Tag Archives: social isolation

Fred Mills: Facebook is the Empathy Box Philip K. Dick Warned Us About (a/k/a What I Did On My Vacation from Social Media)

The author is the editor of BLURT and has been rumored to be among those who won’t back down.

BY FRED MILLS

A little over a week ago I started to think I needed to get off social media. It was purely an act of self-preservation, and it wasn’t an altogether alien urge to ditch my “socials,” as people (primarily marketing folks and public relations flacks, but work with me here) like to say, Facebook chief among them. Like most of you, I’ve dropped out from time to time for a day or two in the past, in some instances purely by chance due to the work load at my full-time day job. (By way of full disclosure: I am the editor of a monthly print magazine here in North Carolina—not referring to BLURT, incidentally, which at the moment is online-only, but we hope to revive the print version soon. Editing BLURT content and posting it to the site is something I do to help keep our brand active and, by my way of thinking, also to give our writers and photographers an easy—if not overly reliable, on a day-to-day basis—outlet for their stuff, a place where they can park their words and their pictures and hopefully have a better chance of being seen by peers, musicians, and random music biz folks rather than simply slapping it up on their personal blog. No one here gets paid, in other words. We do it ‘cos we love spreading the word and giving love to the artists we love. And, er, to keep us in those free records we love, too.)

This hiatus from social media was different, though. It came on the heels of a particularly grueling several days, starting the morning after the Las Vegas shooting, through the heartbreaking news of Tom Petty’s sudden passing, and well into the ensuing emotional onslaught wrought by both events, of which Facebook became a nonstop outlet for those emotions.

Indeed, Las Vegas hit me with the same kind of confusion, fear, disbelief, and, ultimately, black grief that I felt in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Yes, I know the body count difference puts the two events into completely different leagues, but, hey, try using mathematics-based logic on one’s body stressors and you’ll quickly understand that equivalencies aren’t necessarily absolutes. And, much like 9/11, you couldn’t get away from the nonstop news reports and online outpouring of grief. Sixteen years ago, four days after 9/11, my wife, 8-month-old son, and I desperately needed to depressurize, so we drove four hours west to the North Carolina mountains, rented a cabin out in the sticks, and spent a long weekend hiking in the woods, cooking on a grill, entertaining an innocent young child who was otherwise oblivious to anything but his toys and snacks, and listening to Americana radio. We came back home in a far more receptive frame of mind, knowing full well that we would re-entering a world that had changed and would never look quite the same again.

With Petty, well… I’ve already penned a rather lengthy story about what my relationship with him has been and what he means to me. Spoiler alert: He’s among my Top 5 all-time favorite artists, and he’s been an emotional presence in both my life and my wife’s since he debuted in 1976. Losing him hit me as hard as losing Joe Strummer before him, and before Strummer, Keith Moon. We can go into all this in more detail over beers some warm summer evening, okay?

The 2017 week, however, was also different from the 2001 week, in that I couldn’t take off for the mountains—well, technically, I live in the mountains, so let’s just say that I couldn’t take off for the beach, or the desert, or the New Orleans whorehouses, either—because I have that full-time job I mentioned above; my wife has a full-time job herself (combined, we put in 100-110 hours per week, easily); and my little son is a little older now, a junior in high school with advanced placement class commitments.

What I could do, however, was remove myself from as many of my primary stress sources as possible: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn (just kidding – I haven’t updated my profile on that failing platform in several years! SAD!)… pfffft. CNN, MSNBC, Fox News…. zappppp. (Well, kinda; on the family iPad we have quite a few news apps, among them CNN, AP, local and regional newspapers, and aggregators like Flipboard, and it’s remarkably easy to let one’s finger to drift across the screen while deciding between Netflix, Hulu, or Vudu, and open up one of those news apps. But I’m proud to report that I didn’t obsessively refresh, and I quite consciously limited myself because I was also wanting to free up time to read a few books I had already partially begun.)

I even did my best to steer clear of the urge to watch the late night comedy (read: political) shows and, instead, look for comfort food such as nature and music documentaries, reruns of Frazier, the latest season of Gotham, and the re-boot of Will & Grace. Just last night my son talked me into starting to watch the entire Star Trek: The Next Generation series again, which feels pretty goddam perfect for the times we find ourselves in. With any luck, by the time we complete this lengthy binge, we’ll find ourselves in markedly different times. And for some reason I also found myself engaged in a selection of YouTube mini-binges: Fela Kuti, my old friends in the bands Dreams So Real and the Sidewinders, Rachel Sweet, and others. (Yes, I did just type “Rachel Sweet.” Should I also type “Rex Smith & Rachel Sweet”?) You’d be amazed at just how much mainstream news media you can NOT watch when you put your mind to it.

