Saturday, 8 November 2014

What Happens On Facebook...

...doesn't stay on it.  This isn't going to be news to anyone, but Facebook and the rest of the internet tends to be bad for your mental health.  Since in exactly one month's time I'm going to be assessed by some mental health professionals, I decided it would probably be a good idea to try to reduce the time I spend on there so that I could at least be as sane as possible when I saw them.  Other things should also probably happen such as meditation, but in any case, I thought what I might do today is set out the kind of things which happen online generally and on Facebook in particular which are not good for you.  This may not be particularly new, but trying to set it out methodically could be helpful.  Also, technology which affects your mind is nothing new either, and I'd like to make a comparison with widespread literacy.

The first thing which happens all over the internet except in a few oases is that we interact almost purely verbally.  We type, sometimes WITH THE CAPS LOCK ON, and occasionally introduce the occasional emoticon occasionally, and of course we use punctuation, so it is at least not entirely without nuance, but the fact is that it is a thin trickle of meaning without body language, facial expression, tone of voice, proxemics, cups of tea, hugs, physical violence or people trying to poison you, and all of that is very limited.  Therefore it's already set up to go wonky.  This is incidentally one reason I make YouTube videos.  Video sharing sites are one way you can reintroduce some of those things which text filters out.  It's even possible to buy someone a cup of coffee over the internet, apparently.  Skyping is another option, but it's one to one.

Someone once described the Halfbakery as like a load of people sitting round a particularly large pub table talking about ideas and making sketches on the backs of beermats.  I would substantially agree with this description, and it's quite a cosy one.  The Halfbakery does a lot of things very well which other places don't, and in general there's no trolling, no ill-judged accidental offensiveness and in fact very little of the general negativity which afflicts much of the rest of the net.  Even so, part of that is down to Jutta and to the probable very high proportion of non-neurotypical users, which means that people don't rise to the bait of offence as often as they would elsewhere.  Incidentally, just to veer off on one for a second, this blog entry was almost about neurotypicality or otherwise but I decided to save that for another day.

Facebook is not the demi-patisserie of course.  Nor are a lot of other online places.  In many of these, a row kicks off on a thread due to misunderstandings, often because few people involved are really concentrating, i.e. listening and thinking.  Rapid reactions are very common, and because they're rapid, relatively little consideration can be involved.  This is sometimes worse on Facebook because threads can be very long and mainly hidden, so for example someone might post something carefully considered but it can get buried in the responses.

Another thing that can happen, and I've felt this myself, is that we can get drawn into adopting a particular kind of consistent persona online which doesn't reflect how we see ourselves or how anyone meeting us face-to-face would see us.  For some people, this is a very good thing.  For instance, if someone had a serious speech impediment or was deaf, communication might be impaired in person which wouldn't be online, so such people can really shine there where they wouldn't elsewhere.   There is just no way I am going to say this is a bad thing, and the disadvantages we have offline can be completely absent online, making it a much fairer place in some ways.  However, I'd also admit to feeling a considerable sense of discomfort about the person I become when I'm online, and particularly on Facebook.  It happens against my will.  Some of this is good but a lot of it isn't.

One of the aspects of who I become online is oversharing, something there's a new word for and therefore it seems likely that it's not just me who has this problem.  It's the usual situation of being mesmerised into disclosure by being in the comfort of apparent, but not actual, privacy and intimacy.  It happens in other circumstances, usually due to unsureness about boundaries, but online circumstances seem to make it particularly likely.

Here are three more problems:  attention span, focus and memory.  Attention span is something I have already had a problem with but the internet is not my friend in increasing this, which in turn feeds into my poor focus.  I can't afford this right now because I need to be sufficiently focussed to dig myself out of the hole a lifetime of gender dysphoria has left me in, but never mind my story - it seems very likely that you need it too.  Memory is a different issue and in fact quite an interesting one which relates to other media.  If you know you can "just Google it" or look it up on Wikipedia, you come to rely on that instead of memory.  That would be fine if you knew the connection was reliable, but it's not only unreliable in physical terms but also in terms of the information itself.  I have edited hundreds of Wikipedia articles in my time, including the one which got deleted and was an early link in the chain of events leading to my transition - another example of the power of the internet, but perhaps a more positive one - and have noticed that very soon after I have added the hopefully reliable information to them, it very swiftly popped up all over the place and almost became "the truth".  In a sense, this process subsumes one's very identity into the internet, to the extent, which is considerable, that one is one's memories.

However, unlike the other aspects of the situation, this is not new.  Literacy has the same influence.  If you know you can read or write down something, your memory and therefore your identity is impaired in similar ways.  In fact, even the use of spoken or signed language might bring this with it.  We can't tell of course.

Last of all comes the point which is most closely related to social networking sites and facilities:  the friends list.  This isn't a new point either, but it bears repeating.  If you have more than about a gross of Facebook "friends", they begin to exceed your mental capacity for acquaintance and you can begin to forget or never learn important facts about them, such as illness, unemployment, imprisonment, bereavement or death, and therefore can expect to be seen as apathetic or callous towards them.  The sense in which this is one's own fault is dependent upon how reliable one's memory is - this is the limit on the number of friends in "real life".  However, nowadays Facebook is real life.

Therefore, the reason for this digital detox can be summed up thus, and this won't be new but I do want to gather it all in one place and express it clearly and explicitly:

  • The thin channel of interaction available via text.
  • The insidious development of a mask which is not the real you.
  • The blurring of personal boundaries.
  • Poor focus.
  • The dissolution of one's identity into the hive mind via oversharing and memory loss.
  • Overtaxing one's power of acquaintance, leading to personal pain and unwittingly hurting others.
Given all that, I need to spend some time getting off Facebook and the like in order to achieve the opposite:

  • A wide channel of face-to-face communication and interaction.
  • Getting to know who I really am - particularly important to me right now.
  • Clear personal boundaries.
  • An ability to focus.
  • A clear sense of personal identity including reliable personal memories and a sense of restraint where disclosure comes to mean something special to those to whom one discloses.
  • Smaller groups of real friends who matter to each other, don't hurt each other so much and who really know each other well.
I'm not going to stay off Facebook forever.  In fact there will hardly be a day when I'm not on it and it has loads of positives, but these are the things I need to concentrate on right now.

Incidentally, in order to do this I've had to drop a lot of things in mid-flow which are making me nervous, particularly the discussion about the US, but coming off FB is coming off FB, so I can't really venture over there too much or I'll get pulled back in.  This will of course apply to the internet as a whole.