. It continues to prove itself an invaluable resource for links, articles, opinions, and short burst discussions. The constraint of 140 characters enforces this perfectly.

A definite negative of Facebook abstinence, however, is that being out of the loop is tough — but not impossible. I’d often miss group related messages and invites. Deferring people to email is almost impossible with Facebook taking lead as the preferred means of group communication. That’s one thing it is very good for.

Pros and cons aside, I feel that as a twenty-one year old, Facebook is on balance a necessary evil. Without it, I may be misjudged and misunderstood, and I don’t want either.

Taking a year long break has forced me to get Facebook and other “stop gap” distractions under control and in perspective. Moving forward I hope to have a healthier, more productive relationship with them.