In February, inspired by Steve Pavlina’s blog post, I took a 30-day break from Facebook, which I have already mentioned briefly in one of my recent blog posts on solitude and routine. I was keen to share this positive experience and my reflections on the impact of Facebook on an artist’s life, and now, after a few weeks of being reconnected to the Facebooksphere, I feel even more compelled to have my say on the topic.
Prior to writing, I did extensive research on Facebook-related articles and read a good couple of dozens of them. Still, the best piece of writing on the subject is Pavlina’s blog post, as it’s a voice of a man with great self-awareness who recognises a problem and takes action. Most of the other articles I’ve read, which bring up the same issues like narcissism, false identity, pretend friends, inability to connect with people on a deeper level, etc., belong to journalists whose criticism ends with a full stop at the end of the last sentence. It’s easy to criticise something, a lot more difficult to do something about it. Therefore, I am highly impressed with people like Pavlina who hasn’t returned to Facebook since his fast or journalist Paul Miller who went offline for a year, after realising that: “I feel like I’ve only examined the internet up close. It’s been personal and pervasive in my life for over a decade, and I spend on average 12+ hours a day directly at an internet-connected terminal (laptop, iPad, Xbox).” Steve Corona, the CTO at Twitpic and Author of Scaling PHP Applications, went off social media for only a month but claims that the break has changed his life and helped him create new good habits.
Since I reactivated my Facebook account, I have reactivated an ongoing battle with it. These days, there’s not very much I gain from Facebook. The erratic and out-of-context communication doesn’t help connecting with friends. If anything, I feel more disconnected than ever and it is painful, for I have always valued one-to-one, in-depth relationships with people over small talk at parties. The one thing I enjoy is sharing what I do as an artist, because it is rewarding to reach people who find my work inspiring and valuable, and I appreciate the feedback I get from them. For that purpose I use my fanpage. The personal account though, is the one that I find problematic.
There are several reasons for it, and they all have been eloquently presented in all those various articles I’ve read. David Wygant from The Huffington Post talks about the constant obsession with online communication:
I’ve been with women and we’ve had great sex. We’ve really connected and got close. I get up to brush my teeth, and when I come back into bed, there they are checking Twitter feeds or reading an e-mail. You want to talk about disconnecting from the moment? Picking up your phone after the most intimate, beautiful moment between two lovers? (…) You can’t stay present in this moment? (…) You need to check your Gmail and see who has e-mailed you at 11:30 at night on a Tuesday?
A blogger called Law Firm 10, who deleted their Facebook account, describes the narcissism manifested by its users:
One of the things that creeps me out the most about the core Facebook demographic—I call them “Screen People”—is that their entire joie de vivre seems centered around documenting their moments on Facebook’s screens. The Screen People derive their real pleasure from assembling a two-dimensional record of the (often insignificant) day-to-day minutiae of their lives. (…) It’s like [they] want their turn to be reality stars, and Facebook has granted their wish by providing them with a screen and audience for their very own reality shows. It reminds me of Mike Teavee in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory—the kid who loved TV so much that he volunteered to be transmitted through the airwaves into a little tiny TV set.
Jay Baer from Convince & Convert talks about the problem of “spending considerable time building large networks of shallow connections, potentially at the expense of deepening a few cherished friendships upon which we can truly rely” and gives an example of Trey Pennington, one of the most influential people on Twitter, with a massive number of followers and “friends”, who committed suicide.
While all these are all important issues, my personal biggest criticism of Facebook, especially in relation to creativity, is the lack of space for failure. I’m not talking about moaning about being a loser, but about sharing failures, mistakes, challenges, and our attempts at dealing with them. Everyone’s life is an ongoing chain of problems that need to be solved. My view of relationships and friendships is that we’re meant to give each other support and inspiration to solve these problems and learn to handle things better. But a Facebook feed doesn’t have statuses along the lines of: “I failed, I learned, I will persevere.” It only has the carefully selected end products – a photo of an engagement ring but no information about the difficulties in finding someone, sustaining a relationship, overcoming conflicts. Information about a competition someone won or an amazing job they got but no information about the hundreds of rejected applications they had to go through.
It is very easy to start thinking that our lack of this enviable “end product” is clearly a sign that we’re useless. If you’re feeling low, and you see those kinds of boasting posts, it takes an effort to put your mind on the right track of thinking. But I know people who are unable do it, and instead of trying, they will put that effort into creating their own “wow” posts, which might trigger the same reaction in their friends, in a vicious circle.
Facebook makes people forget that failure and difficulties are an integral part of a creative process. Michael Michalko from the Creativity Post describes several famous people who had failed miserably before they eventually succeeded. Thomas Edison, when asked why he didn’t give up after a 1000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb, replied that he had not failed once but had discovered over 1000 things that don’t work. Stephen King’s first book, the thriller Carrie, received 30 rejections, and ended in a bin before his wife encouraged him to resubmit it. Steven Spielberg was rejected from the University of Southern California School of Theater, Film and Television three times. Walt Disney got fired from a newspaper because “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” Tim Burton’s first children’s book, The Giant Zlig, was rejected by The Walt Disney Productions. Kurt Vonnegut’s three writing samples, which later became inspiration for his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, were rejected by The Atlantic Monthly. Jim Lee, the co-publisher of DC comics, received several rejection letters throughout his life and in one of them was told to reapply “when he had learned to draw hands.”
One of the most spectacular failures-turned-into-success I have read about, comes from Tim Harford’s book Adapt. Why success always starts with failure (mentioned in my recent blog post). In the last chapter, “Adapting and you,” he describes how in 2002, Movin’ Out ballet/musical created by choreographer Twyla Tharp and writer Billy Joel, premiered at the Schubert Theater in Chicago, prior to being transferred to Broadway three months later. The reviews were absolutely devastating. The show which Twyla Tharp directed and choreographed and which had already cost 8 million dollars, turned out to be a complete failure. But instead of rejecting the critics’ views and deluding herself into thinking that the world had misunderstood her masterpiece, she rewrote the show completely, which was an astronomic amount of work, and three months later received a Tony award and a stream of ecstatic reviews. The show was a triumph.
Harford emphasises the importance of being able to face failures and learn from them, avoiding staying in denial and reinterpreting the failure for success. Giving oneself an area for experimentation is crucial, as is retaining a significant amount of self-doubt to keep questioning the process and spotting mistakes on the way. But the process of failing and transforming failure into a success is often a long one, and the culture of social media and Facebook demands instant “show-offs.” In order to be “connected” one has to continuously post status updates and photos, and since everyone is participating in the coolness-contest, those better be good! And so the focus from analysing our work and experimenting with it in private shifts to wondering about what might be attractive for the Facebook audience.
I am planning to deactivate my personal account again because aside from the uncontrollable distraction (I have a graphic novel to put together so can’t allow all the cute cat photos to interfere with it!) I find it hard to embrace my own failures in the scripted wonderland of edited success. Don’t get me wrong, I admire and take inspiration from successful people but I much prefer to look up to Twyla Tharp than a Facebook friend who participates in the same game of presenting edited chunks of their life. I want to exchange unedited experiences with my friends, be able to inspire, motivate and learn from each other and I think that one-to-one contact, Skype, phone call and even email provide a better platform for that.