selling cheap to social media

Last week, while on vacation, I realized how much time I was spending on Facebook. I was putting at least an hour a day into the platform, scrolling through posts, engaging in groups, liking and commenting friends posts. I would tell myself that it was social, that it was beneficial for maintaining connections, to assuage the guilt that I felt every time I put down my phone and realized that twenty or thirty or forty-five minutes had just gone into the app. I would look up from the screen, and feel sick, almost dizzy, with the realization of the loss of time.

I thought about this a lot while on break. And in my “morning pages” journal exercises, I realized why my own perceived waste of time of social media was causing such an extreme self-judgement. There is the loss of time, of course, but there is also the loss of words. Every word that I put into a Facebook post is a word I am not putting into my own writing, my own craft. It is a double loss, of both my time and my creativity, when each blog post idea becomes just a Facebook update. I am not working on my own craft when I post or comment in social media, but rather, abbreviating my thoughts and putting the mangled remnants of concepts into the massive pile of content that fuels the Facebook platform.

This is not a new concept, even for a digital native like myself. I’m an Xennial, the very last micro-generation to remember a time before Internet, but I’ve also been online since my senior year of high school. As an adult, I still use the Internet much the same way I did as a teenager, to chat and post on bulletin boards. And, like a teenager, I will lose all impulse control when allocating time and energy to those activities, no matter what platform is in vogue at the time. (A side note: people my age went ten years before social networking sites arrived on the scene with Friendster in 2003, and Facebook’s most addicting feature, the News Feed, has only existed for the past thirteen years, which is half my online existence.)

Unlike my teenage self, however, I am now a grown woman who makes a living by putting ads on the Internet. I have seen the business plans of Facebook and Twitter as they pitch for my clients’ ad dollars. Alt-dot bulletin boards had no business model: Facebook does. I sit in presentations where I hear that each grown adult scrolls through an Empire State Building’s worth of content annually. I hear the monetization proposals, of how people my age are spending at least 30 minutes a day on the platform. That push for Groups this year was obviously to restore the slipping time spent on platform…until COVID-19 drove us all back to Facebook as we clung to ways to stay connected.

In the abstract I also know that the time and writing that I invest in Facebook is for the platform’s benefit. I know, conceptually, by posting, I am the product. I love engaging on the platform though, and it is hard to reconcile that cold, fiscal reality, with the imaginary warmth of connecting with friends. When I step back and look at the idea though, it’s disturbing. I am putting my time, my energy, my ideas, into a platform for Facebook’s stockholders’ benefit, not my own. And I am selling myself exceptionally cheap: the equivalent of $0.26 for each day’s use:

Being on vacation last week, having unallocated time, truly made me question how I was choosing to spend that free time. That was when I posted that I was taking a break from Facebook. I needed to rebuild the habits to prioritize activities that are of higher value to me. I have spoken of this idea before in the context of parenting: how I need to help Ben train his brain so the dopamine reward he receives from video games does not diminish the joy he takes from his creative activities. Clearly, I needed to build the same mental structure for myself.

So even though this was a great Adulting Decision, it didn’t quite work. Without Facebook, I promptly moved over to Twitter where I also have a bad habit of losing time. Only on Twitter, instead of fondly scrolling through friends’ posts, I get into debates with people with differing views than mine. I reply politely and I try to use more compassion than many people deserve when doing so, as one cannot change another person’s mind with aggression and cruelty. Still, those replies and engagements rapidly became a new time black hole, and an addiction of looking at notifications so I would be able to fire back responses because I am also addicted to arguing with people online.

I finally just deleted both apps, and downloaded one of the multitude of focus apps available (I chose Stay Focused) and set timers for the root domains: twenty minutes a day each for Facebook and Twitter. I can log on, check for actual news on Twitter, and check my most important groups on Facebook. I can prioritize those sites for the actions they are most valuable for, and know that, should I be tempted to exchange my valuable time for less valuable engagement on either, I will be kicked off the platform for the rest of the day. If there’s a trending news event, as there was Saturday was the flop of a rally in Tulsa, or a lively debate on a BPSA Scout leadership group on Facebook, and I have already spent my time for the day, then I will not be able to use those platforms to catch up. The #FOMO!

So far, it’s helped. I sat down and wrote this post today, for example, instead of spending the time online. The last hour disappeared the same way an hour on social media would, only I have a thousand words to show for it. I have my ideas, my story, my writing, a practiced craft. Writing is not only how I make sense of my thoughts, but also the equivalent of instrument practice for me, time to work on forming sentences and paragraphs that are in order, capable of transmitting my ideas into someone else’s brain. I will now, with absolutely zero irony, go post the link to this on Facebook and Twitter to share it.

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