Disclaimer: Tech is the number one industry in Victoria with amazing, innovative and entrepreneurial people working in that space. This post is not a rant against technology; it’s about putting social media in its place.
I’m quitting Facebook. Before the cry begins about how will the mayor be in touch with her constituents, let me count the ways: email me email@example.com, call or text me at 250-661-2708, send me a note on Messenger, follow my blog, call my office 250-361-0200, call CFAX any Friday between 3pm and 4pm where I’m on air taking your questions, attend a Lunch Time Lecture at City Hall, or come to a Community Drop In .
It’s this last venue, the Community Drop In, that’s my favourite. I hold it in my office every two weeks. We put the kettle on, get great coffee from 2% Jazz and the community drops in to share ideas, concerns, and solutions. There’s always a diversity of people that show up. And it’s a place where we listen to each other, hear about amazing events and programs being led by citizens, and we solve problems together. Sometimes it’s hard and people come in really angry. And through conversation and connection that anger fades to understanding.
And this points directly to the first reason I’m quitting Facebook. When I became mayor, Facebook was still a civil place. It was a place where I could share ideas and get good feedback, where dialogue happened. I remember getting off Facebook and saying to a friend, “That was a really good conversation.” But all of this has changed.
In an article in the Guardian, Paul Lewis interviews former Facebook, Twitter and Google workers. Lewis writes that according to James Williams, an ex-Google strategist, social media manipulation “is not only distorting the way we view politics but, over time, may be changing the way we think, making us less rational and more impulsive.” As Williams says, “We’ve habituated ourselves into a perpetual cognitive style of outrage.” The site Time Well Spent, founded by Williams and others and focused on how to make tech more humane, puts it this way: “Facebook segregates us into echo chambers, fragmenting our communities.”
Facebook peddles in outrage. According to Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook, “Algorithms that maximize attention give an advantage to negative messages. People tend to react more to inputs that land low on the brainstem. Fear and anger produce a lot more engagement and sharing than joy.”
I have felt this evolution online over the past four years. Facebook has become a toxic, echo chamber where people who have anything positive to say are often in defense mode against negativity and anger. And, as McNamee notes, “The use of algorithms … leads to an unending stream of posts that confirm each user’s existing beliefs. On Facebook, it’s your news feed … the result is that everyone sees a different version of the internet tailored to create the illusion that everyone else agrees with them. Continuous reinforcement of existing beliefs tends to entrench those beliefs more deeply, while also making them more extreme and resistant to contrary facts.”
I think we need to take this really seriously as a community. And I’m quitting Facebook so I stop contributing in any way to this cycle of psychological violence where fear and anger get more air time than joy, where opinions become hardened in the absence of facts or dialogue and where division rather than much-needed connection is the norm.
What is worse is that the effects and impacts don’t seem to be remaining on the screen. We are experiencing a Facebookization of public discourse in community meetings, in engagement processes. People sometimes show up angry and outraged before they’ve even received any information. The community is unnecessarily divided. Facebook is of course, not entirely to blame. But I wonder what would happen if we did a grand social experiment where people put down their phones, or at least took a Facebook break for a month, and engaged in more face to face conversations.
Except that we can’t put down our phones. And this is the second big reason I’m quitting Facebook. I’m worried about our individual (read my!) and collective ability to focus. And focus is exactly what is needed to fix the big issues that face us in 21st century cities – globalization, population growth, increased cyber-connectivity, income inequality, loss of biodiversity, and climate change.
Dscout, a web-based research platform, did a study where they put an app on the phones of a diverse sample of 100,000 people and tracked their every interaction for five days, 24 hours per day. The average user touched their phone 2617 times per day. As noted by Justin Rosenstein, inventor of the Facebook “Like” button, “Everyone is distracted. All of the time.”
It’s not a question of us a humans being ‘weak’ or something being ‘wrong with us’. Social media is designed to suck us in, to keep us distracted. It’s called the “attention economy”. Social media companies are competing for scarce minutes turned hours of our time. This is contributing to fragmenting our attention spans so that we no longer have the ability to focus individually or collectively on the big issues that desperately need our attention. This isn’t good for the state of our democracy in Victoria where what we need is to be able to talk with each other and listen to each other about the challenges we face as a community.
Finally, though and most worrying, and my third reason for quitting Facebook, is that social media use and cell-phone distraction is actually shriveling our brains.
According to Dr. Paul Mohapel at Royal Roads University, citing a study from Sussex, device-driven multitasking can shrivel the prefrontal cortex specifically the anterior cingulate cortex. This is the part of the brain used in executive function, cognitive processes, emotional regulation and evaluative processes. Our brains are shriveling in the place we need them most – to reason, to have empathy and most importantly to have the emotional intelligence to connect with others.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been weaning myself off Facebook slowly, just like when I quit coffee. I first deleted the Facebook app from my phone. Then from my iPad. And finally, I changed my web browser home page. The final step is to close down my Facebook account … It makes me nervous just typing this.
I wonder how quitting Facebook will impact my relationship with my phone? My time? My sense of self worth? I look forward to more face to face conversations, less distractions, and keeping my noodle intact.