Nancy Agabian

What I Learned From My Summer Facebook Diet: the Fragile Emotional Complexity of Social Media Activism

Someone gets a new job, someone’s father-in-law dies, someone drinks too much coffee, someone has done a comparative analysis of the candidates for the U.S. Presidential election, someone posts a photo of a pet, someone is asking a question about a literary journal, someone loves their child, someone is marveling at the heartfelt messages they’ve received on their birthday, someone is demonstrating why Black Lives Matter, someone is an introvert, someone needs advice on dealing with racist, sexist, and transphobic trolls, someone is on vacation, someone is offering an ingenious solution to the refugee crisis, someone is posting a poem they just wrote about a driveway.

Given the range of emotional responses that are elicited from reading the above exemplary string of Facebook posts, it’s no wonder that it took a perfect storm of events to finally motivate me to break the FB habit. Before mid-July, when I hesitantly announced a six-week hiatus, I was looking at Facebook any chance I could get while working from home: instead of actually taking a break, i.e., stand up, stretch, take a walk, go to the bathroom, wash the dishes, drink a glass of water, etc., I would just open my browser and go to Facebook. I’m not even quite sure how many minutes I would work before retreating to FB, where I would wind up far longer than I intended, getting caught up in reading posts and articles, making comments, liking, sharing and posting. It seemed to me that FB wasted a whole lot of my time and was eating into my capacity to work. I would also spend hours on Facebook every night, till I had exhausted myself from it, endlessly looking for a salve for my loneliness, and of course, never finding it.

Besides attempting to use Facebook socially, creatively, and for my business, I also engage with political ideas through reading and posting. When the news broke from Orlando, I was devastated. Though I spoke about the tragedy with friends and my students, and even wrote a piece about it, I chose Facebook as my main forum to deal with my feelings. For what seemed like a week, I posted whatever I possibly could about gun control, urging people to contact their representatives. When I finally found a means to grieve and cry, I posted stories that expressed the humanity of the queer Latino/a/x people who were killed. I didn’t actually go to a meeting of gun control activists, but I called and tweeted my reps, joined a gun control advocacy email list, and signed up to donate $10/ month to their cause.

Around this time a friend of mine was dying from cancer. Over the course of a couple of weeks, I watched her deteriorate and found myself confronted by the ravages of the disease. My friend fought till the very last minute, and it was difficult to emotionally scale each day’s new reality. Every time I saw her at her home or the hospice, I encountered a new set of circumstances. The experience was somewhat similar to the news unraveling over several days about Orlando, but now I was devastated in a much more personal, intimate way. My friend, who shouldn’t have died, who didn’t want to die, who had so much worthy, important work to do, died on July 1st.

A few days later, when the news of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile broke on Facebook, I couldn’t keep up nor wrap my mind around the impossibly awful events. It seemed that I didn’t have the usual emotional bandwith that I tapped into to process such a tragedy on FB: read articles and then comment in a way that I hope will meaningfully resist racism. Though this limitation was understandable since I was grieving a friend, I felt bad about it. It seemed to me it was a privilege to turn away from injustice, no matter the reason. I thought that my friend would have certainly decried the prejudice that killed these men, so a day or two later I found the time to watch the videos and held my head in my hands. Then I signed petitions and sought out ways to seek justice for the murders of two innocent unarmed black men.

Before their deaths were announced, I spent the Independence day weekend in Montreal with old college friends at a Sting/Peter Gabriel concert. I don’t care too much for either artist, but I know my friend who passed away would have wanted me to live my life, and it had long been planned as a chance for our group of friends to meet. They posted photos of us partying when the news of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile broke. It’s not the choice I would have made, but I was tagged in the photos. I considered taking the tag off or hiding them from the timeline, but it didn’t seem the photos were that offensive that they needed to be obscured. A few days later I saw that another FB friend had posted a scathing criticism of white people who post about the frivolous aspects of their lives while overlooking real moments of tragedy for people of color. I was in agreement with her, and I didn’t necessarily feel implicated, but her critique also seemed like a skewed way to channel political energy. I thought it would be more productive to direct outrage at the crimes in the world, not at what people post or fail to post on FB.

