Back on the Grid: Connecting via Smartphones and Facebook

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In February of this year, I deleted my Facebook account after needing to take some time away. Two and a half years ago, after cracking the screen on my SmartPhone and fending off an anxiety attack, I exiled myself to the land of DumbPhones, relying only on calls and texts to stay in communication when mobile. I had been relishing what many might call my “disconnect,” when a series of decisions led me back to both Facebook and a SmartPhone.

When my SmartPhone broke, I was confronted with a number of challenges: how would I find directions when lost? How would I find out when the bus was coming? What would I do to pass the time when working mentally unstimulating service jobs? How would I share my most recent witty thought while on-the-go without having a phone with a Facebook application?

After taking a deep breath and noticing the sense of panic and overwhelm, I stopped myself. I told myself that I had lived twenty-four years of my life without a SmartPhone and that I was perfectly capable of doing so for another twenty-four years if necessary. Even though social and professional expectations have changed and many things – such as applying for jobs and schools, managing personal accounts, responding to email rapidly – require near-constant internet connectivity, my life at the time did not require mobile internet. I had a computer at home and decided that would suffice.

If I’m honest with myself – and, therefore, with you – I have to admit that I had developed a relationship to Facebook that concerned me. So much of my daily and weekly moods depended upon seeing posts from friends, on the kindness or hostility of comments I witnessed, and on the repetition of violent news stories that multiple friends were sharing about issues of great importance to me. My world felt like it had shrunk, as though the circles I ran in were closing in on me. This feeling is not the fault of any one group of people, but it still left me with the sense that I needed to take a conscious step away to recalibrate my expectations of how I wanted to relate to social media. So, I closed up shop and fully deleted my account, with no intention of coming back online any time soon.

Two weeks ago, I launched this blog by posting my first piece of public writing in over a year. On that same day, I opened a new Facebook account, ready to start fresh. The week before, my DumbPhone had given up on me after over two years of faithful service. After a series of seductive maneuvers, the Sprint customer service representative had managed to offer me a brand new iPhone 6, fully furnished with case and screen cover, for a pittance. I had walked into the store prepared to activate an old iPhone 5s I had been gifted, but lo-and-behold, through some intricate equation relating to supply and demand of various iPhone models, it was financially beneficial for them to buy the old iPhone from me and greatly discount a new iPhone on a no-contract lease plan.

The very kind service rep tried his best to help me set myself up in the nebulously-named “Cloud,” but I firmly declined the offer. I had preemptively set up specific boundaries for myself regarding how I wanted to maintain a certain degree of freedom from constant internet connectivity when out and about during my day. No email. No Facebook application. No using the phone while in transit, either for directions or for distraction. Some might derogatorily refer to me as reactive, as resistant to changes that I cannot stop, and some might even go so far as to insult me by labelling me a Luddite. While colloquially, “Luddite” is often used today to refer to someone who is technology-averse, historically, it refers to a movement of people who (sometimes violently) opposed not only the mechanization of labor that displaced and impoverished thousands of workers in 19th century England, but the forms of social alienation that were produced as a result of the displacement of labor and communities. Frankly, I don’t mind the insult, given its proper political associations.

My main purpose in writing today was to discuss the shifts in myself that I have noticed since coming back on the social media and SmartPhone grid. Because my first tenure on Facebook had extended back to the launch of Facebook to all university students in 2005, all the gradual changes made to include Likes, Shares, photos, and advertisements came in such staggered increments that I had stopped noticing them. Having taken the time to get some ginger for my social media palate, my perspective on it feels fresh and my critique feels less pained than before. But my hesitations remain, nonetheless.

I have felt more anxious and distracted these past two weeks. After posting a blog, I nervously and compulsively check Facebook to see if anyone has taken interest, launched a knee-jerk critique of my writing, or been interested and left a kind comment. There is much more of a focus in my mental life regarding how I’m perceived by others online. Am I posting often enough? Too much? Am I boring? Trying too hard to be interesting? What do my friends think? Did that person just add me because they read my writing? Or because we have twenty friends in common? The self-absorption is difficult to ward off, but I must also confront the fact that it is quite possible not everyone is as susceptible to it as I am. An even greater reason to be self-conscious!

On a more contextual note, I really have noticed how skewed and curated the advertised news is in my feed. I make a point of reading multiple independent news sites that focus on issues of gender and racial justice, in addition to the New York Times, Al-Jazeera, and academic journals. Because I have developed this practice more deeply during my time away from Facebook, I noticed that the news stories my friends share impact the news stories that are promoted by the advertisers. I’m becoming increasingly concerned that if a person is relying on Facebook for their news frame, it might be startlingly limited, even if it is about issues faced by marginalized people.

Regarding SmartPhone use, I spent the past two and a half years watching people absorbed in their phones when commuting with the 9-to-5 crowd on BART. It is one of the most depressing parts of my day. I can also understand the desire to distract oneself, to feel (dis)connected, to become absorbed in online reading. There is also an increasing body of research that discusses the challenges to retention when reading online, in addition to research that shows that quiet self-reflection is essential for developing compassionate and patient social skills. People increasingly turn to their individual devices for answers to questions that used to be engaged collectively when in social spaces. Generations have repetitively bemoaned the atrophying of public interaction with strangers, opportunities that have granted me tiny glimpses into lives whose paths are so very different from my own. Often, older people start talking to me when on public transportation because I’m the only other person not completely absorbed in a device. We chat about feeling isolated when in public, about how brusquely people can brush off our questions regarding the time, getting simple directions, or other basic logistics that any fully ‘modern’ person should be able to ascertain through consulting their individual mobile device.

I’m not here to offer a condemnation of Facebook or SmartPhones, because they are proving to be useful tools for me. I now keep track of which days/times are best for posting new blog entries and I am able to send/receive emojis and group texts. I love the camera on my new iPhone 6 and have been sharing pictures with friends on Instagram. The introductory success of this blog is largely attributable to Facebook (and my writing labor, of course). I’m not a hypocrite, but I do have a complex relationship to mobile and social media connectivity.

What I do want to mention, in closing, is that my concerted time away from SmartPhones and Facebook has granted me a perspective that sees both the disconnect as well as the potential within these phones and social media platforms. I recommend that each of you create an opportunity to take a step away from both, and to reflect on that experience, if you are in fact able to perform that experiment on yourself. If you are unable to complete it, for reasons of work or addiction, that is definitely something to reflect upon, not as an issue of personal choice or asceticism, but as a reflection upon the constraints of our times. What forms of connection become more strained during this era of seemingly constant capacities to connect?

Thanks for reading! On Thursday, I will be posting my thoughts on Hilary Clinton’s response to Black Lives Matter activists and reflecting on Bayard Rustin’s essay, “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement.”

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