Unfriending the Baby With the Bathwater

Cutting Facebook

A friend of mine recently left Facebook and Twitter. He’s not alone: I’ve seen a smattering of “farewell” posts in both social networks over the past few weeks. It’s part of an emerging trend: busy professionals start to question the usefulness of spending time in social networks, eventually opting to quit altogether. Blogging pioneer Derek Powazek recently published a post titled Why I Quit Twitter, a List. (The first — and last — items on his list? “It made me unhappy.”) And books like Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now and Cal Newport’s Deep Work argue that you must quit social networks altogether if you’re to reclaim your ability to focus.

I can relate. I, too, have gotten caught up in the typical social media-instigated behaviors that cause unhappiness: arguing about trivial stuff with strangers, oversharing, compulsively checking whether someone has “liked” my latest post, lingering way too long over some clever retort, etc. I’m also vexed by the perverse incentives that result when networks base their business models on behavior modification. (I even wrote a book about it.)

That said, I don’t have near-term plans to quit either Facebook or Twitter. While they can cause anguish, I also know these information environments can be incredibly edifying. I’ve learned many useful things that I wouldn’t have otherwise through social media, mostly through conversations with an extended network of smart people who I wouldn’t have been able to engage otherwise at such scale. I’ve also contributed back, sharing the things I’ve learned. And as an independent consultant, online social networks have allowed me to learn about and engage in business opportunities that I wouldn’t be able to access otherwise.

Having access to a network of smart people to share and discuss ideas can be incredibly valuable. People have long had access to such networks in cities, but they’ve been limited by the practical constraints of physical environments. Hosting these interactions in information environments makes it possible for us to transcend space and time; we can engage with many more people more quickly and seamlessly than ever before. As with everything else, this has both negative and positive consequences. Umberto Eco said, “The problem with the internet is that it gives you everything — reliable material and crazy material. So the problem becomes, how do you discriminate?” How, indeed! As we’ve learned, the crazy stuff is pernicious — but the reliable material can be life-changing.

So the key question is: how can we get the best from social media without becoming ensnared by their worst aspects? One answer (again, this is for me — YMMV) is to keep them at arms’ length. For example, I’ve long considered both Facebook and Twitter venues primarily for professional interaction. I’m aware (as much as I can be, anyway) of how these places make money and how they’re trying to manipulate my behavior, and alter what I do there accordingly. As a result, I rarely (if ever) post anything too personal. This isn’t easy; these places are designed to swallow up as much of your life as possible. But I find that knowing so helps me resist the impulse to take the things that happen there too personally. Finally, I also track how much time I spend in social media. (I try to limit it to twenty minutes per day or less.)

As in so many aspects of life, the key is mindfulness: becoming more aware of why you’re spending your (precious) time doing the things you’re doing, and where. Are you there for entertainment? Play? Gossip? Or are you there to learn and share? How do you define what constitutes appropriate behavior, both your own and other people’s? How do you respond when those boundaries are crossed? Are you aware of how the design of the environment changes your answers to these questions? Being mindful of these questions can help you become a more responsible user of social media, and get more value from them.