This response helped me to consider how my understanding, outrage, and grief over the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile had become translated through Facebook, first as news items, then through my FB friends’ responses. In this very specific moment in my life, it was as if their unjust deaths weren’t events in their own right, but had mostly become events on Facebook – ones that I felt obliged to respond to as I did any other kind of post. I think there are benefits to living one’s life prompted by the events that happen to them, and there are benefits to the interventions technology can make on our lives. But in my case, even as Facebook was reminding people of the humanity of these men, I had allowed the meta-mechanization of Facebook to somehow mute my sense of their humanity.

I have nearly 1000 FB friends, a wide range of people most of whom I have met in person. The biggest benefit I receive from FB is reading posts by people who are different from me, especially about race and racism, that I can take in, digest, have all manner of feelings and realizations about, and learn from. I imagine that when some of my white friends read the posts by me and my queer Armenian and poc artist friends that they are reading thoughts and ideas from people they may not ordinarily meet. I hope that such learning will eventually lead to social change and action.

But how much am I really DOING when I read and when I post? Maybe I am doing mind work, but what can I actually DO in my life to actively change things rather than retreat and find solace in Facebook when these senseless, racist tragedies hit the news and our consciousness? I had allowed FB to be an easy crutch to feel like I was doing something: it didn’t really lead me to action, to showing up in the streets, to talking to people different from me, to pressuring government officials to write and support legislation for gun control and police reform and all manner of anti-racist initiatives.

The reality is that I will never know how any of my posts affect anyone. FB is a very curated space that I don’t have much control over. I’m feeling so responsible for what I am posting, imagining an audience in my mind, but I don’t even know who I am reaching, nor why it seems only about 50 of my 1000 friends respond to my posts. Who is reading and not responding and why? And why do I see other people’s posts all the time but they don’t seem to see or acknowledge mine?

This distorted sense of reality was also affecting me as a writer. Countless times a day I identified thoughts and pieces of news that I could post to my audience on Facebook; this kind of mind work I would have previously channeled into my writing, into a poem or a personal essay. For an introverted writer, Facebook is very tempting. Writers need audience in order to write, and FB seems to provide it as well as an almost immediate response, which can be addicting to the ego. It’s the quick and cheap version of spending endless hours crafting your words to hopefully make a difference.

My hope, as I recorded on Facebook, was that if I took a break, I would shatter the illusion of Facebook as a reality, that my brain and my time would feel less fractured, and that I would reach out to my friends and have contact with them in different, more meaningful ways. As the day came to leave, I found myself recording – on Facebook, of course – my worries: “Trying to reassure myself that I’ll be able to reach my friends, be in on conversations, and get access to news and critiques and protest actions through email and the regular old internets. And that I won’t become irrelevant.”

***

open treeNow, six weeks later, I can say that though I did miss out on some of the benefits of Facebook, it didn’t seem to hurt me very much. I spent most of the time with my family; my parents are aging and their clusters of needs, and my efforts to take walks every day to find my own head space, took up most of my time. I also motored my way through a revision of my manuscript uninterrupted by diversions such as watching a video of the Jackson Five on the Cher show: I actually did stand up, stretch, take a walk, go to the bathroom, wash the dishes, drink a glass of water, etc. The only real loss I felt was when I read the news. Though I found myself better able to read a series of articles from major news media and think them through, I missed my exposure to the amazing selection of articles by my FB friends who find alternative views on every topic.

The reason I was aware of this contrast, though, is because I didn’t actually give up Facebook cold turkey. It was harder than I thought it would be to leave – in an emotional sense but also a logistical one. I’m a facilitator for a few groups, and I had to make sure others could take my place. I also have a business page and would have lost the whole thing unless I added someone else as an administrator, something I didn’t feel prepared to do. With access just a click away, I would sneak back on, just for 5 minutes each day, to look at my notifications. I did not read the news feed at all, and for the posts in my notifications, I refrained from liking or commenting. I was mute in FB world, which allowed me to listen, rather than to be a presence or “relevant”.

But then the coup happened in Turkey, and I have friends there that I worried about. I wanted to see if I could find news not otherwise available (though the government limited access to the internet at the time). Soon after, there were protests in Armenia, and the government was particularly brutal in their policing. I made a couple of exceptions to post images of such violence, at one point amplifying an email message from my friends who were directly affected. It was then that I was reminded of the value of Facebook to spread the word – that mindfully posting on FB may sometimes equate with positive action.

