As Facebook approaches its tenth birthday next week (wow!), I’m starting to see more posts reflecting on the way it has changed our mediated cultural landscape. In my news feed today I came across an app from Time magazine that tells you how much time you have “wasted” on Facebook since you first joined the site. Since Facebook doesn’t publicize how often a user logs on, the app calculates the total number of posts you have made and estimates the amount of time. I’m curious if this accounts for “likes”, “messages” “tags” or just comments and posts. I’m also assuming this doesn’t account for “lurking” on the site. After calculating your data it pops out a number for you. See, here’s mine.
The app itself is kind of neat, however what bothers me is the assumption that those 38 days (hey, that’s only 1.1.% of my approximately 3257 days on Facebook) are considered time I have wasted. Has some of it been wasted time? Sure. Has it at time distracted me from other things I should have been doing? Of course. Would I say the majority of it has been wasted time though? Nope! Not at all and here’s why.
I get really tired of hearing people complain that social media are “boring” or “useless” or “annoying” etc. etc. Social media don’t generate content, period. Therefore if the platforms are “boring” to you, then perhaps your network is boring. Now, yes the interface certainly contextualizes and influences our interactions and experiences. There have been changes within the site that have led to more or less engaging interactions and content. There are times that the push notifications become too much, so I turn them off!. Or there are people who post repetitive, controversial, boring, depressing, annoying, content, so I hide or delete them!. However, overall my Facebook feed is a valuable source for sociality and information for me.
Yes, there’s the obvious reasons why it’s valuable, “Facebook helps us stay in touch and connect us to people we don’t see all the time!” That’s great, but if that’s all Facebook offered me I probably wouldn’t get on it very much. No offense to those people it’s reconnected me with, but for the most part I’m not interested in their daily lives, and if I am, I reach out to them in other ways besides Facebook.
For me, Facebook is a network and a community. I have been exposed to so many different opinions, perspectives, and experiences that transcend my day-to-day interactions. My network has diversified my understandings, helped me develop empathy for others’ experiences and subjectivities, and provided me with tools to articulate many different worldviews. I have found a supportive feminist community that has helped me navigate the complexities of grad school and academia. I have access to data, stories, and resources that I incorporate into my classroom every semester. But none of this is by accident. I have spent time deliberately creating and maintaining a robust network of friends, family, scholars, groups, and acquaintances whom positively contribute to my Facebook experience. When certain people or posts consistently bother me or devalue my experience, I have no problem hiding them or deleting them (depending on the relationship). Likewise, there are people with whom I have little to no personal connection (people I met once at a conference, childhood “friends” I haven’t seen in 20 years, etc.) who share interesting and valuable stories, articles, and perspectives that I look forward to reading when I get on Facebook.
Likewise, thinking about the value of my network and communities, I strive to add value through the things I share online. Over time I have begun to stray away from boring updates that don’t allow me to a) interact with others and foster sociality or b) share information that I think might be informative or useful to certain networks within my Facebook. That said, I do sometimes post the “mundane” but I try to make it witty or comical because it’s fun and playful and there’s value in that. I have had many people (close friends and barely acquaintances) thank me for articles or perspectives that I post on Facebook. That makes me feel good, not in a “go me!” sort of way, but to know that others are learning or thinking about things differently because of something I shared. I also know that those same posts might upset or offend others in my network (hence one of the complexities of Facebook is that it collapses many different identities and networks), as such I strive to tow the line and post things that I feel take a balanced and informed approach. (and if someone gets offended, well they can always delete me from their network). I try to be deliberately mindful of my own use and attempt to add value to others’ through my interactions – be it the mundane (e.g. sharing a recipe) or the more complex (e.g. articles about feminist Christians such as myself) – I do it with certain audiences in mind. .
Don’t get me wrong, I know some of this time has been wasted. Buuuuuut, even that I call into question. If I get on there and read a silly joke or laugh at a goofy meme, or take a personality quiz, is that necessarily “wasted” time? Or is it needed comical relief in my otherwise stressful day? There’s value in “play” (ask any parent, teacher, or child psychologist) and to a certain extent I think a lot of what we do on Facebook is “play” and I don’t consider that time wasted. That doesn’t mean getting on Facebook is always the best decision or the most productive, but that’s true of anything – watching TV, reading a book, listening to music, cooking an elaborate meal, cleaning the house, walking the dog, etc. etc. etc. We have to actively manage distractions and be conscientious and mindful of our habits (online and offline), But for me, my Facebook experiences add value to my professional and personal life because that is how I choose to use it and because I have deliberately fostered those networks and communities.
Lastly, please don’t mishear me – I’m not saying we shouldn’t be critical of the platforms and technologies (we absolutely should, I teach 3 classes about it!). I’m not saying we shouldn’t take time to reflect upon our own habits and tendencies (we must!), all I’m saying is it bothers me when people assume time spent on social media is “wasted” and furthermore, assume that their experiences (perhaps boring and wasted) are the same as others’ experiences (perhaps valuable and informative).
For more about “mindful use” I highly recommend Howard Rheingold’s latest book NetSmart: How to Thrive Online. I use it in my undergrad class and it resonates well with understanding today’s mediated culture.