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My Facebook Diet

14 June 2010 One Million Watts 5,599 views 3 CommentsPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

I’m in the midst of a Facebook diet. I haven’t quit the ubiquitous social network, nor do I plan to. And I’ve love to tell you that I haven’t looked at the site in months, but I checked in twice this week. (I maintain Monkey Goggles’ Facebook page; I couldn’t quit visiting the site completely even if I wanted to. By the way, you should check out the MG Facebook page, and add its biological and technological distinctiveness to your own.)

This isn’t a Facebook revolt. It’s a diet. I’m only cutting back.

The reason I’ve decided to spend less time on Facebook isn’t one you’d expect. The site’s cavalier attitude towards individual privacy troubles me as much as anyone, but I’ve fine-tuned my security controls to a point I’m comfortable with, and I always endeavor to write anything on my page that could be personally or professionally compromising. My friends list is actually a pretty agreeable bunch — I’ve got lefties and righties, gays and straights, people who like “Twilight” and people who don’t — and everybody gets along; I’ve rarely had to filter anyone out, or administer a smackdown. And I can easily tune out those occasional Farmville requests and those incessant, meaningless pokes.

The reason I’m on a Facebook diet is this: I’m concerned about what it might be doing to my brain.

Following dozens of daily entries from dozens of friends has taken its toll on my attention span. My thoughts have become small, fragmented, and slippery; I can barely hold one in my head. I’ve begun seeing the world as a series of status updates, devalued of weight and substance. I’m not saying that’s what Facebook does to everyone, but it is what it’s doing to me, and in order to pull back from that abyss I have to curb my now-natural impulse to go to Facebook several times a day and just click on links.

The first day that I fully realized that I wasn’t going to visit Facebook at all was the most difficult one to get through. I didn’t realize how often I used Facebook as filler — every time I’m writing a piece and get stuck for a phrase, every time I decide to take a break from whatever I’m working on, pretty every time I sit down at the computer and simply open a browser. Even now, I’m thinking that this piece would have worked better as a short Facebook update, and maybe a link to a Nicholas Carr article I found in this month’s Wired. Then, having gotten that business out the way, I could be free to scroll through two weeks’ worth of friend updates. Who knows? I might have missed something important.

Then I remember what that Wired article was about. In passages culled from his book “The Shallows,” Carr warns that our heavy internet use is rewiring our brains, and not completely for the better. True, our reaction times and hand-eye coordination have been improved, but our ability to focus on information and store it away in our long-term memory has been disrupted. Carr describes short-term memory as a thimble and long-term memory as a bathtub; we use one to fill the other. When we read books, the “information faucet provides a steady drip … (which we can transfer), thimbleful by thimbleful, into long-term memory.” But on the Internet, we confront “many information faucets, all going full blast” — and we are scarcely able to transfer the contents of one to the tub before we’re shoving the thimble under another faucet.

Later in the piece, Carr struck me in the heart: “We’re exercising the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading and thinking deeply.” And I had to read the sentence twice, because I realized that the first time, I’d only skimmed it.

So I committed myself to a Facebook diet, and I’m trying to stick by it. Again, I’m not doing this to feel superior, and I certainly don’t want to denigrate anyone else’s Facebook usage; my friends list is full of heavy readers and deep thinkers, which is why I enjoy Facebook so much in the first place. But it’s not doing me much good, at least not right now. My thimble is running over, and I’m hopeful that a Facebook diet will help me to regain the ability to focus on one, single thing for more than a minute or a time. I promise that once I’ve achieved that goal, I’ll write a couple of concise and self-deprecating sentences about this little adventure, and I’ll post them in the usual place.

Geoff Carter


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  1. I’m enjoying reading books and long form blogging recently for this very reason.

  2. The thimble/bathtub analogy is poor. That assumes that everything in your short term memory ends up in your long term memory, which, thank goodness, it doesn’t.

    That said, good piece. I deleted my Facebook profile last month, not as a protest against privacy violations or the assholery of Zuckerberg, but because I’d rather have an actual conversation with a friend than gather what they’re up to from a few snarky posts.

  3. Thought provoking. Hmm. Maybe I should do the same. My attention span is worse than my preschooler’s, at this point.

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