Of late, Kon-Maring my Facebook feed is the best thing that I have done for myself. As clichéd as this complaint sounds, I was being inundated with life-changing updates from people Facebook has bestowed celebrity status upon, updates I did not care to know about. I tried a couple of approaches of weeding these updates out, but like weeds, they kept growing and coming back, haunting me and showing me how meaningless and devoid of color my life was. Finally, I found my way out of this maze from the public propaganda of private matters.
Why was this important?
Unwanted information on Facebook is of two kinds.
I. Fast poison: News of violence, death, rape, murder, and the millions of opinions surrounding it from people who have no stake in it. Terrorism in Kashmir. Irom Sharmila Chanu’s fasting and the AFSPA. The outrage caused by Trump. Gun violence in the US. Terrorism in Europe. And the millions of discussions surrounding it that at the core level spark nothing more useful than anger, fear, sadness, and apathy.
Newspapers were meant to inform people. Now with Facebook, everyone had a voice, and everyone wanted to talk about what they thought of what they read. Looks like it doesn’t take much to outrage people either. Why is everyone looking for the recent Olympic medalist’s caste? Why are Indians not winning medals at the Olympics to begin with? My response would be why do you care about people looking at castes? Or why are you outraged by India’s Olympic performance when chances are high that you have never trained for one yourself? Why do you have to take every piece of information you read like a pile of shit and fling it around for others to smell on Facebook? Why do you need to engage with everything?
Friendships are put to test under the weight of political stances, armchair activism and people’s inability to respect differing or alternative opinions. In short, these things poison you fast.
II. Slow poison: Things I do not really need to know about. What you ate. What color lipstick you wore. How frequently your baby pooped. How Twinkle Khanna lashed out on Naseeruddin Shah and Karan Johar followed suit. What Shobha De said about India’s performance in the Olympics. Motherhood dare. Black and white challenge. Sari and ghagra challenge. How much shit I can spread around challenge. People engage. People bicker and argue. And people keep stoking the fire.
I was beginning to feel a growing sense of claustrophobia in this virtual space. Earlier this month, I turned 35, and now see more grey hair on my head than I have ever seen before. I am probably past half my time here, and still have so many things to experience. Is this what I am meant to read every morning? The brain-excreta of 900-odd people I had accrued as “friends” at some point? I have the right to shut-out information, just like I have the right to seek-out information. My wall was beginning to look like a battleground, and sometimes, an excreta-ground. Everyone had opinions. No matter how neutral I tried to keep it, everyone wanted to tell me how they disagree. I knew that it was time for me to disengage. My brain has a limited ability to soak up information, and I was done with this he-said-she-said and they-did-they-didn’t spatter of words. I wanted to read things that are more calming, creative, and uplifting.
What I was doing wrong?
I disappeared from Facebook once in a while, but kept coming back as it felt lonely. It’s a lot like dieting to lose weight. If you suddenly give up on food, you will only come back to binge before you know. Then, I started to weed out people. People I did not know. People I have never met. People I am not likely to meet. People I have not spoken in five years or so. But that only took me so far, bringing down the number close to 800.
Then, I started selectively “unfollowing” people whose updates were toxic. I recognized strange patterns in people’s behavior. Some only posted close up images of the makeup they wore. Some only shared news of shooting and violence. Some only spoke in numbers. Published five papers in six months. Ate nine kinds of starters in two hours. Traveling my seventeenth country. Visiting the ninth national park. Giving my eighth talk this year. Wearing my twenty fifth sari. Did ninety pushups at the gym today (hashtag loveyourbody). This quantification of achievements was perhaps coming from a place of lower self-esteem, where one constantly needed to validate one’s awesome life in front of an audience. I am guilty of doing the same at some point too. The yearly memories on Facebook make me cringe when I look back at what I used to write three or four years ago. Looking at others doing it made it more obvious. I unfollowed a 100-odd people who wrote the most toxic posts. However, it still wasn’t making me feel better.
What I did right?
One day, I woke up and knew exactly what I was doing wrong. I finally found the right way of culling through the clutter. Instead of unfollowing people who wrote toxic things and keeping the rest, I decided to do just the opposite. I unfollowed everyone by default, only keeping those whose posts I really cared about, posts that "sparked joy" like Marie Kondo writes in her book. Instead of making this a process of elimination, I made it a process of selection. And that changed everything. I started to unfollow people unapologetically, even my close friends, and soon, more than 90% of the people were gone. But I did not stop at that. I “unliked” most photography pages, food blog websites, and other random local community pages like “Durga Puja in the USA”, “Tulip festival in Seattle” and “Bengalis abroad.” Now, I only get updates from some 50-odd people I really care about, and a handful of other websites such as the HONY, NPR, Brain Pickings, TED, and Upworthy. Individually unfollowing some 750 people was hard, but a little bit of Googling helped. Looks like Facebook has a feature where you can mass unfollow people.
How did that change things?
Now, I don’t have to start my day scrolling through anniversary pictures, birthday cake recipes, silly kid videos, and restaurant and movie check-ins. What I read doesn’t elevate my blood pressure. I don’t have to be a shuttlecock in heated arguments and discussions. Power to you for hiking Peru on your wedding anniversary and taking 4,000 odd pictures, but I don’t have to be forced into looking at them now when I have a paper deadline in two days. It doesn’t mean I do not care for you or do not wish you well. It just means that I choose not to know every little detail going on in your life.
Since we act as mirrors to the society around us, my own posting on Facebook has also gone down. I don’t feel a compelling need to share everything I read that inspires me. I go to bed on time and get my full 7-8 hours of sleep (there is only so much scrolling one can do). I am reading more books. I am watching more interesting videos and TED talks. I am reading more research papers on my areas of interest. I am beginning to think of new research ideas. I am looking for research collaborations in Asia. I have a lot to fill up my time meaningfully and even if I did not, I do not have to be a slave to your colorful and scintillating updates that sometimes borders around narcissistic posts of your travels or your child winning a handwriting competition. I can always follow you back someday or look you up if I feel the need to. But if you cannot keep me engaged in a good way, I do not need to engage in your life’s drama anymore.
Adopting the process of mass-unfollowing changed what I do with my time. Let me know if you have other time-tested creative ideas of disengaging from things that surround you but do not matter.