***

Instead of giving up my addiction, I severely curbed it. Now that my time is up to return (I really cannot advertise my business without the help of social media) I feel what I imagine an alcoholic must experience when their unsympathetic spouse tells them it won’t hurt to have a drink every once in a while, will it? Once I start, I won’t be able to stop the snowball effect of feelings that I will experience: cheering on friends, becoming jealous at times, mourning for friends’ losses, becoming outraged over the injustices in the news, deciding how to respond positively with resistance, challenges, anger, and love. I am nervous about my ego and how I invest so much in what I post, as if it’s a part of my self, as if it’s real. Of course, there is a part of it that is very real. But because I also grapple with loneliness, I fear for the way that I get dependent on Facebook’s seeming affirmation of my creative, political, emotional, and financial sides – in a forum that purports that it cares for me, but ultimately exists mostly in my mind.

I suppose what I am saying is that my mind changed from my Facebook diet. It made me consider thoughts and ideas more because I didn’t have to immediately turn out a response; my inner world had a safe, quiet, remote, cave to develop alongside the events of my life. I got my mind back after sharing it too much with Facebook.

Am I doing more to make change in the world? No, not really. It does seem that most of my activist self exists as a Facebook poster, as much as I would like to think otherwise.

But I am not advocating leaving FB for the activist writer. I think it’s a necessary tool to our work and self-development. My hope is that I can turn to FB with mindfulness, that I can enter it with an intention and stick to it, even while I get sidetracked, confronted, and supported. And I hope that I will ask myself what action I can do – and then act – instead of spending too much time in an alternative reality that sometimes supports justice and sometimes doesn’t.

Since for many of us Facebook has conflated our many different sides and needs, I think it’s necessary to break it down and become aware of how we use it. Here’s my proposed solution, an experiment in timed and categorized posting: In the morning I will read the news, then spend 20 minutes on FB to read and comment on politics. In the middle of the day, I will post for 20 minutes about my workshops and writing related info. In the evening, after emailing and calling and seeing friends, I will spend 20 minutes checking up on how my friends are doing on Facebook and to learn about events I can add to my social calendar.

I know it sounds regimented, but my hope is that I will be practicing mindful posting. Maybe we can practice it together sometime.

7 thoughts on “What I Learned From My Summer Facebook Diet: the Fragile Emotional Complexity of Social Media Activism

  1. Meri

    I love how genuine and honest you are, and you expressed in words what I believe most FB users also feel but don’t have the courage to say. I love your writing in general, and I can honestly say that I relate to a lot of the things you mention here. Thank you, reading this gives me a lot more to think about.

  2. Wendy Angulo

    Thank you Nancy! This was a great read! I can totally relate with you in wanting to take a break but also not wanting to loose the connections from FB….I think is all about balance.

  3. Sami Abu Shumays

    Lovely post, Nancy. Commenting here rather than on FB because i’ve also been thinking about much of the same things, have been on and off semi-breaks for most of this summer… and i’m also in a place where severely curbed usage, but not total withdrawal, is the right place for me as well.
    P.S. i found your essay because i’m on your email list, and accessed it from there, rather than because we’re FB friends!

  4. Hannah Bleier

    Hi Nancy! This was very interesting and thought-provoking. I like hearing about how others relate to social media. As usual, you are actively thinking and keeping things real. It sure can be a time suck; I have a guilt-trip app that I turn on sometimes so that after twenty minutes FB shuts down and a message comes up that says, “SHOULDN’T YOU BE WORKING?” That helps. Long ago I implemented a Facebook Must Be Fun! rule for myself. I use it to post jokes, supportive and encouraging comments, re-posts of interesting and creative things talented friends are doing, objects of personal fascination, whimsey, acerbic commentary, ways to help people in need, and all-too-rare positive developments in the socio-political landscape. I kick all people who can’t behave themselves (i.e. are repeatedly mean, mean-spirited, or self-righteous on comment threads) to “acquaintance” status, where they can only see cat videos and cat-video-like posts). I don’t take Facebook friendships very seriously. I have a Facebook friend litmus test: “Would this person hide me from the Nazis?” If the answer is “no” or “Hm, I’m not sure,” I don’t think of them as “real” friends. I’m happy to see you developing your writing business. You go, and good luck with your regimen!

