Reflections on the Facebook Sannyasa

My desk at CIT 359 while working on CS169 project

As some of you reading this might be aware I have been away for a while.

I deactivated my Facebook account sometime in the first week of Feb; it has been over 75 days. I did try activating it once after 30 days were over and realized within a couple of hours, how ugly and consumeristic this part of the Internet is and since then had not tried logging in again until last night.

The only time I really felt a strong urge to log in was two weeks ago when a great discussion about rejections, hardships and Impostor syndrome in Computer Science erupted in our internal Brown CS group. Multiple friends pointed it out, something seemed different about the air inside CIT, even the digital displays used in the building were augmented with a slide encouraging onlookers to check out and participate in the discussion. After 24 hours of resistance, I decided to login using an alias account and I was moved with the kind of communication that a large social platform like this one can enable. There were students from all stages of academic life, freshmen to final year graduate students; there were professors, even many alumni sharing their deepest thoughts and insecurities about how they did and are doing being a CS person. It was perhaps the greatest act of a sense of community that I have ever witnessed around me. The next whole week felt so warm when people looked at each other and felt that shared sense of belonging. Take a look at this post on Blognonian to get an idea of what I mean. The post has 710 likes and 136 (first-level) comments as of now (group population is 1427).

Cal Newport in his new book, Deep Work, suggests readers to try to abstain from social media for 30 days and ask themselves the following two questions:

  1. Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?
  2. Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?

I haven’t read the book but learnt about these questions from a friend’s review of the book. As I was abstaining from Facebook for a long time anyway, I tried to answer those questions:

  1. The answer to the first was indeed a big NO. I got so much work done during that time that would have been impossible if I didn’t abstain myself from uncontrollable distraction. It had partly to do with other steps I took as well – removing all kinds of social apps from my phone and turning off most notifications, everywhere. Even practicing slow email.
  2. For the second, I felt people who cared most were my family who felt that I was becoming even more of a loner by first denouncing WhatsApp back in September and then FB in Feb. But then, I talk to them over phone on a fairly regular basis so it’s not much of a concern and they understood why.

On further introspection, I realized that there is another question, which, for some people, is probably subsumed by the first – how did it affect my personal/social life. I think I started to feel distant from most people, who counted among sort-of-friends, if not just acquaintances, unaware of what was going on in their life, even those right here at Brown (except ones that I see in the building). It is hard to be in touch even with close friends on a one-to-one basis these days with time zone differences and busy schedules.

It almost felt selfish but I think I was addicted and had to get over it to manage my life better. I ended up getting an offer for a summer internship during this period and improving my performance and engagement in courses and projects.

On a different front, I started exploring other parts of the Internet without solely depending upon Facebook for consumption and/or creation. Pressing ‘f’ key on my browser’s address bar now autocompletes to Feedly not what it used to; I especially like that I can curate what content I want to spend time on instead of Facebook’s gray-box algorithm making the (usually stupid) decisions for me. I chose to use AirBnB & Craigslist and not FB groups for finding housing on the West Coast. I tried out (yet again) Tumblr for a while to vent out frustrations or yaying about discoveries or excitements.

But had it really been that good a decision so far?

Last week was probably my most unproductive week in the whole semester. No, I wasn’t wasting time on Facebook. It was some sort of exhaustion that I couldn’t explain to myself.

A strange need to get away from the (sometimes) messy desk seen above. Frequent visits to the 5th floor to try to focus on work. Taking different routes to campus in the morning, observing things on the way I had never taken care to notice before. Multiple mood swings during the days. Long evening walks around campus and Downtown Providence (because Spring is finally here). But there didn’t seem to be an end to an unsatiated desire to relax. I felt like I was losing my sanity.

Humans are social animals. A more rational analysis of my week should take into account the fact that certain avenues of my regular social interaction were missing this week for a variety of reasons and that may not change soon. I realized it was time to bring a balance to my social needs. (Heck, even dating sites do not work well without a Facebook account.) That community discussion I mentioned in the beginning – the worst part was I couldn’t participate without coming back.

I believe most technical innovations have their pros and cons. There is no doubt that Facebook has changed the way people interact in last ten years in a mostly positive way. It is a necessary evil of my life and it can help me keep sane. The best I can do is to learn to utilize this fairly effective platform in moderation. This Medium-like note feature alone (which is perhaps new to FB) makes me want to stay this time.

Thank you for reading this FBlog. Questions, comments, perspectives on how Facebook (or other social media) affects your life and how you balance it well are most welcome.

Originally posted as a note on Facebook.

Posted with tags Facebook Social Media Work change inspiration personal friends reflections In Real Life Brown University Grad Life
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