In this context, Facebook was an interesting case study in solitude, solipsism, and self-righteousness. Everyone’s experienced, at some point or another, a FB friend announcing he or she was planning on taking a break from the platform. These social media “vacations” are typically voluntary—maybe something happened in their lives that requires their extended attention, like a death in the family, and they get off the media knowing full well that upon their return they will be greeted with scores of so-very-sorrys and wish-you-wells that had been posted in the announcement’s comments section (can we all agree that the toothless, bordering-on-banal, phrase “sending thoughts and prayers” should be permanently retired? put some actual thought into your condolences, people!); and that they will dutifully express gratitude for all the support that was expressed. Occasionally, the virtual departures from FB appear to be voluntary, but in fact they are probably done at the strong urging of a fellow professional and prompted by some bad behavior—say, you were caught texting a photo of your private parts to an underage kid, so you’re being told that maybe you should lay off the pro-Weinstein FB rants and lay low for awhile; or you innocently posted some remarks that turned out to be nakedly anti-Semitic then made things worse defending yourself following the social media shitstorm, so your P.R. person suggests now might be a good time to take that sweat lodge sabbatical you’ve been talking about for ages (can we all agree that making one final FB post about your “needing to do some much-needed reflection and healing” is probably not a smart move either?).

Taking a cue from my old friend Peter Holsapple who, a day or two earlier, had announced he needed a short break from FB, I bailed. Mindful of the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments that would no doubt ensue if I simply disappeared from my digital community like a Second Life avatar soaring towards the heavens just prior to logging off, I made the usual bye-bye-to-Facebook announcement at my FB page . Facebook, I had come to realize, is the Empathy Box that sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick warned us of in his classic book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It tricks us into thinking we are having a collective/communal experience every time we react to some tragedy, some offense, some heartwarming story, some quirky/funny/cool “thing.”

Trust me, all those digital murmurs of compassion or screams of outrage—which I am as guilty as the next person of typing onto my computer screen—along with all those “likes” and laughing/weeping emojis that we register throughout the day, amount to anything but a communal experience. In your social media cocoon, in your groupthink cyber-node, you are deceiving yourself. Sorry to break this to you, millennials, but you might turn out to be replicants (the vote’s still out), and if that’s the case, your brave new off-world experiences are rapidly coming to a conclusion. You want communal? See my below note about talking with a neighbor of mine face to face one recent afternoon.

I’m proud to say that as I ditched Facebook, I said nothing about healing, although as you may note below about “redirecting my energy,” though absolutely descriptively accurate, did come somewhat close to new age mumbo-jumbo. At least I didn’t work “sustainable” into the dialogue. Still, I promise that there were no deaths or tragedies in the family, no wiener photos or sex scandals, no anti-Semitic comments or excursions into misogyny, no bullshit I’d been needing to own up to for far too long. I was just burned out and bummed out in the wake of the worst week I could remember in over a decade, and I realized I had been and around in my gerbil wheel of ugly/tragic/hypnotic national news while accomplishing next to nothing at work or at home. Laying I bed one morning at 4AM, thrashing and adjusting and readjusting my pillow, I had even thought I was about to have a panic attack.

From my Facebook post:

“I’ve decided I agree with Holsapple – time for a break. From the general social media white noise, onslaught of listicles, etc., to the obvious political overkill and partisan baitmongering, to the “no, I have the biggest grievance here” attitudes, to the blatant p.r. pitches at what is a personal, and not a business, page that I get, FB exhausts me even when I am, myself, indulging in my own form of blatant behavior in order to get that one final “like” affirmation. I need to redirect my energy. Plus, there’s that fall veggie garden and kitchen rehab we have going on here at Mills University. See y’all next semester…”

And, damn, it felt good when I hit that “post” button. Don’t worry about me, I’m fine. But thanks for asking.

But Fred, you are also asking, what the fuck did you actually do while you’ve been off social media, restricting your news diet, etc.? I fucking banked a good bit of extra time in order to do other “stuff,” for starters.

