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How Social Media Made Me Blind: The Facebook Eye

​Why I Quit Social Media: Part 1

​September 4, 2019 | 12-min read


​It was New Year’s Eve, and I was at a house party in my hometown of Chicago. I had moved abroad months before, and so my trip marked a rare chance to spend time, in-person, with people who meant a lot to me.

​One of my best friends was telling me a story, but I was looking at my phone.

“Hold on,” I told her. “I want to hear this, but just give me a minute to post these photos.”

Even as I said it, I knew that it was rude. But there was another impulse that was stronger, though I didn’t have a name for it at the time. All I knew was that I wanted to document this trip home, and I wanted my friends who were also on their phones at other parties across the same city to see it.

My friend in front of me didn’t call me out for my behavior, even though she’s the type who would. Probably because this situation is so common now. We put our in-person connections oh hold to look down at our screens and hope for a better one virtually. We make the people around us wait. (Whether they do so patiently or not usually depends on whether they pull their device out, too.)

I can’t remember much of what actually happened at this party: What I talked to those old friends about, what we laughed over, new people I met. But I can look at those photos, crisp and self-involved and meaningless. What I can remember most vividly, in the pit of my stomach, is how crappy I felt to turn away my friend and post them.

***


​I joined Facebook in 2006, at the age of 17. Compared to MySpace or other gaudy networks, Facebook was clean and institutional. It appealed to my preference for organization and minimalism.

My first posts to my high school friends were mostly inside jokes, or making plans to hang out. Soon after, ​I went away to college. I uploaded photos from my digital camera that ​I'd taken at ​parties or ​frisbee games. I shared my new life with my high school classmates, and I enjoyed following their new adventures, too.

That was the order it went in: I had fun. I grew friendships. And then, later, I’d take to Facebook to document them.

But ten years later, the “fun” was being reverse-engineered. ​I wasn’t living my life first and then going on Facebook to share it. I was, instead, seeing the world around me as raw content ready to be curated for ​my social media feed.

A big reason for this shift was that I didn’t have to drag a digital camera around to take photos, and I didn’t need ​my laptop to ​upload them. I could do both from the phone in my pocket. The distance between life and its digital representation collapsed into an instant.

Of course, new technology has always changed the way we perceive the world. In The Shallows, author Nicholas Carr ​​writes that the invention of maps and then clocks allowed us not only to understand the world around us in new ways, but also our place in it. Maps, for instance, helped us to make sense of large and abstract concepts in two-dimensional space, like a battle plan or the spread of an epidemic. [1]

“The more frequently and intensely people used maps, the more their minds came to understand reality in the maps’ terms,” he wrote.

My use of Facebook was nothing if not “frequent” and “intense,” (as its designers intend it to be) and so I began to understand my reality in the apps’ terms.

I learned to view not only what happened to me but also my thoughts and feelings in the currency of how much attention they could draw. Certain narratives (mostly earnest grandstanding) drew few Likes, while others drew hundreds (you could always count on a profile picture update for an in​flux.)

Carr makes the point that the medium is the message: We don’t only work on new technology, bending it to our will. It works back on us, too, changing the way we perceive the world.

Once I identified this phenomenon, that of my living my life as a means to an end of a Facebook post, I gave it a name: “Facebook Brain.” Of course, it wasn’t only Facebook. My digital life was also shaped by Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat.

I couldn’t find much information ​online about my social media brain, though much criticism has been directed at Facebook in recent years for political scandals, data sharing, and its addictive qualities.

But ​a few months ago, I ​came across someone else who had noticed the Facebook Brain.  In The Atlantic, Nathan Jurgenson adapted the “camera eye” — the photographer’s view of everything through a lens —  into the modern-day equivalent of the “Facebook Eye.” [2]

​Constant, instantaneous use is not a new feature of the platform, but ​one ​that has slowly intertwined itself ​with my life over ​a decade. Jurgenson’s article, ​it turns out,​ was written back in 2012.


***


​My writer friend Joan is not good at social media, by her own admission.

We met earlier this year in an online mastermind, when Joan was working on incorporating more social media into her author marketing strategy. [3]

Joan’ struggle was that she had trouble seeing the things that happened in her life through the Facebook Eye. She started to bring a small notebook with her everywhere, to remind her to jot down ideas for Facebook posts. “I know I could post in real time,” she said. “But I'm not there yet. I still premeditate a bit.”

One afternoon, Joan went to a cafe to write. She ordered a coffee, sat down, pulled her notes out of her bag, and then spilled her latte all over them. Horrified, she picked everything up, ran inside for napkins, and cleaned the remaining dripping mess. But her relief quickly turned to disappointment.

“I could have posted, ‘It was a strong gust of wind, I swear. Not my clumsiness. Trials of being a writer!’ …or something. I thought of this only after everything was cleaned up,” Joan told our mastermind.

Though it was a small moment, I had never read something that so clearly illustrated to me my own Facebook Eye. Joan’s difficulty in posting to Facebook instantaneously, automatically and habitually was my problem, too, but for the opposite reason.

I could imagine how I once would have reacted to the spilled coffee. Unlike Joan, my documentation would have been automatic and thoughtless. I would have felt suppressed glee that I had done something stupid, something small that could be captured and repackaged as social media content, to craft an image of myself and my life for consumption by strangers.

I would have let my notes and my work languish, dark liquid seeping through them, the documentation and representation of my life more important than my actual life.

