Last night I did something that was frankly a long time coming. Something that, if I’m honest with myself, I’ve wanted to do for quite a while but lacked the courage. That is, I dismantled my Facebook account.
I didn’t suspend it, or delete it entirely because there are “Like” pages that I need to manage, and because I think Facebook can still serve me and my clients in a valuable way as a broadcasting platform. I look at how Seth Godin, Tim Ferriss or other public figures use Facebook, and while I don’t fancy myself a public figure in the same way, I understand the necessity of why they use Facebook the way that they do. It’s not an input for them, and it can no longer be one for me.
The poisonous sum of Facebook’s innocent parts
Facebook is an otherwise innocuous mix of features and functionality that has unfortunately enabled a really unhealthy social interaction between millions of people. Facebook in particular — in a way that Twitter and Instagram do not — fosters a great volume of bad behavior. I think this is because Facebook is missing the narrow scope of something like Instagram, and it’s missing the supervision that older social networks like message boards had built into them. For example, if I go on Modern Buddy and am shitty to people, or start propagating bullshit and nonsense, Eric will boot me from that venue without ceremony. As well he should. Unfortunately there is no one booting bullshit and bullies off of Facebook. That’s a problem. The average age of American Facebook users might be around 40, but there is a notable absence of grown ups on the platform.
Dismantling my account person-by-person
I started with my “Friends” list. Some of these people are actually my friends. Some of them are acquaintances. Some of them are people who asked to connect with me because they know of me through MotoringFile, ScooterFile or the work I do through Salzmoto. It’s lovely that these people wanted to connect with me in that way.
What isn’t lovely is the actual impact that Facebook has in my life. There is the compulsion to check it, which is an insidious mix of hijacked brain chemistry and FOMO. There is the way it poisons conversation — the “rhetorical nightmare” as my friend Tanya put it. As I’ve become more honest with myself about what Facebook was doing to me and the place it was occupying in my mind and in my life, I’ve come to recognize it as a point of stress. It’s a mild stress, like an itch I can’t quite reach. It wasn’t injuring me. It wasn’t making me deeply miserable, but it was siphoning off my contentment. Facebook was stealing from me. Stealing my focus. Stealing my attention. Stealing my happiness. Times are troubled enough and I don’t need more of that in my life. I need less.
Speaking of troubled times, Facebook has ruined our country.
Donald Trump will be President because of Facebook. Not because of Facebook alone, but I see it as an undeniable, major contributing factor. His Presidency will, I believe, also be more disastrous because of the place Facebook holds in our culture. I do not think Facebook will help fix the crisis it’s helped to create. I also don’t believe Facebook wanted any of this to happen, but in a way that’s worse. It’s all the more indicative of how our technology has evolved more quickly than it can be constructively assimilated into our society.
We’ve just had the 10 year anniversary of the iPhone, which was obviously a major turning point in history. The advent of smartphones and of mobile as a category has changed the world, and I think mostly for the better. I think that in the long run, we will assimilate all of this into our lives and into our culture in a healthier way than we have today. Yet this much technological and cultural change is not something we’re equipped to deal with. A lot has come in those ten years. Whole industries have been up-ended. New cultural institutions, like Facebook, have taken root because of mobile. We have not adapted to this change very well so far and Facebook, I think, is currently the poisoned tip of the spear.
Time to go
So because it’s not doing good things for me, and because it’s not doing good things for the world, I am no longer going to participate on Facebook in the conventional sense. What I’ve done in dismantling my Facebook account is nothing short of take back ownership of that part of my life. Between social pressure and FOMO and just the inherent inertia of how Facebook works, it entangled itself into my life in a way that I frankly didn’t opt into. So now I’m opting out.
Now again, I don’t think this was done with malice. This was not why Facebook was created. Facebook was created, well, because. That’s okay. I don’t think that Facebook was created with any sort of express purpose of doing the damage that it’s done, but that damage is happening regardless.
If Facebook were a store, I wouldn’t shop there anymore.
This is the thought I kept coming back to leading up to making this change. Given the impact that Facebook has had, the happiness that Facebook has stolen from me and my friends, the damage it’s doing to our society and our country, I can’t keep using it in good conscience. If Facebook were a store, I wouldn’t shop there anymore. There are reasons I don’t shop at Walmart, and they are reasons of social responsibility. Now maybe that’s just slacktivism, but it is what it is and I’m going to vote with my dollars for those organizations that I want to see succeed. Like Walmart, the success of Facebook has come at a terrible price.
So like voting with my dollars, when it comes to Facebook I’m going to vote with my time. I’m going to vote with my information. I’m going to vote with my thoughts and my creative output. While I may continue to use Facebook as a broadcast channel for other work that I do, I am done being used by it. I am no longer going to bathe in the swamp of bad ideas.
I am leaving the echo chamber, chamber, chamber.