A report this past March at Adweek, citing a study by Mediakix, indicated that the average amount of time spent per day on Facebook is about 35 minutes, and I can assure you it’s probably more on weekends or days off. In fact, 35 minutes seems way too low, based on what I’ve observed among quite a few of my FB “friends,” who seem to make 10, 15, 20, or more posts to their pages each day, then diligently reply to the comments while also making comments of their own on other friends’ timelines. So I’m going to up that 35-minute estimate to a still-conservative 45… hell, let’s just call it an hour per day, which means that I saved 8 FREAKIN’ HOURS over the course of the past 8 days simply by not dicking around on Facebook—8 hours is a COMPLETE WORK DAY if you have a regular job, or if you are a freelance worker and know how to organize your work day and discipline yourself.

Now, I can’t exactly wave my magic Make America Great Again wand and turn those hours into wages—maybe I should move to Kentucky and get a job in the coal mines since Trump and Scott Pruitt are definitely bringing those jobs and those wages back from a galaxy far, far away—but I reckon I could use the extra time to hustle up some outside writing gigs. Or maybe load all those shitty promotional CDs I get in the mail up for sale on Discogs, Amazon, or eBay—hell, I’ll even settle for averaging the local hourly minimum wage in online sales. I’m not greedy.

At any rate, if we are talking transforming all that digital time I accrued into real-world quality time, I think we have a winner, Bob. Here are some of the things I’ve been doing this past week that I either was not doing the week prior to that, or at least was doing in considerably smaller quantities:

  • Finished what seemed like The Never Ending Landscaping Project in our back yard, something we’d begun months back with the intention of wrapping it up by Fall. (Mission now accomplished.)
  • Burned a shitload of leaves and yard debris in the fire pit, which was semi-linked to TNELP but, since it was in a different part of the yard, something I considered a standalone project.
  • Got the last of my Fall vegetables planted in our two box gardens, and yes, I know that by the first and second weeks of October, one’s garden should have been planted, at very least, a month earlier. 6-8 weeks earlier if possible. So how much time did YOU put into your Fall garden, bub, in between trying to pay your rent and keep yourself I cigarettes and beer?
  • Helped my wife get our kitchen ready for a partial renovation. I don’t do demo on floors and walls, or install flooring and drywall, but I still understand that I’m expected to pull my weight in the prep work when there’s a family project such as this. (Memo to wife: please stop laughing.)
  • Started cleaning up the garage in anticipation of finally clearing out my storage unit where, for 100 bucks a month, I pay for the privilege of not being able to thumb through my collection of vinyl, CDs, books, and music magazines whenever I might get the urge to do so.
  • Alphabetized the vinyl records I actually do have at the house because, duh, that’s what a record collector does when he has some spare time.
  • Wrote 15 record reviews for BLURT and 3 for another outlet, most of which you lucky readers will be able to view on the site very shortly. That may not seem like a lot compared to the output of a lot of music writers, but don’t forget, I also have a 50-55 hour-per-week job as an editor at a print publication, so sitting at the computer during every free moment I have at home isn’t necessarily the most attractive proposition.
  • Went to the YMCA to shoot basketball with my son on three evenings, feeling both physically out of shape and needing to subject myself to the ritual humiliation of a 16-year-old smoking his old dad on the court in everything but free throws. (Very pleased to report an 80% percentage on those.)
  • Went to see Blade Runner 2049. Okay, I would have done that anyway.
  • Scheduled a long overdue colonoscopy. Okay, I might have done that anyway.
  • Started to make a list of random stuff I would have posted to Facebook if I had been on during the week. You know, all the crap you think is clever and profound and poignant while you’re in the moment—the same crap you roll your eyes at when you spot someone else trying to be clever and profound and poignant. I figured I could save it to post on FB whenever I decided to get back on FB, and we’d all have one nice communal empathetic chuckle—how meta of him!
  • Ditched my list of random stuff I would have posted to Facebook if I had been on during the week, because, duh.
  • Cooked a full breakfast several mornings for that same 16-year-old mentioned above, rather than just throwing some Eggos in the toaster. I don’t necessarily attribute this to having extra time; it’s not like I was getting up on a schoolday earlier than usual. But for some reason, I was feeling more productive than usual. When you feel good about yourself, you behave differently.
  • Finished reading Blood Done Sign My Name by celebrated N.C. author Timothy B. Tyson—I’d previously been kinda futzing along with it, reading a half chapter this morning and a half chapter the next evening before grabbing the iPad each time to scour all my news apps, because, Trump—and started reading a bio about Steph Curry and a novel by my friend Michael Goldberg. Regarding BDSMN, a stunning memoir about growing up white as the son of a liberal minister in the segregated South of the ‘60s, my own kid had urged me to pick it up after he’d finished it for a class assignment, telling me he thought Tyson’s experiences seemed a lot like what he knew of my upbringing. He was right; Tyson is my new favorite author; and I’m pleased to say that when I tracked down Tyson’s email and wrote him to tell him so, he actually wrote back in less than a half hour, and we continue to exchange nots. (In the Facebook capsule-blurb era, who even has time for crafting a decent email anymore—emails now on the verge of become the digital dinosaur equivalents of old-school formal letters between correspondents. I’m finding myself trying to write friends and acquaintances notes with a bit more meat on their digital bones than “got your info—thanks!” or “let’s catch up soon!”)
  • And perhaps most revealingly: Spent a couple of hours commiserating with my next door neighbor regarding the Las Vegas massacre. In the past year living in our neighborhood, we’ve never been in each other’s house, but we sometimes chat over the back yard fence while going about our respective outdoors routines, and as I mentioned, I have been out there doing a good deal of work. This time, though, I was stopped in my tracks in mid conversation when he disclosed that the company he works for, a sound and audio company, was handling the Jason Aldean show that horrific night in Vegas. Only one of his employees was hurt, just a small ricochet injury, but the psychological injuries others experienced were potentially profound, and he’d already met with some of them, offering them grief counseling, extended time off, etc., if they needed anything to help cope with the aftermath. (Here’s a local media interview with one of his employees who describes in vivid detail what it was like to be on the mixing stage, under fire, and trying to take cover and get out of there.) A couple of times while my neighbor recounted all this, he became visibly emotional, as did both of us when we subsequently found ourselves talking about losing Tom Petty—he was a big fan himself. It was a sobering couple of hours, to say the least.

