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Facebook is a time suck—and keeping up with it is killing us.
During my junior year of college, I made one of the worst decisions of my entire life. After getting the wrong message from a late night showing of Yes Man, in which Jim Carrey stars as a man who decides to say “yes” to everything, I too decided to take the plunge—by accepting an invitation to everything that life threw my way. This sounds like a great idea when you’re pushing yourself to be a more open, adventurous person. You dream that saying “yes” means jumping out of airplanes and doing yoga more; maybe you’ll even learn Russian—because hey, why not?
In reality, saying “yes” to everything means that you find yourself hopping between eight different parties you’ve been invited to on Facebook—from people who never expected or even wanted you to actually come. You arrive and shake hands with the people who look vaguely surprised to see you long enough to have to move onto the next shindig—all the way on the other side of town. It’s a great way to make sure you’re always busy on a Friday night, but an awful way to get to enjoy any of the things you’re supposedly doing. Your party selfies are having a lot more fun than you ever were.
This is a common reaction to a particularly millennial problem. Being on social media for too long gives you the impression that all of your friends and loved ones are hanging out without you, so the solution is to avoid missing out by doing as much as possible. You go out not to socialize or become better friends with those around you, but simply because you’re worried that if you’re not there, all of your friends might become better friends with each other than they are with you. If a group photo is taken and you’re not in it, do you even exist?
If statistics show that 56 percent of social media users report a distinct sense of FOMO—the acronym for the “fear of missing out”—our Facebook and Twitter accounts are only making this worse. Attempting to be more connected actually makes us less connected. “Technology… which was supposed to make us freer and allow us to do more things, might actually be getting in the way,” writes Shea Bennett in AdWeek. “Fifty-five percent of adults said that they felt overwhelmed by the amount of information they need to digest to stay up to speed.”
Anyone who watches television in 2015 is familiar with this phenomenon. There are an absurd amount of shows on TV—between broadcast television, cable, and the Internet streaming revolution, it’s next to impossible to stay up to date on every show you’re told to watch. As soon as you get caught up on The Good Wife, The Wire, Jane the Virgin, Game of Thrones, and House of Cards, you still have Mad Men, The Knick, Veep, Transparent, and Rectify. Just this summer, the debuts of Another Period, Mr. Robot, Humans, UnReal, and Catastrophe collectively put devoted binge-watchers 10 years behind on their Netflix queues.
Thus, watching TV is about knowing your limits as a human—because there are literally only so many hours in a day and you can’t possibly commit to another show. Why don’t we do the same for our social media habits? If the average user spends 40 minutes every day on Facebook, 162 minutes on their cell phone, an hour and 17 minutes on Pinterest, 34 minutes on Tumblr, 17 minutes on Twitter, and an hour and 15 minutes checking email, that means you spend almost a combined seven hours each day using these services.
Your party selfies are having a lot more fun than you ever were.
How much of that time are you actually doing something productive and how much of it is just refreshing to make sure you haven’t missed something? Platforms like Facebook and Twitter may very well allow users to network, make connections, and maintain relationships with those around us. But tech impresario Mark Cuban argues that Facebook—first and foremost—functions as a “time suck,” an algorithm that’s designed to make sure we spend a lot of time doing almost nothing at all. Although Facebook might make us feel cosmetically engaged, too much engagement is almost the same as none at all.
Although the proliferation of social apps asks us to opt into an increasingly dizzy array of options—like Snapchat, Periscope, YikYak, and Ello—perhaps it’s time to opt out. After taking a six-month Facebook hiatus at the beginning of last year, I’ve spent the past year slowly rolling back the number of social media platforms I engage on, until this June when the light went out (likely for good) on my Facebook and Twitter accounts. I have a dummy Facebook that I use for work—in which I have one friend—but I’ve spent the last month or so in the dark.
If One of my favorite Portlandia segments in recent memory was a sketch in which Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen continually one-up each other on their knowledge of the news, by name checking articles published in a variety of magazines—everything from Mother Jones and McSweeneys to the New Yorker. “Did you read it?” they keep asking each other, less a question than a challenge. But it’s clear that even if they did read those stories, they likely didn’t take much from them. Is it better to know everything as soon as it’s happening or is it better to miss out sometimes?
When the Charleston, South Carolina shooting took place on a Wednesday evening, I didn’t hear about it until the following morning. Instead of being pinned to Facebook as the latest updates rolled in about the nine people gunned down at the hands of Dylann Roof, I was at dinner with my boyfriend, unaware of the tragic incident. We got Thai food, took in a movie, went home, and got a good night’s sleep away from our laptop screens. When I got to work the following morning, I settled in, opened my computer, and saw the horror that had been playing out online.
They say that ignorance is bliss—but that doesn’t quite apply here. The case of Travyon Martin showed the role of public trauma in a socially engaged era, how national anguish can allow a space for mourning, discussion, and healing. However, the constant live stream of that suffering has a way of numbing us to its very inevitability. When logging onto Facebook brings yet another stream of updates about innocent black people gunned down—whether that’s Charleston; Ferguson, Missouri; or Staten Island—it’s hard not to feel powerless. It’s hard not to feel like you can’t stop it.
The benefit of getting to the story almost a day late is that I missed out on the early hours of confusion, frustration, and horror—as users on Facebook and Twitter tried to make sense out of the fractured news reports coming out. I had the benefit of context and clarity, the actual story behind what otherwise might seem like a “senseless” tragedy. Instead of frantically checking the news under the dinner table or hiding the light of my phone during a movie, I came to it on my own terms—when I was ready to engage in a way that was more meaningful.
In 2012, tech writer Anil Dash extolled the virtues of disengaging—whether that’s from painful conversations or from the seemingly exciting lives of others on social media. Dash called it “the joy of missing out, or JOMO,” and he looks at missing out as a necessity when living in an urban environment:
When people move to New York City, I tend to give them a few bits of advice that I learned the hard way in my first few years living in the city. There are the usual truisms about using public transit and how to save money and getting the most out of our public spaces. But inevitably, I tell people: You’re going to miss stuff. On any given day, in New York City, there’s an event going on that would be the best event of the year back in your hometown. And most of the time, you’re not going to be there.
While Dash’s thesis is that being boring can be blissful, there’s a more important lesson here: JOMO isn’t just taking control of your social life or your media habits. It’s also a form of survival. Missing out on #TheDress, the latest developments in the Obama–Iran deal, or whatever the hell is happening in the Greece bailout today doesn’t mean you’re uninformed; it just shows that there’s a facet of being engaged we often overlook—discernment. Would you rather waste your attention on everything, using up the precious few hours you’re allotted each day, or save it up for what’s worth caring about?
This doesn’t just apply to the news cycle or keeping up with the Joneses on Facebook. The pleasure of darkness is that it allows you to see what happens when you turn the lights off, your feeds go away, and all those party invites turn to black. It’s not just about saying “no” to the constant barrage of social media. It’s about saying “yes” to the thing that matters most: your own life.
Nico Lang is the Opinion Editor at the Daily Dot.
Photo via Davide Restivo/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.