This is Your Brain on Social

My dog is a shy, gentle creature, and while he doesn’t need much attention, like most dogs he is happiest when he is at my side. Often, he follows me around the house (sometimes even into the bathroom), just observing and enjoying my presence; he’s most awkward when I try to pet him, jumping backward and out of reach, but wallowing in the head rubs once he allows himself into my orbit. In this way, he kind of reminds me of myself: happy to observe from the sidelines, and slightly suspicious of any sudden movement.

The blood of an introvert runs through my veins, though anyone who knows me is well aware that I can be garrulous to a fault. Introversion (please don’t call me “shy”) and anxiety over what others think of me runs counter to me wanting my voice to be heard, desiring for my words to be read. This is where I am most comfortable, though; on the page, as a writer and storyteller.

Cutting the Facebook Cord

I opened a Facebook account back when you had to have a .edu email address to qualify for one. I posted the occasional update, but mostly I was there to see how everyone else was doing. Translation: I am a lurker. Fast-forward to years later, my postpartum self: tired from nursing at all hours, body still sore from the C-section, and hormones bouncing around like ping-pongs, long story short – I did not feel much like going anywhere, much less putting on clothing that was not designed with breastfeeding in mind. Alone in the house, just this new person and me – what was everyone else doing? I went on Facebook to find out.

They call it a “feed,” but there’s nothing nutritious about it. Like chewing on Styrofoam packing peanuts, you could scroll down forever and never be satisfied, never be nourished. In spite of this, pretty soon I was spending way too much time on the app, and the more I scrolled, the emptier I felt. And so, it’s some sort of strange irony that as I held my baby in one arm and scrolled with my free hand, I came across a targeted ad from Stanford University for a research study that was looking for people who tuned into Facebook for more than 15 minutes a day – they were looking for me.

The Stanford Online Experience Study research team wanted to better understand the welfare effects of social media, specifically, “potential societal benefits and concern about harms such as addiction, depression, and political polarization.” I love participating in research, and the timing of this particular invitation was apt for me. Over the next several weeks, the team sent me surveys to track my knowledge and opinion of current events (the study took place in the runup to the November 2018 midterm elections), as well as a self-assessment of my mood.

As the study progressed, I was randomly assigned to deactivate my Facebook account for 4 weeks. It is important to note that “deactivation” is not the same as “deletion;” it’s more like unplugging your TV set as opposed to putting it on the curb. Of course, I could opt out, but it was good for someone to hold me accountable for staying away from the malnourishment of Facebook. And, besides, this was in the name of science! Here’s the complete study, “The Welfare Effects of Social Media” by Hunt Allcott, Luca Braghieri, Sarah Eichmeyer, and Matthew Gentzkow. The TLDR version is here: Tuning out: What happens when you drop Facebook? by Krysten Crawford.

After the 4 weeks were over, I could reactivate my account. But … I didn’t. In fact, my account has been deactivated ever since the research team asked me to, back in October 2018. And guess what? I’m happier. Let me explain.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

While I’m hesitant to completely “throw away my TV” and delete my account, being on Facebook makes me feel like the title of Mindy Kaling’s 2011 memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? You don’t need crazy new-mom hormones and a social account to come to the irrational conclusion that yes, yes they are.

In one of my marathon scroll sessions, my friend posted that she was coming to town. Last I saw her, she said that next time she rolls in we should go get coffee together. “I saw you’ll be around next week. Time to get coffee together?” is what I texted her (or something to that effect). I didn’t hear back. But on Facebook, I saw that she rolled through town, up and over, passing me by, all while having a great time. Ouch. She told me later that she didn’t see my text – and I believe her. But while she was posting away about her trip and “ignoring” me, well, that didn’t feel so great. And we still haven’t had that cuppa.

While I know there are those of you that adore social media, the conclusion that I drew for myself is that there are some things best left unknown. If I didn’t “know” that my friend was around, and “know/think” she was ignoring me, then I wouldn’t have beat myself up wondering why she didn’t reply/want to hang out with me. I didn’t make this conclusion solely on the above anecdote of two trains passing in the night, but I know that for me, the anxious introvert, this is not the best way for me to connect with others.

You might not agree with me that there are some things best left unknown, but I think you will agree that there are some things best left unshared. “Don’t share this on social!” they warn, with the same foreboding in your friend’s voice when they remind you to “wear a condom!”, because something could happen that you don’t want happening. “We don’t want (so-and-so) to know that we went to do (something-or-other) without them.” “But John can share, he’s not friends with Bob,” you say. “It doesn’t matter! Online is forever! They can still find out somehow!”

I recently finished reading Watchlist: 32 Stories by Persons of Interest, a collection of short stories edited from such names as Charles Yu and Cory Doctorow, concerning surveillance culture. It was a fascinating collection. I adored “Buildings Talk” by Dana Johnson, “Dinosaurs went Extinct around the Time of the First Flower” by Kelly Luce, “The Relive Box” by T. Coraghessan Boyle, “Safety Tips for Living Alone” by Jim Shepard, and … you know what, you should really just go read the book yourself! In reflecting on the themes raised in this collection – being surveilled and surveilling others, I thought, with social media, are we not surveilling ourselves? That is one of the conclusions to be drawn from Charles Yu’s darkly humorous “Coyote,” also featured in the collection.

Our own self-surveillance is a curated one, to be sure. I know that by not being plugged into Facebook, I’ve missed filtered shots of engagement rings, birth announcements with cherubic newborns snuggled in baskets, and other milestone moments in the lives of my circle, things that people wouldn’t otherwise tell me directly but are perfectly comfortable sharing to their customized audience. And there are people for whom that mode works; I am just not one of them.

I think that cutting the cord to Facebook is similar to how Elle writer Hilary Weaver reviewed the Steven Soderbergh film, “Let Them All Talk.” In Hilary Weaver’s review, Let Them All Talk Is A Sharp Reflection Of What Friendship Means In Isolation”, she summarizes that the film is about “what happens to relationships—how they can cross over into deeper territory, or retreat into a shallow facade—when they endure an extreme experience.”

Viewing the film from our shared perspective of being in isolation, she aptly writes that outside of herCOVID bubble,” “the rest of the world has fallen away … Some of our friendships, especially the ones that have fallen off as we battle depression, fear, and anxiety, could be over once we’re all out in the world again. Others will be stronger and more precious than we ever could have hoped.” Amen to that, sister. (On a side note, my favorite line from the film was, “It’s not a cruise. It’s a crossing.”)

For me, the drop-off happened not during the days of Covid, but before then, as soon as I deactivated my Facebook account. Many relationships fell away, while others continue to endure.

But I also know this: I received a snail-mail Christmas card from someone I haven’t seen in a long time and probably won’t see for another long while, pandemic or not. They could’ve emailed the card, or posted the same content to their social account, but they didn’t, and I love them for it. The photo card of the happy family went on my fridge door, my own, personal “feed” crowded with photos, recipes, and bills I need to pay. Isn’t that a much more coveted spot than in an online feed, its lifespan longer, its content more cherished? I think so.

So, I am here. Here I am. On social. But this isn’t the real me – only the one I choose to show you. And after the pandemic is over, let’s finally grab that coffee together, ok?

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