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  • Paul D. Wilke

Breaking up is Hard


My twelve-year love-hate relationship with Facebook is over. I deleted my account, and good riddance!

Why?

Well, for a number of reasons. First, I had come to the sad realization that the way I engaged on Facebook made me resemble one of Skinner’s pigeons. B.F. Skinner was a behavioral psychologist who made a name for himself experimenting with pigeons (and rats) to show how operant conditioning governs animal behavior. Simply put, it’s the idea that our behavior can be modified by the granting or withholding of rewards.

To prove this point, Skinner decided to keep a bunch of pigeons at 75% of their healthy weight so they would always be hungry. He then put them in a small box. Food rewards were released only when the pigeon pecked at a disc on the wall. At first, the rewards were predictable. Pecking the disc released food every time, giving the hungry pigeon a snack.

But then the experimenters began to mess with the pigeons, randomizing the release of food, stretching out the rewards and making them more unpredictable. Sometimes the food reward would release after five pecks, sometimes only after a hundred. Similarly, sometimes after one minute the pigeon got food, while at other times no food would drop for ten minutes. Nevertheless, no matter the variable, the starving pigeon would keep on frantically pecking, as long as something (anything!) eventually dropped. The takeaway was that no matter how infrequent the reward, the miserable pigeon would keep on pecking.

“Well, those are just stupid pigeons,” you might be thinking.

Okay, but go to a casino sometime and watch all of the “stupid” human pigeons sitting in the giant casino box, bleary-eyed and in front of slot machines, pulling those handles, over, and over, and over, again, just like Skinner’s pigeons, hoping for something (anything!) to eventually drop.

What’s the difference?

Social media began to seem a bit like that to me on a much grander scale. It turns out there’s some evidence to back this up. Much of the content on the web has been designed to keep us addicted using something akin to Skinner’s operant conditioning. That's what makes us feel compelled to continually check our phones and newsfeeds to see if we’ve been rewarded with ‘likes’ or ‘shares.’ In terms of psychological impact, social media is like a mega slot machine, except this one is everywhere, we can hold it in our hands, and it's much easier to become addicted.

I most certainly was not immune, and that bothered me, knowing I was getting manipulated and still allowing it to happen. Think about it. Do you get twitchy if you’re off social media for too long? I did. And yet, whenever I’d feel any unease with this state of affairs, I’d rattle off in my head all the reasons why FB was such a good thing, or at least a necessary evil.

1. I could maintain long distance friendships that would otherwise not be possible.

2. I could tailor my newsfeed to offer me a well-balanced diet of respectable news.

3. And finally, I could engage in thoughtful conversations and share jokes with friends and strangers from all over the world. Community!

All true enough.

Then again, was it?

Out of all my 150 or so FB friends, I only ever engaged with any regularity with about 10-15 of them. These represented the close circle of friends and family that we all have. Beyond this tight, inner social orbit, existed probably another 15-20 of my FB friends, people I knew, kind of, sort of, but not very well. These were people I’d have dinner or hang out with on occasion, but not feel comfortable confiding anything too personal. Many in this second category were old friends from high school and college, as well as current and former work colleagues. Social media engagement with this second group varied, but was often limited to the occasional ‘like’ or a brief comment about a major life event. "Congrats!" Sometimes time, distance, and circumstance change who is in the first group of close friends and who is in the second group of mere acquaintances.

Most of the rest of my FB friends, the vast majority, in fact, were what I call Kuiper Belt Friends. For those who don’t know, the Kuiper Belt is a band of frozen rocks and dormant comets orbiting the Sun from way, way out in the frozen outer fringes of our solar system. It’s incredibly far away and mostly unknown to us on Earth, out of sight and out of mind.

Kuiper Belt Friends are likewise remote almost to the point of abstraction. They’re the FB friends you forget you even have when you scroll down your friends list. Try it sometime: Scroll down and you’ll eventually reach those people you know almost nothing about. In fact, you may have forgotten about these people altogether, even though you are FB “friends” with them.

Those are your Kuiper Belt Friends.

The second bit of malarkey I sold myself to stick it out on FB was that I could somehow curate my newsfeed to make me consume more responsible, well-rounded, and less biased content. FB would be a one-stop news shop for me to see the world more objectively, thus helping me to avoid the partisan stupidity that reigned elsewhere. I would be different. I would be better. I would be above it all. In retrospect, I cringe at the naivety of such a belief. What the hell was I thinking?

After all, I was still just as likely to get all spun up about a viral Cecil the Lion type story as anyone else. Whatever was trending was what I was reading, curated or not, just like everyone else. You see, every news outlet is competing for something more valuable than our money. They’re fighting for our attention, which is the new currency of the online economy.

