For ten years, I was a faithful Facebook user. At first, it was just an easy way to get in touch with and stay connected to friends and family. As I began my writing career and got involved with various forms of social advocacy, it turned into a way to network and share opinions (and well, get into arguments with people). Three years ago, I attended a writer’s workshop. The leaders encouraged attendees to maintain a presence on every major social media platform and to develop a personal brand. That’s when I created a public Facebook page labeled “Judy Wu Dominick – Writer.” Once I did that, I compartmentalized my Facebook experience into two distinct spaces: private and public.
On my private page, I shared personal content like family photos, updates, and funny stories; on my public page, I shared articles, reflections on current events, and links to my work. I watched the number of followers of my public page grow from 212 to over 3,200. Based on interactions with readers, I felt like I was accomplishing my goal of equipping people with the tools they needed to engage social issues with greater depth and compassion. It was one of the most satisfying parts of my Facebook experience.
But constant awareness of a virtual audience created restlessness (anxiety?) and distractibility. Whenever I sat down to work on a complex writing project, I found it difficult to concentrate. Writing is hard. And writing with depth and nuance about things like community, enemy love, immigration, racism, trauma, and wealth inequality demands a long attention span and the capacity to sit with emotional discomfort without checking out. Yet that’s exactly what I found myself doing throughout the day – checking out. I would write a sentence, feel uncertain about it, re-write it five times, then mindlessly check Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Often, instead of working on what I needed to work on, I would post a Twitter thread or put up commentary on my Facebook page.
It’s far easier to write spontaneous posts on social media than to apply the deep, sustained effort required to create high-quality work. Unfortunately, every time I posted something, I would spend the rest of the day compulsively checking my notifications, jonesing for my next dopamine hit. There were some weeks when I wrote only one good paragraph. These social media platforms were supposed to help my writing career, but they were actually sabotaging my ability to write.
Compromised productivity wasn’t the only problem. I began to recognize more sinister and subversive aspects of social media, and of Facebook in particular. In my research on the impact of social media on the brain, I traced the source of my anxiety and compulsivity to the reality that any time we get on the social network, we’re doing at least one of the following four things: 1) taking in people’s information and photos in a consumptive manner, 2) producing content for others to consume, 3) experiencing micro releases of dopamine from other people’s responses to our content, or 4) providing responses that trigger dopamine release in the brains of the people who produce content. Every interaction is designed to motivate more interaction and motivate more content creation. We can’t escape it. It’s inherent to its architecture. That’s why our use of it is so difficult to regulate.
Another disturbing effect of all this is that when we begin living to consume digital content or living to provide digital content for a virtual audience (one that supplies our brains with a steady stream of dopamine releases), the people and surroundings in our embodied life, even God, get reduced to potential online content. I’m starting to witness this more and more – people unable to be fully present to those around them because their minds are enslaved to the virtual world. That’s what I call a dystopian hell. It’s material fit for a vignette in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. It’s bad for relationships, and it’s bad for our souls, even if our heart’s desire is to change the world for the better. And, by the way, these social networks direct so much psychological firepower at us because keeping us tethered to their platforms generates a ton of revenue for the private companies who run them.
For a long time, I thought the answer was to periodically fast from social media (days to months as a time), then to re-engage with certain boundaries. The problem was that whenever I got back on it, I would fall back into my old habits and stop respecting the boundaries I had set. It turns out I’m not equipped to overcome the designs of attention engineers – people with PhDs in neurobiology or behavioral psychology – who constantly help hone these social media platforms. Still, I hesitated to get off Facebook because I valued the easy connectivity with people and was afraid of losing it. More than that, I valued my public platform. Surely some good could still come of it.
But then my friend Jason got sick and died, and I watched the whole thing play out on Facebook. Within minutes of his death being announced, people were posting public condolences, tributes, and expressions of grief on Facebook. This went on for days. People kept tagging both him and his wife, so my newsfeed was flooded with all these posts from both people I knew and people I didn’t know. Here’s what was also in my news feed: cute photos of my friends’ children and their pets, commentary on Brett Kavanaugh and sexual assault, some hilarious memes, invitations to participate in trivial quizzes, thrilling news about a friend’s success, a link to a Caring Bridge update from someone who’s now in remission, and vacation videos.
I’m not entirely sure what I felt, but it was some combination of horror and disgust.
Tributes and expressions of grief are a natural response to someone’s death, but the Facebook medium, with its on-demand, ever-present virtual audience and built-in 👍,❤️,😂,😯,😢,😡 rating system (you can rate not just the posts but every comment under every post), assimilates expressions of grief and even very sensitive photographs of a person’s final days into the milieu of consummables, ratables, and assessables. Because it does that, things that ought to have a sacred quality about them – things that would be sacred if they were kept private or shared in intimate spaces – end up coming across like self-centering theater, even tragedy porn.
Jason’s memorial service yesterday was a sharp contrast to all that. There was no audience, no rating system, and no disembodied commenting system – just a physical gathering of mourners. The service was held outdoors in a neighborhood park that was dear to his family. There were over three hundred photos of him displayed, most of which captured moments he had with family and friends. His remains were in a beautiful but simple wooden box, lovingly placed on a table next to a Bible that guests were asked to sign and a jar that people filled with handwritten memories. The service was beautiful and raw and hard. The family’s pain was palpable. Person after person went forward and shared what Jason had meant to them. There were shared moments of grief, lament, celebration, inspiration, and even humor. People held each other and cried – some of them sharing words and others silence.
The power of yesterday’s embodied gathering dissolved all remaining emotional attachments I had to Facebook and social media in general. I don’t want to consume virtual snippets of people anymore, or offer up virtual snippets of me and my family for others to consume. And I’m no longer afraid of missing out on news or losing touch with people or losing my platform. Such fear is related to the subtle ways that technology seduces us into pursuing omniscience (trying to keep up with an endlessly available stream of data) and omnipotence (placing so much emphasis on platform) – Godlike qualities we were never meant to possess – instead of faithfulness and wisdom, Christlike qualities we’re commanded to cultivate. Plus, quantity of connection does not equal quality connection. I’m ready to trade the easy connectivity that Facebook offers for more substantial connections with the people that God places in my path, and to let go of the idea of platform in order to focus on faithfulness.
My shoulders are sore today from lifting and moving folding chairs yesterday. The soreness is a welcome reminder that I was there and a part of something true.
1. Freed, Richard. “The Tech Industry’s Psychological War on Kids.” March 12, 2018. https://medium.com/@richardnfreed/the-tech-industrys-psychological-war-on-kids-c452870464ce
2. Davidow, Bill. “Exploiting the Neuroscience of Internet Addiction.” July 18, 2012. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/07/exploiting-the-neuroscience-of-internet-addiction/259820/
3. Tiku, Nitasha. “Get Ready for the Next Big Privacy Backlash Against Facebook.” May 21, 2017. https://www.wired.com/2017/05/welcome-next-phase-facebook-backlash/
4. Sacasas, Michael. “Audience Overload.” September 9, 2018. https://thefrailestthing.com/2018/09/09/the-deforming-power-of-an-ever-present-audience/