Kenneth Burns: Here's to a Facebook-free summer

Jun. 02, 2013 @ 11:15 PM

The withdrawal symptoms were mild, mostly a case of the jitters that went away after a day or two.

But the jitters were real. They came on after I quit Facebook last week.

Facebook is habit-forming.

I joined in 2005. Eight years later, I have a thousand Facebook friends, give or take. Some of them I know in real life. Many of them I don’t.

Facebook has kept me connected with people I care about. It’s a lively source for news and gossip. I’ve had a lot of fun on Facebook.

It’s time for a break.

I have a declared a Facebook-free summer. I deactivated my account the day before Memorial Day, and I will reactivate it after Labor Day.

Probably. We’ll see.

What’s the problem? Mainly, I’m weary of the politics. Understand, I’m fascinated by electoral politics, like any journalist. I have my views, and I express them in the polling booth and not many other places. Not on Facebook. I’m not interested in politics as an all-consuming leisure activity.

In my experience, though, Facebook is one rabidly political social network, and it’s not political in inspiring ways. It’s political in reductive, repetitive ways.

The classic form of political expression on Facebook is the meme, a photo or illustration accompanied by an outraged caption that often has a typo. Memes are shared endlessly. I find the political ones stultifying. (I’m amused by the non-political ones involving funny pictures of cats, and that’s something I might miss about Facebook this summer.)

True, most of the political memes on my feed happen to be posted by people I don’t know. As a public figure, I regularly get friend requests from strangers, and I accept them. I’ve tinkered with blocking posts from people I don’t know personally, with mixed results.

Regardless, Facebook discussions on whatever topic have a way of looping back to politics. Once I posted a photo of a pretty bird in my backyard. The ensuing conversation somehow became about – the immigration debate? I deleted that discussion, as I generally do with Facebook discussions that get too dumb. This doesn’t happen very often.

Even when the talk isn’t political, a lot of negativity and anger are vented on Facebook. I need less negativity and anger in my life. Recently I posted an innocuous remark about the Beatles. Before long, hostility broke out in the comments. “All You Need Is Love” played in my head as I sadly deleted the thread.

The Beatles incident is what brought on my summer hiatus. I finally said: enough.

True, Facebook can be wonderful. I’m genuinely moved to be in touch with people I knew in first grade, people I never thought I’d see again.

Facebook is great for journalists. I’ve used the service to do research, track down sources, bat around coverage ideas, promote stories.

It’s a terrific writerly platform. I’ve gotten wonderful feedback on my Facebook presence. I like to compose posts that are, hopefully, funny or provocative, then watch for the little red squares that indicate people reading, liking and commenting on my work. For a writer, this instant feedback is seductive.

Too seductive. I have found myself pausing while having dinner or watching a movie, just so I can jump up and see whether people are responding to my posts. Facebook takes me away from the here and now. I need to stay in the here and now.

And so I’m stepping away for the time being, with no regrets. I’ll still keep up an online presence, particularly on Twitter. I’ve also been on Twitter for a long time, and I find it calmer than Facebook.

A few years ago, the social network MySpace seemed poised to become what Facebook is now. But MySpace foundered. It’s said that users fled because they hated people’s hideously unattractive MySpace pages. Perhaps because of that, Facebook has tighter design strictures.

But the words people post on Facebook can be at least as unattractive as any blinking, shimmering MySpace page. That’s why I left. I wonder if I’m the only one.

— Kenneth Burns is Community News Editor of The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 212, or send e-mail to kburns@themountainpress.com. Twitter: @KennethBurns.