Social Network Unplug

This past week, I engaged in a counterculture experiment: I disconnected from the major social networks (Facebook, Google Plus, and Twitter). I didn’t deactivate my accounts, but I did uninstall the apps from my tablet, and implemented DNS blocking to make the sites impossible to access from my desktop PC.

I wanted to try this for several reasons. A favorite blogger of mine, Leo Babauta, recommended disengaging from these sites as a way to reduce distraction and make room for more fulfilling activities. Recent uproar about the strange psychological engineering Facebook engages in has made me wonder: is the obligation I feel to keep up with the feed, too, artificial, engineered by advertisers rather than necessary to my most important relationships? I’ve long steered clear of discussion forums, because of how easily conversations in message threads can become toxic; the same is often true on social networks. Not only do such acrimonious dialogues frustrate me and torpedo my mood, but they tend to bring out the worst in me: sarcasm, uncharitableness, and so on.

How did it go, then?

My capacity for self-distraction goes beyond any specific site or activity. It was nice not to indulge the urge to go check networks, but I only made good use of a fraction of the reclaimed time. Instead I got hooked on “Epic Rap Battles of History,” played entirely too much “Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014,” and went on a Wikipedia spree reading articles about quantum physics. If I want to improve my motivation and productivity, social network disconnection is likely to be part of the picture, but not the whole.

The networks are insidious in their methods. Google and Facebook want to be indispensable parts of our lives, and they employ some sly tactics to achieve that goal. I found that I couldn’t use “Google Hangouts” to meet with people, because it employs the plus.google.com domain. Viewing YouTube videos put me back in the G+ sphere as well, because the comments system there is intertwined with the G+ post infrastructure. Tch!

I am indeed better off without (most) online discussion. Even a brief foray back to G+, occasioned by the Hangouts issue mentioned above, exposed me to some nasty Internet name-calling from people I know. There are more than a few folks I get along with great in meatspace, but as soon as we converse online, my interactions with them sour. And that goes both ways–my own online persona is harder to live with than my flesh-and-blood identity. Keeping things face-to-face whenever possible is likely to help preserve the peace.

Important news travels by word of mouth. Sure, I didn’t hear about the latest as fast as before, but I didn’t miss anything entirely. Conversations tend to start with “hey, did you hear about X?”, and if I say “no”, folks go on to fill me in. If I explain why I didn’t hear already, I may get a funny look, but that’s all. It’s seldom necessary, in any case; people already know that social-network news feeds are unreliable in delivering what you really want to see.

There are a few things I do miss out on. I’m involved in a handful of G+ communities, particularly some used for organizing local game get-togethers, and one for development on and support of HabitRPG. The conversations there don’t take place anywhere else, or if they do, it’s fragmentary and incomplete. Because I care about these projects, I noticed this particular absence quite a bit.

What’s next, then? Do I intend to stay unplugged? In part, at least, yes. I’m going to make a few tweaks and extend the experiment from a week to a month. I’ll use email and this blog for the majority of my online conversation-space needs, with broadcasts on Twitter to direct people here. I’m also considering how I might reclaim access to Hangouts and those few Communities without activating the whole G+ fire hose. If I can pull that off, I feel I might manage a good equilibrium, getting the principal benefits of social-network avoidance while mitigating the notable downsides.

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Racism This, Sexism That

Kali Ranya:

A commenter on my Facebook once lamented that my feed was full of “soapbox” topics, that it had become always “racism this, sexism that.” At the time I was so gobsmacked that I’m unsure of the quality of my response. The basic thrust was that I wasn’t about to stop talking about these things, so folks should get used to it.

It occurred to me recently (the incident was a while ago) that I could better articulate why the flood of ‘ism posts in a blog entry than a Facebook comment, anyway. Let this then be an answer to the question that nobody’s asked recently, but might be thinking: what good does it do to keep up such a stream of shares, comments, blog posts, etc., about these topics?

I do these things to change myself:

I come from privilege. White, middle class, Catholic, educated, cisgender, etc. etc. These things come with deep, unconscious, largely inadvertent but still poisonous assumptions and habits. I can count on one hand the occasions I was ever face-to-face with a person of color as a child. Blackness was associated with crime, gang violence, “the bad part of town.” I believed that homosexual activity was sinful all the way through college; queer was an epithet. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I grasped what transgender even meant, much less recognize the prejudice and vulnerability that accompanies it.

Human beings are trainable animals. “We are what we repeatedly do;” perhaps moreso what we repeatedly think. Even now that I consciously and intellectually reject my youthful attitudes and ignorance, old, hard-to-dislodge reflexive patterns of thought persevere. The automatic tension that springs up when in proximity with a dark-skinned person I don’t know on the street. A twitch of skepticism when someone I’d come to know as one gender transitions to another. I recognize and rebuke myself for these things, but they still happen. Some piece of me still holds on to them.

Constant engagement with these topics helps me, however slowly, undo those ancient ingrained Othering habits. When I get a supportive comment on a feminist article, a Like, a reshare, those reinforcement mechanisms tickle my lizard brain. They tell that deep distant me, “this is rewarding. This is the right way to think.” And if I end up discussing the topic, arguing and defending the point at hand, that hones and practices a mindfulness toward equality as well.

I will never be perfect in these respects. But I keep up the reading and sharing and discussion in hopes of drawing ever closer to an ideal.

I do these things to change the world:

If I find it difficult to undo my own ignorance and prejudice, being a willing participant in the process, how much harder it must be to effect that change in a whole society! There are millions more like me whose privilege blinds them to true things and whose upbringing has entrenched false ones. There are unknowable numbers who actively fight back against changing these attitudes. Multiply the inertia of one person times how many people there are alive, then add still more for active bigotry… suffice to say my little-read feed is a teaspoon to the ocean at best.

But the only way we can hope to see change is by flooding the airwaves. We need to call out bigotry and expose it, mock it, demonstrate how foolish and outdated and uncool it is. We need to recognize positive forces and trends and praise them, celebrate them, recognize them as the way of the future for humanity. Why? To create such a pervasive atmosphere of truth and good that the next generation gets a different, better set of ingrained habits than I did. If every Twitter feed, every billboard, every odd conversation on the street, celebrates respect for the whole human person, then bigots will feel alone, out-of-touch, ashamed. People are social creatures who desire the validation of their fellow beings. The more isolated and kooky a hateful attitude appears, the fewer people will find it appealing, and the better the world becomes for all of us.

I can’t bring that about on my own, of course. But I can bring up the average, do my part to build that sussurus of positive voices. Seeing frequent posts affirming what’s right can help others like me, seeking to burn out old prejudices, make progress on that task. And maybe, every once in a while, someone actually resistant to or uncaring about ideals of equality might see a signal I boosted and think, “huh, that never occurred to me before.” Without realizing it, they get a little closer to leaving their problematic attitudes behind. My own audience is small (and probably doesn’t include any active bigots, hah), but in the wild world of Internet social media where things go viral and reach unexpected audiences, I never know what good a shared post might do.

That’s why the soapbox, that’s why racism this sexism that. It’s something I can do, here and now, every day, to make myself and the world around me better. And if that isn’t the purpose of living a life, I don’t know what is.