Facebook, go away—if I want to log in, I know where to find you

Facebook keeps sending me e-mails about how much I’m missing on Facebook; see the image at the right for one example. But I’m not convinced I’m missing anything, no matter how much Facebook wants me to imagine I am.

In “Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 23 Brilliant Authors,” Ben Casnocha says that writers need to “Develop a very serious plan for dealing with internet distractions. I use an app called Self-Control on my Mac.” Many other writers echo him. We have, all of us, a myriad of choices every day. We can choose to do something that might provide some lasting meaning or value. Or we can choose to tell people who are often effectively strangers what we ate for dinner, or that we’re listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Lil’ Wayne, or our inconsidered, inchoate opinions about the political or social scandal of the day, which will be forgotten by everybody except Wikipedia within a decade, if not a year.

Or we can choose to do something better—which increasingly means we have to control distractions—or, as Paul Graham puts it, “disconnect” them. Facebook and other entities that make money from providing distractions are, perhaps not surprisingly, very interested in getting you more interested in their distractions. That’s the purpose of their e-mails. But I’ve becoming increasingly convinced that Facebook offers something closer to simulacra than real life, and that the people who are going to do something really substantial are, increasingly, going to be the people who can master Facebook—just as the people who did really substantial things in the 1960 – 2005 period learned to master TV.

Other writers in the “Practical Tips” essay discuss the importance of setting work times (presumably distinct from Facebook times) or developing schedules or similar techniques to make sure you don’t let, say, six hours pass, then wonder what happened during those six hours—probable answers might include news, e-mail, social networks, TV, dabbling, rearrange your furniture, cleaning, whatever. All things that might be worthwhile, but only in their place. And Facebook’s place should be small, no matter how much the site itself encourages you to make it big. I’ll probably log on Facebook again, and I’m not saying you should never use Facebook, or that you should always avoid the Internet. But you should be cognizant of what you’re doing, and Facebook is making it increasingly easy not to be cognizant. And that’s a danger.

I was talking to my Dad, who recently got on Facebook—along with Curtis Sittenfeld joining, this is a sure sign Facebook is over—and he was creeped out by having Pandora find his Facebook account with no active effort on his part; the same thing happened when he was posting to TripAdvisor under what he thought was a pseudonym. On the phone, he said that everyone is living in Neuromancer. And he’s right. Facebook is trying to connect you in more and more places, even places you might not necessarily want to be connected. This isn’t a phenomenon unique to Facebook, of course, but my Dad’s experience shows what’s happening in the background of your online life: companies are gathering data from you that will reappear in unpredictable places.

There are defenses against the creeping power of master databases. I’ve begun using Ghostery, a brilliant extension for Firefox, Safari, and Chrome that lets one see web bugs, beacons, and third-party sites that follow your movements around the Internet. Here’s an example of the stuff Salon.com, a relatively innocuous news site, loads every time a person visits:

What is all that stuff? It’s like the mystery ingredients in so much prepackaged food: you wonder what all those polysyllabic substances are but still know, on some level, they can’t be good for you. In the case of Salon.com’s third-party tracking software, Ghostery can at least tell you what’s going on. It also gives you a way to block a lot of the tracking—hence the strikethroughs on the sites I’ve blocked. The more astute among you will note that I’m something of a hypocrite when it comes to a data trail—I still buy stuff from Amazon.com, which keeps your purchase history forever—but at least one can, to some extent, fight back against the companies who are tracking everything you do.

But fighting back technologically, through means like Ghostery, is only part of the battle. After I began writing this essay, I began to notice things like this, via a Savage Love letter writer:

I was briefly dating someone until he was a huge asshole to me. I have since not had any contact with him. However, I have been Facebook stalking him and obsessing over pictures of the guys I assume he’s dating now. Why am I having such a hard time getting over him? Our relationship was so brief! He’s a major asshole!

I don’t think Facebook is making it easier for the writer to get over him or improve your life. It wouldn’t be a great stretch to think Facebook is making the process harder. So maybe the solution is to get rid of Facebook, or at least limit one’s use, or unfriend the ex, or some combination thereof. Go to a bar, find someone else, reconnect with the real world, find a hobby, start a blog, realize that you’re not the first person with these problems. Optimal revenge, if you’re the sort of person who goes in that direction, is a life well-lived. Facebook stalking is the opposite: it’s a life lived through the lives of others, without even the transformative power of language that media like the novel offer.

Obviously, obsessive behavior predated the Internet. But the Internet and Facebook make it so much easier to engage in obsessive behavior—you don’t even have to leave your house!—that the lower friction costs make the behavior easier to indulge. One solution: remove the tool by which you engage in said obsessive behavior. Dan Savage observes, “But it sounds like you might still have feelings for this guy! Just a hunch!” And if those feelings aren’t reciprocated, being exposed to the source of those feelings on a routine basis, even in digital form, isn’t going to help. What is going to help? Finding an authentic way of spending your time; learning to get in a state of flow; building or making stuff that other people find useful. Notice that Facebook is not on that list.

Some of you might legitimately ask why I keep a Facebook account, given my ambivalence, verging on antipathy. The answers are several fold: the most honest is probably that I’m a hypocrite. The next-most honest is that, if / when my novels start coming out, Facebook might be useful as an ad tool. And some people use Facebook and only Facebook to send out messages about events and parties. It’s also a useful to figure out when I’m going to a random city who might’ve moved there. Those people you lost touch with back in college suddenly become much closer when you’re both strangers somewhere.

But those are rare needs. The common needs that Facebook fulfills—to quasi-live through someone else’s life, to waste time, to feel like you’re on an anhedonic treadmill of envy—shouldn’t be needs at all. Facebook is encouraging you to make them needs. I’m encouraging you to realize that the real answers to life aren’t likely to be found on Facebook, no matter how badly Facebook wants to lure you to that login screen—they’re likely going to be found within.

By the way, I love In Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 23 Brilliant Authors. I’ve read it a couple times and still love it. It’s got a lot of surface area for such a short post, which is why I keep linking to it in various contexts.

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