The medium is the message (some thoughts on being Facebook free)

I’ve been Facebook (almost) free for three weeks, and here are my initial thoughts.

1. Facebook does not want me to be free. Yes, I realize that it is a website and not a person. But it kept sending me email notifications every few days that my friends had updated their statuses, that I had missed popular stories and popular comments on popular photos. Moreover, it usually managed to pick friends that I was most interested in hearing from; it’s probably some algorithm that figured out which friends I interacted with the most.

Of course, to read the actual updates, I had to log in to the site (and thus be sucked back into the link-clicking that constitutes “keeping up with” people on Facebook.) It was as though Facebook was a washed-up diva who grabs attention in any pathetic way possible, trying regain the glory of her youth.

No thanks. I clicked unsubscribe, so hopefully that will take care of the junk in my inbox.

2. The medium is the message. There’s a lot of truth in Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase. He means that the medium itself is not neutral; it influences and becomes a part of the message that is communicated. So what message is sent by Facebook?

Here’s one to think about. When status updates are posted, they all have equal weight. It doesn’t matter if it’s about genocide or a headache, it receives basically the same amount of screen space, the same size profile photo beside it, and the same format (profile photo beside message, sometimes with a picture/cartoon beneath it).

When everything is given equal value, then nothing is valued and nothing is all-absorbing. No matter how riveting someone finds a particular update, it’s easy for their attention to drift to something else that might be more interesting.

In Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, he quotes expert Michael Merzenich on what happens when we multitask online. (And Facebook is really one big exercise in multitasking, if you think about it.)

“When we multitask online, he [Merzenich] says, we are ‘training our brains to pay attention to the crap.’ The consequences for our intellectual lives may prove ‘deadly.’” (The Shallows, page 142, emphasis mine.)

3. I don’t miss Facebook—now. At first, I would be checking my two email accounts and accidentally click on the Facebook login button out of habit. It was hard. Here’s what I wrote in my journal in late March:

I don’t so much miss FB as I do crave it. This must be what drug addicts go through—needing the stimulation, craving that rush. Wasn’t it always a rush? The instantaneous replies, the gratification of seeing MY words beside MY photo on a page dedicated to the idol of ME, the anxiety when the replies were not forthcoming. It wasn’t all that different from a manic—okay, a hypomanic—episode, the high with that dreadful crash soon to follow, cycling, cycling, wound tighter, tighter until there is nothing but movement inside my mind.

Even remembering it makes my brain shift from side to side. (I doubt many people would believe that. A fellow sufferer, maybe, or a neurologist. Most would raise an eyebrow and think, we must humor her at all costs!)

Fast forward to now and I really don’t miss it. Occasionally, I’ll be curious and want to check out my friends’ profiles, but I also know that if I start, I’ll have a really hard time stopping. So going cold turkey is best.

It’s a bit like when I was addicted to soap operas and we got rid of our television set. It was hard—withdrawal from any drug is hard—but worth it, and I can honestly say that I don’t miss it.

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12 thoughts on “The medium is the message (some thoughts on being Facebook free)

  1. Good post, Laura! Your post raises some very good questions. Have you read the book Amusing ourselves to Death by Neil Postman? It also covers some of this “the medium is the message.” It is an enlightening and sobering book. Postman has also written a book called Technopoly. I have it but haven’t read it….Anyway, I am thankful for your post. FB is addicting. I am going to wean myself off, perhaps only check once a day? (I’ll try anyway)

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    1. Carrie, I haven’t read either Postman book. I’m starting to read Marshall McLuhan’s book Understanding Media, which Carr talked about quite a bit in The Shallows. I’ve actually had to get on FB since my “Facebook-free” experiment started, just to unsubscribe to emails and to get out of a group that someone put me in without asking my permission. Eeeek!

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  2. Interesting post, Laura. I think some of us must have more of a propensity for such addictions than others because I’ve neither missed FB when I’m away from it for a couple weeks, nor craved knowing what people are saying there. Then again, I’ve never watched TV soap operas either so maybe I’m just an oddity. 😉

    I’m afraid I also don’t agree with Merzenich’s assumption that by multitasking we are ‘training our brains to pay attention to the crap.’ I skim over the crap, whether it’s on FB or in a book, or elsewhere. Multitasking gives me the opportunity to discover the important things that may be embedded among the trivial. Then I can settle in to concentrate on them.

    Nevertheless, knowing ourselves and finding what’s right for us is the kingpin! Kudos to you for recognizing what you needed to do.

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    1. Good point about some people having really addictive personalities. Some people, such as myself, do have more of this than others. You’re very, very fortunate if you can actually find and concentrate on the important things on the internet. I don’t think most people can; more importantly, I don’t think most people care if they waste their time on the trivial.

      I didn’t do a good job of setting up the context for the quote from Merzenich. It’s from a book called The Shallows: how the Internet affects our brains, by Nicholas Carr. In it, he talks about how Internet usage physically and neurologically changes our brains (I think it’s called “neuro plasticity”); Merzenich is an expert on it and has conducted all kinds of experiments on these brain changes and the internet. It was really fascinating. I wish I had the book with me to explain the full context (I got it from the library and only took notes on it.) I can only give the book two thumbs up and a huge recommendation.

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    2. I don’t find it hard to believe his theories at all. They make good sense. But even taken out of context I can’t agree with a generalization that says “multitasking is training our brains to pay attention to the crap.” Multitasking specifically with electronic multimedia like FB, Twitter, TV, and texting… yes. Multitasking in general, no. I was taught way back in public school how to multitask effectively, letting the conscious mind skim the tasks at hand to discard the trivial and home in on the important. It was a process extrapolated to studying techniques. To that end, multitasking is a positive, not a negative. I think I’d agree with Merzenich’s other conclusions. Sounds like an interesting read.

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      1. Good point about there being a difference in multitasking in general and multitasking electronically. I do the first a lot, too. In the context of the book, he is talking about multitasking on electronic media, and not in general. (I think the quote is from a telephone interview with the author, so Merzenich probably didn’t feel the need to specify which type of multitasking he was referring to.) The book is a great read. I’ve recommended it to several people recently.

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  3. I would guess anything that can give immediate recognition or feedback would cause that Pavlovian response in us. Sometimes after writing a significant blog post you might feel the same way. You might find yourself checking back and forth to see if anyone might have responded to or read it. (Although, probably less so with regards to blogs. ) For the social networking sites, they usually give us immediate feedback, which can transform the daily mundane into something significant in our minds. That’s the hook, I believe.

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    1. Good point about the Pavlovian response. I don’t know how that works from a neurological perspective, but I know that getting lots of immediate gratification is very bad for me. I usually get off my computer after I put up a blog post so that I’m not tempted to keep checking on stats, etc. I’m also trying to check my email only once (or twice at most) a day. Otherwise, I will never get anything done!

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  4. This is topical for me; I have work to do for my degree and boy can I find all sorts of things to do, other than that damn work for uni!!! I decided never to bother with FB because I had heard how it sucks people in and you can waste hours and hours just repsonding to other people and so on.

    You will get over it; we all need to do this from time to time. Now, about my addiction to blogs…….?!

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    1. Yes, FB can definitely be a waste of time. I’ve tried various ways to manage it, but it still took up a lot of time and a lot of mental energy. I cleaned out my blogs on igoogle (I had about thirty that I was trying to “follow”) and kept only ones that I liked or found useful. Kind of like cleaning out my clothes closet: I found stuff that I had forgotten that I had! 🙂

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