  5. Meera

    Thanks. I tried this too in Mexico on holiday and felt so much better for it. Am trying to not go on it everyday. But as a writer, I feel like FB is my only outlet to publicize my publications. I’m not super-active on Twitter, which anyway feels very impersonal. There have been days recently when i have felt that I need to get off all social media to retain my sanity. Thank you for writing this.

  6. Scott Koffinke

    I’m glad your back. I read your posts. I’m starting my 18th year of teaching high school, and this year I picked up a sociology course. I’m looking forward to learning ways to help my students understand some of the many complexities involved with being in, and being a part of American society. I have a great deal of work ahead of me. I started class, second day of school, with a question. After drawing a swastika on my board, we began a discussion about what is considered an offensive image. Several students gave opinions as to why they think it’s offensive. All responses, I felt, were in line with how I would expect hs students to respond: that, in a general sense, it is a symbol of hatred and bigotry and mass murder. So I asked if it was ok to fly this symbol on a flag, sticking up in the bed of a pickup truck. All classes came to the conclusion of that its protected under 1st amendment, but that it’ would be incredibly offensive to boldly display it. I asked if one must be Jewish to be offended. Consistent response? No, it’s offensive to practically everyone, which is why you don’t see it flying in that manner. So, then I asked, what you’re telling me is that the history behind the image is understood to be one of bigotry, racism, and murder, so we are therefore offended when people drive around “…with this image of the Confederate flag, flying with pride in the bed of a truck, driving down Main Street in Westfield.” I said this while staring out at them, but still pointing to the swastika. Some thought I misspoke…most understood why I mixed them up like that. That situation, I told them, was part of their homework this weekend: Give reasons for why the flying of a flag that represents Nazism is offensive (to a point that it would be considered socially outrageous to openly display it, although legal) but I only need look out my classroom window some days to see a Confederate flag go by in the back of a pickup truck. I’m lucky to have opportunities to teach about such issues, and I want you to know, Nancy, that I admire your activism, and I will be using examples of the Armenian genocide, as well as the denials consistently put forward by the government of Turkey, and the generational impact on the Armenian people, so many many years later. I have a great deal of homework to get myself up to speed with my history, but please know that you DO have a positive impact on FB (way more than I’m sure I realize) and that I admire and respect how you stepped back for 6 weeks, but I’m glad you’re back.
    I’m so very sorry for the loss of your friend, Nancy. I wish you peace.

  7. Mahru Elahi

    Thanks Nancy!

    This essay really encapsulated a lot of my thoughts and trepidation re: FB and, unlike you, I find myself a very inconsistent user of social media. My work in public education IS my political work and – given my 10 hour work days – just finding time to eat and sleep is an accomplishment. I also have the benefit of having FB blocked at work, so I can’t login even if I want to.

    Yet, when I do login, I find that a lot of emotions surface for me. I appreciated you naming loneliness as a primary feeling. I’m not lonely in my analog life, but, get me onto digital media, and I’m bombarded with other’s joys, self-righteousness re: political causes, sometimes their courage, grief, and honest grappling with challenges or world events. Instead of feeling connection when reading, I more often than not feel distance. I leave FB lonelier than when I arrived, every time.

    I need the viseral; what’s in my face; what I can touch, immediate feedback and response. Yet, connecting on FB does allow me to communicate and share in the lives of friends and family who don’t live close. It’s an odd tension and one that I don’t know if I’ll ever have peace around.

    I also consider myself a fairly private person, and don’t shout from the rooftops when I need acknowledgement. Yet, on the rare occasion when I do want to post some impactful news in my life, the reception is often lukewarm. Maybe that’s because I post so inconsistently? (When I do go online, I try to like and comment on other’s posts as much as possible.)

    Last week the local Bay Area public news source KQED aired a radio piece during the morning NPR block about my school and the de facto segregation in North Oakland public schools (my school is 99.9% black & brown children and the school three blocks away is mostly white). I posted on FB a day after the story aired and blog post was published. I got one like. I guess the one day delay made it old news for most? I had gotten home late the previous night and didn’t have the energy to open my computer. Yet, when I change my profile photo, no matter how inconsistent of a user I am, I get at least 30 likes (I have about 600 friends).

    The patterns of what gets attention and what doesn’t is confusing. Not sure how to end this comment other than to again thank you for your clear and insightful writing.

    I think being mindful as you repeatedly state in your essay is the key. I’m trying.

    Love you!

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