I’ve already curated my view of Facebook down to mostly just people that I agree with and yet most of what I’m seeing are still things that upset me in non-constructive ways, most of which I can’t actually do anything about. If these are things that are outside of my control, then they just don’t need to be part of my life because any energy I spend on them is energy wasted. This above all else is how Facebook steels my happiness.
I began dismantling my Facebook account with the idea of simplifying my “Friends” list. When I started, I wasn’t entirely sure how far I was going to go. I just knew I needed to simplify, so I started unfriending people. My initial criteria was to unfriend people who I don’t actually like and who don’t bring joy to my life. My next criteria was to unfriend people who I do enjoy, but have a social connection with in other, less toxic venues. Instagram, for example.
I was hesitant at first, but I quickly realized that severing these connections posed absolutely no risk. It would mean precisely nothing to the quality of my real world relationships. My actual friends were still my friends. I’d already unsubscribed from people I didn’t really know or simply didn’t like, and most of us weren’t interacting anyway. Likewise most of these casual connections had probably unsubscribed from my updates too, so really, what was the point of being connected in the first place? Those connections weren’t valuable, they were simply convenient.
Convenience is the lynchpin for this change.
I want it to become less convenient for people to contact me. Not inconvenient, just less convenient. The convenience Facebook offers is not enough to offset everything it takes from us. Also, I’m really easy to find online. If you Google my name, I own pages of results. There are a handful of other people out in the world called Nathaniel Salzman, and they are all well out-of-luck in terms of their online presence. I pretty much own all of it. Sorry guys, I got here first.
So I’m easy to find. I don’t need Facebook in order for people to get in touch with me. Furthermore, I haven’t deleted my Facebook account, so Messenger still works, and people can get in touch with me that way.
I kept unfriending. The more I did this, the more the fear departed and the more satisfying it became. Looking at some of these people and their online personas, I was literally saying things out loud to myself like “Get out of my life. I don’t even like you. Why are we connected in the first place? Who are you? I don’t ever want to hear from you ever again. You are not fun. Go fuck yourself.” I’m not so naive as to think that no one has ever said these things to my Facebook account before unfriending me, and I hope it felt as good for them as it did for me. I’m happy for you, whoever you are. I really am. Let’s just pretend the other doesn’t exist and move forward.
The more I did this, the better it felt. What remained I was a “Friends” list that went from about 750 people down to about 150 people. This shorter list was a mix of people I really like, and people to whom I felt a professional obligation to stay connected. As a mercenary design professional, I was hesitant to unfriend those professional connections out of fear that I might need work from them in the future. Yet as soon as I recognized that fear for what it was, I knew those connections needed to go too.
I refuse to let the fear of what might happen in Facebook’s absence be the primary reason for keeping it around.
Besides, this was not about them, and in the long run, I’ll be a better working partner for those folks without Facebook in my life. I’m also connected to these people either directly, or through LinkedIn. I actually really like most of these professional connections as humans, so my departure from Facebook will hopefully drive more connection with them, not less. That’s a bet I’ll happily make.
Also, again, I’m not deleting my Facebook account entirely. If Facebook proves to truly be the best way of connecting with these people, then that’s a door I can open again. There is no actual risk here, so for now, I’m excising all of it.
I did one last thing with that list of 150. I unfriended pretty much everyone else. Yet because I wanted our real world connection to be strong despite my disconnecting from them on Facebook, I opened up Facebook Messenger and started sending my phone number and email address to people who may not have had that information. These are people who I want in my life in some capacity, I’m simply done relying on Facebook to facilitate that. So for those people who probably didn’t have my contact info, I created a short boilerplate message to send them.
“FYI I am dismantling my Facebook account. Please feel free to get in touch with me directly at…”
The nice thing is that because I started a conversation with them on Messenger, they’re still able to message me, even after we disconnect. That’s one nice thing about how Facebook is structured. Existing conversations can continue, and new ones can also start with a small amount of gatekeeping built in, which I appreciate.
I got some lovely replies to my message. Some people were immediately responsive and many congratulated me. It made me sad how so many people seemed happy for me, as though I’d done something they felt like they couldn’t do. This proved to me something I had suspected:
Facebook is this thing that we all kind of hate, and that we all feel trapped in.
Recognizing this idea is why I’m really excited to take back this part of my life. I’ve taken back control of what this venue is for me. It’s not up to Facebook how I use Facebook, and I’m no longer accepting the social norms of how most people use Facebook. Not anymore.
When I was done, I had just six Facebook friends consisting of my wife (who has also effectively quit Facebook) and a handful of people with whom I manage “Like” pages. That’s it. I also opened up subscriptions to the public and turned off comments and incoming friend requests. I un-liked all the pages I’d liked in the past, and left all the groups I was a part of. Later I’ll likely remove the bulk of my legacy content as well. I may experiment with private groups in the future, but that’s TBD.
