One Week Without Facebook

My first week sans Facebook is in the books, and I can report that I attempted to visit the site only approximately 50 times. For the first few days, I kept a written tally of attempts to visit my feed. As a result, I had the pleasure of observing my behavior while I worked to change a deeply ingrained habit.

My records show I visited Facebook’s log-in page several times within an hour of quitting, and then gradually started finding myself opening a new tab with the intention of visiting Facebook. Now I can catch myself just as my mouse navigates to the parallelogram at the top of my browser. What a trip.

The truth is, I do miss it. Now that FB isn’t there to fill the gaps between tasks I need to complete, I often find myself staring blankly at newly opened tabs. On the plus, the time I used to spend mindlessly scrolling along have sometimes been replaced with closing my laptop and finding something to do in real life.

I’m also experiencing that weird thing that happens when you bring your attention to something and suddenly it’s everywhere. In the the first few days of my detox, I came across:

Mozilla’s IRL podcast gave me a lot of insight into what’s behind my Facebook habit when host Veronica Belmont interviewed Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. Nir Eyal says that technology companies are hacking our natural process of building habit by rewarding us for certain behaviors.

I learned from Charles Duhigg’s amazing book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business that habits are a cyclic process of cue, habit, and reward. Looking at this cycle in reverse, my rewards for scrolling Facebook are the possibility of new posts from my friends, links to articles to read, or the number of likes on my post. (Since these particular rewards are unpredictable by nature, they create an extra-sticky habit. Results that can’t predicted fuel addictions to things like gambling.)

But here’s an even scarier thing: through the process of sharing my own likes, dislikes, and other data with Facebook, I’ve been engaged in what Nir Eyal calls an “investment phase.” Sharing so much personal information with Facebook promoted the creation of an internal cue that triggers the habit of visiting Facebook. Tech companies have become excellent at associating our negative internal states with a habit of spending time on their platforms. The goal of social media brands is to barnacle their sites to our negative emotions.

So now I know that my feelings of uncertainty motivate me to stop the work I’m doing and head to Facebook. For instance, when I receive an email with question I don’t know how to answer… Facebook. If I’m nervous or worried about a project I’m working on… Facebook. It’s as if I’ll find all the answers buried in my newsfeed. (Spoiler alert: I haven’t.)

Now that I’m aware of this, I can be on the lookout for the ways in which my negative feelings inspire digital responses. Even though these huge platforms have spent untold stacks of dollars pursuing my attention, just the tiniest bit of space between my triggers and their resulting habits can help me check in on what’s really going on. That tiny bit of room has the potential to help me pry apart these connections, and hopefully permanently sever my dependency on social technology. There are better ways to find answers than staring into a digital abyss.