Much has been written about how social media, and Facebook in particular has contributed to the echo chamber effect. I’m not going to write about that. I’ve experienced it, and you probably have as well.
What hasn’t gotten as much attention is how this echo chamber is affecting our mental health — at least, I haven’t seen much about it — perhaps because my particular echo chamber is uniquely curated by an algorithm to me.
All I have to do is look at how my Timeline has changed since I got sober to see that. My timeline was once filled with posts and images from my oldest and dearest friends in my life. But once I started liking pages about sobriety, and making friends online with some really great people, my feed stated to become overwhelmingly slanted toward my latest likes and connections. My oldest friends started to show up less and less.
I also know this because my timeline has become increasingly overwhelmed with political news, because well, I post a lot of news articles that are related to politics. Facebook has correctly identified me as a Liberal and has fed me other articles posted by other liberals, while hiding articles posted by my more conservative friends. To be fair, I trained Facebook to do this, by hiding things that made me angry or uncomfortable over time from my timeline.
Under the covers, Facebook has a massive AI (artificial intelligence) infrastructure. If you’re not familiar with what AI actually is or if you think AI is a humanoid robot butler, you might want to have a look at this article which does a decent job of explaining the basic concepts. Basically, Facebook’s computer algorithm learns about us based on what we post, what we like, who we interact with, etc – and then feeds us similar information in an effort to keep us on the site by lighting up our neural pathways.
It’s basically the same as an addiction.
In recent days, my Facebook feed has become increasingly angry and fearful. I have many friends who are genuinely afraid of what the outcome of the US election means for them personally. These are friends who have listened to bellicose rhetoric for two years that has targeted them personally. It is understandable that they would be afraid. I am afraid and I’m a straight white male who happens to occasionally attend a Christian church.
Now, I’ve fed this algorithm. I’ve posted about my outrage. I’ve liked things. I’ve used the little sad indicator, and the little angry indicator. I’ve argued with people. I’ve called people out for their insensitivity. I’ve done all this in the name of my beliefs. But you know what, I’m not changing anything. I’m just pissing off my friends and making myself sink further and further into fear and anxiety.
And guess what?
The past few days have been hard. I’ve tweeted about how hard its been:
Both of these tweets were in direct response to things that happened in my personal echo chamber on Facebook. The second one came after I got into it with a friend who posted about a harrowing experience on a plane. He contrasted his experience with the fear that people are expressing about the next four years saying that his fear was real — and implying that theirs was not.
Now, I slept like shit last night because of this. I went to bed angry and I paid the price. I woke up on my 44th birthday feeling frustrated, angry, and hurt. This is not how I want to spend my birthday. This is not how I want to spend my life.
I’ve written before about my struggles with social media. I’ve experimented with deleting apps from my phone. I always get pulled back. One reason is that I’ve kept my Facebook account active to keep this blog active on Facebook. Another reason was that I couldn’t deactivate the account without also deactivating Facebook Messenger.
I’ve decided that for today, I will not check Facebook. This morning I announced that I was stepping away from the echo chamber. I’ve deleted the apps from my phone and my tablet. After a few days, I plan to disable my Facebook account.
Facebook has made it so that you can disable your Facebook account without disabling Messenger. I’m kind of happy about that. Since I don’t get a lot of noise in Messenger, I plan to keep it active, that way I can stay in touch with some people who I would otherwise not be in touch with. I’ve set up a second account to manage the Facebook page of this blog.
See, I can’t make the echo chamber quiet down. I accept my responsibility in it, but by simply stopping my posting about these things, I can’t fix the AI in the Facebook Hive Mind that keeps feeding me fear and anxiety.
It’s a digital room full of noise that I can’t bear anymore. In real life when I can’t bear the cacophony in a room, I leave.
Why wouldn’t I do that in the digital world?