So now what? What does the landscape of my digital life look like going forward? Here are some of the steps I’ve taken in addition to dismantling my Facebook account:
I’ve subscribed to The New York Times and NPR.
I’ve done this because I believe in expertise. I want and need a team of professionals to keep an eye on all the things that I can’t observe or control. I need them to report on what’s going on in the world. Relying on crowdsourced news has been an utter disaster for our country, so I’m simply not going to do that anymore. I need more “elite” people in my life, not fewer. I need people who, to paraphrase Mark Twain, found themselves on the side of the majority and took time to pause and reflect. I also do this knowing that they’re not going to be perfect at it. They’re going to miss things. They’re going to focus in the wrong areas sometimes and sensationalize things that really ought to be mentioned and then forgotten. Despite all of that, I am still choosing expertise over the folly of crowds in this area.
I’ve also done this because I need more bias in my life, not less. I need people who are biased toward facts and reality, and against dogma and liars. I need people who are biased against corruption and hypocrisy. I need people who are biased against false equivalency. I need to vote with my dollars to help these crucial news institutions retain the critical mass they need in order to speak truth to power, even if they’re not perfect at it. I need to pay money, like a grown up, for things that matter.
I will also continue not consuming anything from CNN or the rest of the 24-hour news cycle because they are not properly incentivized to discern the signal from the noise, and because like Facebook, they’ve contributed to the present hobbled state of our culture.
I’m returning to RSS feeds
I’m only going to pay attention to thoughtfully produced content from now on. No more echoes. I’m going to the source to discern and curate for myself. This will provide a much healthier, much richer, much more interesting way to scratch that “what’s new?” itch. Reeder, Feedly and Flipboard are easy ways for you to do the same. I can’t help but think that Google’s shuttering of Google Reader may have contributed to the current state of our digital culture in some small way. It’s become more difficult to curate our information inputs in a healthy way. Thankfully there are replacements.
More audiobooks and podcasts
The trend here, in case you haven’t picked up on it, is to become much more picky about my inputs. I’m replacing the cheep and casual firehose of mostly low-quality Facebook content with a wine cellar of well-crafted, thoughtful content. The value-for-time ratio on audiobooks and podcasts is the highest I’ve found, so I’m going to spend even more of my attention there than I already do.
The audiobooks I’ve consumed over the past three years have been like an OS upgrade for my brain. They’ve transformed my life and my career for the better. They’ve made me smarter and an order of magnitude more effective at my work. Most of those books got onto my radar because of the podcasts I listen to, which are also an infection vector for numerous other good ideas all on their own, including the idea to effectively remove Facebook from my life.
I’m making space to create more
If I’m honest, I’ve had a form of writers block since I wrote Why “Built Not Bought” is Bullshit, an essay that went viral in 2015. While many factors contributed to my reduced creative output since then, the primary one has been what I can only describe as a lack of headspace. There’s simply been too much noise in my life to leave room for me to create. I’ve fought through much of this noise through a mindfulness practice and other personal habits that help me be more effective. In retrospect, however, that has amounted to symptom management, not cure.
I’ve responded to the elephant in the room by making the room bigger rather than by removing the elephant.
I mentioned podcasts a moment ago. One of the shows I listen to consistently is The Tim Ferriss Show. In a recent episode, TF walked through “17 Questions That Changed My Life” and it was a particularly good episode of what is already a consistently valuable show. One question in particular hit home for me and contributed greatly to this decision to dismantle my Facebook account: “What if I could only subtract to solve problems?” This is a lovely extension of the philosophy of Dieter Rams, often summarized as “less but better”, which helped him create an immortal, minimalistic design language. This principle is deeply powerful, and I’m finding many areas of my life where less is definitely more. Less Facebook is the perfect next step for me in my quest for the essential.
Bringing that back around to my own creative output, I’m realizing that if I want to create, I have to remove the things, activities, and people in my life that are adding clutter without adding value or joy. They simply have to go, and I have to be brave in their excision. On the other side of this operation, however, is the joy of making my art. The ecstasy of finishing creative projects is like rocket fuel for my soul, and it’s something I am not experiencing often enough. Subtracting Facebook will help facilitate more of that. I have no doubt.
The precious currency of time
In the end, defenestrating Facebook from my life is about time. Time is the one resource I can’t make or find more of. Time is the only truly precious thing we have in life, and how we spend it is directly proportional to our happiness, I believe. I am choosing to no longer spend any of my time on Facebook, and I encourage you to do the same. Instead, let’s connect in the real world. Let’s make things. Let’s rebuild our isolated, impoverished society by forging more durable connections. Let’s starve out propaganda and quarter-truths by denying them our attention or even our outrage. Let’s live happier lives, free from the trap of FOMO. Let’s liberate ourselves from our willing captivity. Let’s check ourselves out of this mental institution and be free.