Even as I tried to tweak my own news feed to be fair and balanced (oh! that now ironic phrase, forever tainted!), I was still getting content tailor-made by subtle algorithms designed to feed me an echo-chamber-ready diet of information. In other words, my efforts to not fall into group-think were well-intentioned but doomed. I realize now that the deck is stacked against such efforts, and to think that I would be an exception is laughable.

Finally, what about all those “thoughtful conversations?” Surely, that’s something, right? Well, not really. For all of my twelve years on FB, I never really mastered the art of thoughtful engagement with those who disagreed with me. At my worst, I’d carpet bomb my opponents with a pompous thousand word manifesto about how so very wrong they were and how so very right I was. Oh, I was so clever! So witty! Yet, I’m guessing very few people ever read those self-righteous masterpieces. After all, how many of us see the “More” tab on a Facebook comment and think, “No more, nope, not gonna read all that blah blah blah, not when there’s a cat video right below.”

In the last few years, I tried to enforce a two reply limit, and I’d try and keep those responses respectful and concise. The goal was to keep any contentious FB discussions from spiraling out of control. Even so, I sometimes broke that rule. I nevertheless persisted in thinking that FB could somehow be a positive forum for exchanging challenging ideas, changing minds, and engaging productively with others who saw the world differently from me.

Unfortunately, all any of us wanted to do was talk past each other, trying to be clever and score points so we could get the reward of those self-esteem-affirming ‘likes.’ Not once that I know of did I ever change a mind with my keyboard combat, nor did anyone change mine. I still idealistically believe we need more meaningful conversations to heal our divided society, but I don’t think that can ever happen online.

On the contrary, we’re chewing each other up. Our inner trolls tend to come out online in ways they would never happen if we had a real, flesh and blood human being sitting across from us. Social media made me meaner, less informed, and more inclined to see people more as meme-worthy caricatures. Face to face interactions short circuit our more malicious social impulses. It's so much harder to hate when you have someone standing in right in front of you. You see them for what they are: a human being.

These last few months, on those rare occasions when I did comment online to disagree with someone, I’d almost always feel kind of gross and dirty about it afterward. I had long ago concluded that swapping opinions on FB was futile, and yet there I was, at it again.

Skinner’s pigeon.

So I decided that if I couldn’t beat FB, I’d delete it. The nuclear option. It’s been almost a month now. I feel more focused than I’ve been in years. My attention span is returning along with vast swathes of free time. I’m reading a lot more than usual, and writing too. As a fringe benefit, with FB now gone, I’m spending a lot less time online. More importantly, I’m less distracted at my new and demanding job. I’ve filled the FB void by listening to podcasts and audio books, usually on the weekends during long walks through the park near our apartment. Heck, sometimes I just lay on my beanbag and stare at the ceiling. Doing nothing is something, it seems! Last, I’ve finally become serious about learning French, which is a good thing since I now live in France.

That last point was the final nail in my FB coffin. I’m living in Paris and have a pretty awesome life. I really don’t need to escape online from reality right now, I need to experience it. After all, life may not always be this way. In fact, I know it won’t. Things don’t always get better, and eventually, if we live long enough, they get much worse for all of us. I’m healthy now, but who knows how long that will last? I had a glimpse of what bad health was like a few years ago, and it was sobering. Careers also wax and wane, and this marvelous Paris adventure is probably the last hurrah in my long military career. Then what? My son is going to be a legal adult in just two years, beginning the end of an immensely enjoyable chapter in my life. Then what?

Knowing all this, why, oh why, would I want to fritter away these fleeting golden moments checking my FB page twenty times a day and staring at my little magic rectangle all the time?

My answer is that I don’t. I want to experience what I can in real time. If I’m glued to a screen all of the time, I can’t do that.

That’s just me, though. But think about it…are you one of Skinner’s pigeons? If you are, you don’t have to be. Choose again.

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P.S. First off, thanks as always for reading. To any of my (now former) FB friends who made it this far, and if you are at all interested, I’d like to stay in touch. Email me sometime to tell me how you’re doing. My personal email is pkwilke20@gmail.com. Or send me your email and I'll keep in touch with you. I promise you’ll get a worthy response to show you did not waste your time. Let’s correspond like they did in old-timey days! I’m also going to keep writing every now and then on steelsnowflake.org.

Finally, something to leave you all with: if it feels weird to correspond long form with me via email or even on the phone, we’re probably only Kuiper Belt Friends to each other anyway: you for me and me for you. That’s okay, because only a few select folks get to be in our warm inner social orbits, and not everyone can fiti in that circle. It took me a long time to realize that. Either way, good luck, and all the best!

#socialmedia #facebook #quitting #leaving #conditioning

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