What I learned from my Facebook fast

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I just spent seven weeks on a Facebook fast, and I learned a few things.

I should preface this by saying it was a completely impulsive decision made the evening of February 13th, when one of my Facebook friends posted that she was going to fast from Facebook during Lent, which started the next day.

I immediately responded that she inspired me to do the same thing: no Facebook until Easter except for Sundays (which tradition holds exempt from Lenten fasts).

Then I told my wife, who raised her eyebrow skeptically. She was doubtful I could do it. That, of course, only made me more determined, but I admit I was a little concerned about how hard it might be. I thought that alone was reason for trying.

It turned out to be easy. Even disappointingly easy. I guess I wasn’t nearly as attached to Facebook as I had thought. And I found that I didn’t feel an urge to binge on those Sundays, either.

Instead, as the weeks went on, I came to better understand what I like about Facebook, through the things I came to miss the most:

  • I missed reading my friends’ posts. Not only the ones about their daily lives, and photos, but their commentaries on articles they shared about the issues that drive their passions.
  • I missed the interactions, even the most minor ones of simply liking one of their posts. I don’t limit my Facebook friends’ list to people I have met. Over the past couple of years I have used it especially to get out of my usual bubble and expose myself to people and their hopes and dreams and understandings of life that I would otherwise rarely encounter. I am grateful for all I have been learning, and my Facebook fast helped me realize how much I appreciate these connections, and that I missed them.
  • And I missed all the birthday notices! I depend on Facebook to help me keep track of birthdays of personal friends, and so this experiment has caused me to miss out on a few birthday greetings. I’m sorry! But I am someone who genuinely enjoys writing a simple birthday greeting on the wall of even my most distant Facebook friends, and there’s usually a handful any given day. It’s an easy thing to do, and I discovered that I have missed those daily birthday greetings.

Did I accomplish anything as a result of this Facebook fast that otherwise might not have happened? Yes. Not being able to comment on Facebook about the topics and issues that I’m passionate about made my thoughts turn to the possibility of starting a new blog. The Earth Keeper is the result.

I find it humorous that just as I’m returning to Facebook on a regular basis the news makes it sound as though everyone else is leaving! While I agree that Mark Zuckerberg has treated people’s private information way too casually, and that his responses have tended to deepen the distrust, I would argue that people are also not approaching this very rationally. If you are upset enough to quit Facebook over privacy issues, you probably should not own a smartphone nor connect to the Internet in any other way. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal may pave the way for some regulation that could better protect privacy, but in reality the only way to be reasonably sure of it is to stay off the grid completely.

There was an interesting article in The Verge last Wednesday, an interview of Justin Rosenstein, the creator of the “Like” button. While he is critical of some aspects of social media, he also argues that in getting caught up in the issue of the moment, we are forgetting all the good that Facebook brings to the world:

I think it’s good for the world on balance. The question is so complicated, it’s hard to compute. But the good parts of social media have become so taken for granted that we’ve stopped praising them. And the bad parts, people are starting to see for the first time. So people are like, “Oh, it’s all terrible.” That’s a very unbalanced perspective.

You look at the #MeToo movement. That’s named after a hashtag. It’s this really important social movement that spread on the wings of social media. A hugely important, civilization-level conversation — millions of people in a week. That’s incredible! People weren’t like, “Wow, Facebook, you’re amazing.” They’re just like, “Of course you can do that these days.” [But] that wasn’t possible 10 years ago. All these stories I hear — people reconnecting with lost loved ones, grandparents staying in touch with their children. Jared Cohen at the State Department said that Facebook’s mere existence in its first five years did more to help with relations between Arabs and Israelis than 30 years of coordinated attempts by the CIA. This really basic stuff you get from connectivity is so powerful … but people just take that for granted at this point.

Then you do have distraction, filter bubbles, polarization, information privacy, and a lot of problems social media needs to fix. And I’m hopeful. I think these are all fixable problems. You look at industries like tobacco. The difference between this and tobacco: no matter how you package that product, it’s harmful. Whereas social media, if done the right way, if we have a commitment to making sure the content we’re showing people is relevant to them, if we’re only sending notifications when something is actually timely and important, the potential is for the pie chart to move very much in the positive direction.

My seven-week Facebook fast helped me to recognize the good in it. I’m glad to be back.

About the author

David Backes

I have always been drawn to where the wild things are: the natural world around me, and the wilderness within. As a writer, speaker, and university professor, I have for decades focused on this combination of nature and the human spirit. In recent years, my spiritual journey has added another lens: social, environmental and intergenerational justice. Put it all together and you’ve got The Earth Keeper, a blog of integral ecology and the prophetic imagination. The Earth Keeper may at times make you feel hopeful or inspired; it may make you feel uncomfortable or defensive or even angry. I hope it often will be challenging, and always interesting.

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