 

The point here should be obvious. There wasn’t anything I did during those “extra 8 hours” I picked up thanks to jettisoning social media from my life and trimming back my news consumption that I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) have been doing anyway.

But as regards that backyard convo with my neighbor, I’m not so sure. We all like to think that we readily sympathize and eagerly empathize (oops—somebody call Philip K. Dick) with one another on Facebook when something momentous has happened that affected them enough to post about it. But you sure can’t see that haunted, troubled look on someone’s face, or hear that sudden, spontaneous catch in someone’s throat, when someone is posting to Facebook.

***

In an op-ed essay titled “Finding Grace Around the Kitchen Table” (online it’s “How to Find Common Ground”) that was published September 30 in the New York Times, conservative pundit and talk-show host Erick-Woods Erickson wrote about how a life-threatening incident and its aftermath forced him to look inward and try to figure out what he would want his kids to know about him that they might not automatically know if he were suddenly no longer with them. (This is something every parent, particularly if you’re a writer, ponders and even agonizes about at some point. So we start writing all that stuff down for posterity. Yes, I have. Thanks for asking.)

In the essay, Erickson also ruminates both obliquely and directly about some of the things I’ve been discussing here. The following 3-paragraph passage in particular stands out:

“As we have moved more of our lives onto the internet, we have stopped living in actual communities. Instead we have created virtual communities where everyone thinks the same. We do not have to worry about the homeless man under the bridge because he is no longer part of our community. He is someone else’s problem. But that simply is not true.

“Even as the internet provides us great advances, it also segments us. We have social-media tribes and our self-esteem is based on likes and retweets. We have hundreds of television channels and even more video choices online where Hollywood no longer has to worry about broad appeal. There is a channel for everyone, and everyone in the tribe will get the inside jokes. Social-media interactions have replaced the value of character.

“The truth, though, is that our Facebook friends are probably not going to water our flowers while we are on vacation and our Twitter followers will not bring us a meal if we are sick. But the actual human being next door might do both if we meet him.”

The value of character: To my Facebook friends who might opt to read all the way to the end of my own essay here once they have spotted me back online and noticed the link to this essay that I’ve graciously posted on my FB page: If you need your flowers watered, your mail gathered, your lighting scheme cycled, even your cats’ litter boxes scooped while you go on vacation, if I happen to be in the same town, just let me know, and I’ll do it. If you get sick and need somebody to go pick up some food for you because you feel too shitty to cook, or come walk your dog because you’re too worn out to deal with that hyperactive mutt, or take you to the doctor because you might feel worse at the end of the visit than at the start, I’ll do that too. Let me know. No strings attached.

Just don’t reach out to me on Facebook or try to message me. I might not be on FB. And I disabled Messenger months ago. Phone me, text me, email me, in that order.

Better yet, if you see my car in the driveway, just walk out to the back yard fence and holler in the direction of my back door. That, it turns out, is one of the oldest forms of social media in the world. And it doesn’t require cellphone service or a WiFi connection.