5 Things I Learned from a Year without Facebook

Originally published on Medium.com

Watercolor by me! Beatrix Burneston

Watercolor by me! Beatrix Burneston

This June I am celebrating my year anniversary of leaving Facebook. Aside from being the target of some epic trolling, my decision to return to the real world was inspired by my fear for the direction in which humanity is evolving and my belief that the real world was better than the virtual one, which turns out to be true! Unlike many people, I don’t have a job at the moment that requires me to be on it. I left New York after a divorce, car accident and a falling out with my creative community and moved to Los Angeles to figure out the next chapter of my life while walking dogs for work. While life in a gigantic, new city has been lonely, I decided to double down on what I call “analog life” as an experiment. I was an early advocate and frequent user of most social media platforms but the past few years on it had no joy for me. I had selfie fatigue, was disgusted by the way people were presenting themselves (as if our social lives need branding) and I began to question why we all acted like the march of technology was “inevitable” when it was just marching on top of us. Everyone said the same thing — they had to be on it — and acted as if we had no choice. Social media was the law of the land. But breaking rules is kind of my thing, so I set out to see what would happen if I just left it all behind. Facebook went first, Instagram followed a few months later with maybe 3 posts total the past 6 months. I even left all dating apps. Here’s what I learned…

  1. The addiction is real. It took about three months for me to fully conquer my “fear of missing out” aka FOMO. At first, I felt like everyone was having a great time but me. I struggled to keep my finger off the button. It was such a mindless, routine habit that often I would click and be on it before I even came to my senses and remembered I was abstaining. After a week or so, I deleted it from my phone entirely. I found myself searching online for some kind of distraction as intensely as an addict looks for the next fix. It occurred to me that when drugs like cocaine or opium were first introduced into society, they, too, were casually used in soda or by doctors to treat anything and everything before the full impact of the addiction lead to laws limiting the availability of such lethal drugs. I began to think of these years of unchecked social media addiction as “the lost years” because of the compounded effect of living our social lives through the filter of social media, while the quality of our relationships and culture has suffered in ways we haven’t even figured out yet.

  2. Let boredom be your guide. Depending on your source, it takes between 21–90 days to change a habit. I’m a disciplined eater, athlete and artist, so making new healthy habits isn’t usually hard for me. Kicking the social media habit took the full 90 days, which speaks to the severity of my addiction. Once I handled the FOMO and became more skilled with navigating the urge to fill the void with virtual distractions, I found myself reading actual books again for the first time in years. It didn’t even occur to me that I hadn’t fully finished a book in about 3 years. This realization shocked me! Not only did I return to books, but I started writing all the time and painting more. I had a lot of free time. I found that the urge for virtual distraction was easily filled actual substance. It was as if I had to keep telling myself to put the Doritoes down, and when I did, there was a nourishing and delicioius meal waiting right there for me.

  3. The magic returns. Algorithms are actually designed to keep us online by any means necessary. This means that they intentionally show upsetting photos of your ex and their new partner, endless cute cat videos and keep dramatic stories on your feed longer than their shelf life. Algorithms aren’t benign, they are actively working all the time to keep us in a stunned, numb and paralyzed state which isolates us and helps them succeed in their mission: we stay online longer and longer. One of the biggest gifts of what I call “analog life” is that I notice synchronicities again. Synchronicity is when things that appear to be a coincidence share a theme or relevance to other aspects of your life. These are the little bread crumbs that life leaves for you along the path. Out in the real world, when I bump into a friend unexpectedly or hear a song over and over again, I pay attention to it and I look for connections. This has made my life feel magical! Chance encounters feel important and my life feels like a mystery that I am unwrapping with curiosity.

  4. Feeding the hunger for human connection. In addition to improving the quality of the media I was ingesting, I found that I was actually hungry for human connection. I started talking more to people in public. Before, I always had a busy, distracted way of moving through life, but I began to feel a genuine curiosity about everyone around me. So I started talking to cashiers, helping people anywhere I could and even just making my face available to smile or say hello instead of gazing into my phone. The ripple of effects of small kindnesses are huge and there were many depressed days feeling lonely in LA when the cashier at Trader Joe’s would be my only social interaction and I started to appreciate every gesture of connection so much more.

  5. The power of showing up. The past few years, it has become commonplace to send an email or text to someone and never get a reply. When I was addicted, I thought nothing of picking up my phone in the middle of a face to face conversation and casually checking for any new likes, updates or comments on my feed. In actuality, it is just plain rude and it’s delusional to behave as if you can be fully present with a person while mindlessly multitasking. People can be dismissed entirely with a swipe, interactions are reduced to likes, and birthdays only require posting a bunch of emojis. Disconnecting from the culture of disconnection has helped me show up more for all of my relationships. Now, I have to call, email and and send letters to people. Yes, I send actual mail. I have developed some pen pal relationships in which sending and receiving surprises in the mail can fill me with anticipation and excitement for days. I have learned the value of showing up all the way to support my loved ones and, in return, I have been surprised with the depth of their love for me. It is an endless loop — the more I connect with people in real ways, the more they connect with me. I was a shitty friend when I was addicted to social media, but now I’m learning how to be a better friend and person every day with people in the real world.

I will not be going back to Facebook. I wouldn’t “dabble” with heroin after I just kicked the habit either. My future work may require me to use other social media at some point, but if I do, I will only use it as a conduit for connecting in the real world. I found other outlets to share my experiences and observations (Medium is one) that don’t have ads and agendas or rely on addiction to hold me hostage online. The real world is amazing and having a healthy, minimal dependence on technology has changed my life exponentially for the better. I can’t recommend it enough and I hope to see you out in the real world too…