Every holiday season, my sister and I commit to one month of concentrated prayer and meditation toward an individual goal. We usually give up one thing as a reminder of our commitment and this year, it was social media. Before I left my hometown on New Year’s Eve, we changed each other’s passwords, at once eliminating my access to friends across Facebook and Instagram during the coldest month of the year.
Ten years ago during my sophomore year of college, The Facebook was the newest obsession—a genius way to eavesdrop on the private lives of dorm mates and former high school peers. A known skeptic, it took me 3 years to finally join and though I swore I would never become one who depended on social media to keep in touch with people I cared for; I, like a probable 500 million others, did.
I consider myself a moderate user, but I can admit that both Facebook & Instagram have served as immediate reprieves from the social exclusivity that can result from working as a writer. I expected that the only benefit would be that time away from these platforms would minimize distraction from personal goals I’d set for myself at the top of the year. What I experienced, however, was a startling, remarkable mental silence that allowed me to exist insularly with my thoughts. Within the first two weeks of shielding my imagination from photographs, opinions and updates of roughly 2,000 people (a solid 97% of whom I have not seen or engaged with in more than a year), a few universal questions made their way to the forefront of my internal dialogue:
1) Who are your friends? Without connections through “likes” and status comments, who that lives in your city do you make an effort outside of social media to interact with? And who of those makes efforts to interact with you?
2) Did/does your social life exist for the purpose of sharing? When choosing the museum to visit or brunch to attend, when picking which friends to hang with or even who to date, are social media photo ops in mind?
3) What moves you? If you knew that dress or that house or that quote would not give you hundreds of “likes”, instant affirmation from your roster of college crushes and former middle-school bullies alike, how happy would your life really make you? And further, how happy can you make yourself?
Over the last few years there have been numerous articles and criticisms of how much Facebook (and larger social media culture) has affected contemporary socialization. MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s “I share therefore I am” sound bite from her 2012 TED Talk became an instant reference for the mental harm of social media. Turkle’s TED speech explored how technology and social media hinder true connectedness by providing instant outlets of escape. “The feeling that ‘no one is listening to me’ make us want to spend time with machines that seem to care about us,” Turkle said.
To be fair, the art of sharing did not begin with Facebook. In high school our method of sharing was the disposable camera. We would visit the one-hour photo at local pharmacies after every Friday night dance to have pictures to pass around on Monday. We exchanged notes including private information traveling so quickly that by the end of 7th period, everyone knew the details of the latest breakup or party. And instead of relationship statuses, we drew the names of our sweethearts on three-ring binders and on the backs of our hands. Documenting our lives was then, as it is now, our way of aggrandizing our experiences to fill the gaping emotional holes of inadequacy and insecurity. Except now the one-hour photo, the private notes and binders are grander than ever—and yet, so are those holes.
What I did not realize as a consumer of this endless stream of unfiltered personal information was how much my unconscious mind was absorbing it, and ultimately weighed down by it. The silence, the blank space, the isolation I felt were results of a sudden omission of this information. My time away from the consensus building platforms of Facebook and Instagram in what Turkle, from a subsequent Op-Ed in the New York Times last December, would call a “serious conversation with myself”, led to the admission that the plot point in my novel, the next project for my small business—all of these things received increased strategic thought and energy since my mind was not clogged with the unsolicited personal information of others.
I recently reread Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, a dissection of thought and the subconscious. In Blink, Gladwell referenced a priming experiment designed by psychologist John Bargh that explored what happens in our unconscious mind and how it affects us. In the experiment, people were asked to make grammatical four word sentences as quickly as possible out of ten word sets. The scrambled sentence test included variations like
01 him was worried she always
02 from are Florida oranges temperature
06 be will sweat lonely they
09 us bingo sing play let
After finishing the test, astonishingly, subjects walked slower down the hallway out of the room than they did walking into it. And how did this happen? The test included words like “worried,” “Florida,” “old,” and “bingo.” Gladwell writes: “you thought I was making you take a language test. But, in fact, what I was also doing was making the big computer in your brain—your adaptive unconscious—think about the state of being old.” This was in one sitting. Although on facebook we are not instructed to engage with words as subjects were in Bargh’s test, imagine what triggers your unconscious sets off if the daily sentence scramble of sifting through the newsfeed involves words like “wealth,” or “travel,” or “finance,” or “new”—how would it affect your contentment with your finances or job? Words like “wife,” or “toddler,” or “love,” or “ring”—how would it affect your contentment with your relationship? And words like “gym,” or “yoga,” or “marathon,” or “skinny,”—how would it affect your contentment with your body?
The book and this fascinating test made me think of how the consistent streams of passive-aggressive outrage, trends, feigned opulence and even political opinions could also make a home in my assumedly unconquerable mind. Aside from the sheer terror of how powerful our unconscious is, (and how that power can thus be exploited if placed in the wrong hands), I found Gladwell’s example a perfect explication of why screening the information I consumed, even for as short as a month, gave me such clarity. As an artist, this clarity is essential to genuine creativity and growth.
Writer Jonathan Franzen’s newest book, The Kraus Project, translates the work of Austrian satirist and playwright Karl Kraus, who was widely known as “The Great Hater” for his criticism of predictable, trendy, fame-inspired writing. In an interview with The Atlantic Magazine about the new work, Franzen admitted his own anxiety about the internet and why it is dangerous for aspiring fiction writers. Franzen says: “And so it seems to me that the writer’s responsibility nowadays is very basic: to continue to try to be a person, not merely a member of a crowd. (Of course, the place where the crowd is forming now is largely electronic.) This is a primary assignment for anyone setting up to be and remain a writer now. So even as I spend half my day on the Internet […] I personally need to be careful to restrict my access.”
I don’t assume that Facebook is going to disappear or lose its popularity any time soon. Contrarily, I believe the methods of sharing our lives and platforms of which to consume information will only increase. I can also admit that as an artist and social entrepreneur, the internet and social media have been imperative to the growth of my career and start-up. Franzen’s interview was inspiring, but I would not have come across it if I did not engage the internet or if he had not chosen to share the musings of his gifted mind on a mass digital platform.
Still, in January’s silence, I found a refreshing peace and stillness while realizing the need to step away more often. The need to reflect more often. And the need to identify which thoughts and friends and experiences are mine and which seeped into the cracks of my unconscious from the big wide world of other people’s lives.