My name is Colin, and I have a Facebook problem.
Like millions of adults raised on the Internet, my right index finger seems genetically programmed to left-click a mouse. The iPhone thumb-swipe is so hard-wired into my neural pathways that I can instinctively check my Facebook and Twitter feeds when only barely conscious. Which is exactly what I do every morning in my pre-coffee haze, lest I allow the tiniest piece of digital flotsam to float by unnoticed.
Since I joined Facebook in 2005, not long after it was launched, it has become an ever-growing presence in my life. Like a far-away siren growing louder as it approaches, it has taken up an expanding share of my attention, slowly but steadily nudging out other important pursuits and inuring me to the terrible prospect of perpetual multitasking.
Which is why, a week ago, I changed my password to Facebook and Twitter to obscenely long and impossible to remember string of characters, printed it out, and handed it over to my boyfriend with instructions not to give it back to me under any circumstances for two weeks.
My sad little 14-day hiatus from social media, not yet half-over, has already opened my eyes to a few things.
First the good: I've found that my primary compulsion to use Facebook and Twitter comes from a healthy urge to share what I find fascinating.
In the span of just a few days, I felt twinges of disappointment when I realized I couldn't share a hilarious story by Joseph Mitchell in The New Yorker, or a photo in the New York Times showing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in an almost comic embrace. I wanted to express what an awful idea it is for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to get rid of its free-fare zone just as business and activity is starting to return to Main Street. And I wanted to share a video of Saul Elkin eloquently describing the Jewish Repertory Theatre's current production of “Mister Benny” and my blog post on graffiti and art galleries in Toronto.
I didn't share any of that. And yet life still somehow went on.
For me, the ability to satisfy that urge to share is actually the good part of Facebook, as long as it doesn't include pictures of your half-eaten breakfast burrito or endless political screeds in all-caps. The problem for many Facebook time-wasters comes in the feedback phase. Like a lot of Facebook habitues, my brain releases a little bit of serotonin when I see a red number pop up on the notification bar. I want to know who responded to my post, what they said, if they re-shared it.
Most of the time, the only correct answer to that question is: Who cares? But the Facebook-addled brain assigns far too much importance to instant feedback, and not nearly enough to thoughtful digestion of information.
No doubt my concern about an increased reliance on social media to the exclusion of other forms of communication and social activity seems overblown to some, dismissible to many. And I have no desire to join the hand-wringing punditry whose bromides about the ill-effects of social media on young attention spans grow more tiresome by the week.
All I can say is that, for me, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have reached a tipping point. Their usefulness in keeping me apprised of local goings-on, in allowing me to appreciate at a glance the spirit of the current moment, has been overridden by my own susceptibility to digital distraction. The fault lies fully with me, of course, but I know I cannot possibly be the only one.
When I wade reluctantly back into the social media surf next Sunday, I'll try harder to keep my head above water.