***


​An even ​deeper ​question must be asked about the performative mindset of the Facebook Eye. I would have photographed the coffee before cleaning it up — but would I have taken it a step further and spilled the coffee on purpose?

Probably not. But once you are aware of the shareable potential of your life, you wonder whether the things you do are things you actually want to do, or whether they are the things other people would like to see online.


I was well into my social media detox last summer when I ​took a trip to a​ ​new city ​with a group of friends and acquaintances. One guy was trying to grow a YouTube channel, and so, at every available opportunity, he would stick his camera in the faces of those around him, prompting them, “How much fun are we having!?” Most complied, smiling and woo-hooing for the camera.

But without his prompting, in these moments, we were not ​acting this way. We were waiting on sidewalks for our tour to start, talking to each other, probably a few people tuning out on their phones. The moment was humming along but not explosive with enthusiasm in the way the cameraman wanted it to be.

He annoyed me, but they say the things you dislike about other people are things you dislike in yourself. I recognized his impulses. He wanted good content, and if life wasn’t providing it, well, there is only so much ​editing you can do in post-production. Sometimes, you have to alter and ​direct your surrounding reality to fit your vision.


I don’t recall coaching others or shoving my camera in ​other people's faces, at least egregiously (I hope). But I was shoving the camera in my own face, in a way — I​ was manipulating myself to suit my narrative​.


The lines blurred between what I actually wanted and liked, and what ​others Liked and Retweeted and approved of.


​​It makes me feel good to look at a beautiful sunset. But it also makes me feel good to get Likes for my photo of a beautiful sunset. ​​​How do these two motivations ​influence or subsume each other, and how do I know the difference between them? ​​​When it is not only sunsets but anything — your meals, your friends, your travels, the things you want to accomplish — and you pursue both these things and the digital representation of these things on a daily basis for years, it​ can be hard to untangle.


​​Who was I, when I wasn’t being watched?

***


​But social media is not the only place where we perform, and it’s unfair to characterize it as such. We are made up of many different selves IRL, and we curate how we act and what to say when we interact with anyone, knowing that we are being seen and judged.

In her book Trick Mirror, writer Jia Tolentino summarizes the work of sociologist Erving Goffman, who studied these different selves. [4]

Tolentino writes, “In every human interaction…a person must put on a sort of performance, create an impression for an audience. The performance might be calculated, as with the man at a job interview who’s practiced every answer; it might be unconscious, as with the man who’s gone on so many interviews that he naturally performs as expected; it might be automatic.”

Even this blog post, written for consumption, is a performance in its own way. I wouldn’t be able to capture life unedited,​ unfiltered even from my own subjectivity. As my reader, you wouldn’t want me to, either. I’m purposefully crafting a narrative. That is the essence of storytelling: to organize the messiness of life by shaping it.

But in my writing this, I’m hoping to get closer to the truth. I want to understand why I quit social media, honestly, both for myself and to be seen by others. (I don’t believe one is a writer without a reader; then they are merely a diarist.)

But in comparison to the blogs I write now, the things I crafted for Facebook often felt like they were leading me further from the truth. Perhaps that’s because, when everything is potential content, there is no off-switch.

Goffman, via Tolentino, calls this off-switch, or break from performing, going “backstage.” As we go about our day, the audiences for our performances change, and some are more familiar than others. With people who know us intimately, we can feel like we’re not performing at all.

Under the watchful Facebook Eye, however, any backstage moment could potentially become a public one.

On social media, the performance never has to end. Tolentino calls this being “on a job interview in perpetuity.”

***


​Being on a job interview at all times, of course, would not be ​relaxing. Sometime in my mid-20s, after 5-to-7 years of regular use, I began to notice that social media made me anxious.

Before events that I anticipated would be share-worthy, I stressed out: Would I get a good enough photo? Did I look nice? (I used to hate school picture day, now was every day of my life school picture day?) Would something noteworthy happen? Would I feel deep emotions or come to some understanding of life that I could share earnestly? What if there was bad lighting? If I couldn’t craft a witty caption? What if one person ruined my pictures?

If Facebook was the record of my life, I wanted it to tell a good story. And that meant each additional event needed to have good photos and good stories.

But like the acquaintance​ I traveled with, my obsession with documenting my experience ended up diminishing the chances that there would be anything worthwhile to document. The ​more relentlessly you try to craft reality, the further you get from what is actually meaningful or real.


***


With or without a name for it, there was a point where I recognized my Facebook Eye and wanted to live without it. 


I wanted to know what it was I enjoyed experiencing for its own sake, and not for what it looked like online. The only way I knew how to untangle these motivations was to remove the social media ones entirely.


I wanted to feel a natural anxiety before a big social event — that I hoped to be genuine and interesting and make a connection with others — and not the anxiety I had engineered for myself, lying in wait to harvest the event's best moments.


I wanted to be around friends and not think about being on my phone. I wanted to run as far away as possible from the guy shoving a camera in my face to ask if I was having a good time, and I didn't want to be the one who was behind that camera, either. I let my digital life whither, and spent more time tending to the one in front of me.

I quit social media because I wanted to become blind to my Facebook eyes, and to see the world again through my own.


​Read Part 2 of the series "Why I Quit Social Media" here.


Do you agree or disagree with anything I've written? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.



Footnotes & Links


[1] The Shallows​ by Nicholas Carr​​​

​[2] "The Facebook Eye" by Nathan Jurgenson in ​The Atlantic

​[3] Author Joan Fernandez's website

​[4] Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino