Ambient Humanity – Notes on a Month Without Facebook

A month ago, I decided to take a mental health break from Facebook. Between the Cambridge Analytica mess, the cognitive pressures of always trying to juggle half a dozen ongoing conversations, and a creeping sense of “opinion exhaustion” (tired of my own and everyone else’s too), something had to give.

Alamere Falls / Coastal Trail
Winter rains pouring over the cliff into the sand at Alamere Falls, Pt. Reyes

The timing was good, and necessary. Over the past month, I’ve gone through one of the most intense work-stress periods of my life, so leftover mental energy was at a premium. When I did have time to unwind, I replaced the usual Facebook time with attention to platforms I knew were great (but very different) – Quora, Reddit, Twitter, and an endless supply of news and blogs aggregated via Feedly. All of them were interesting in their own ways, I was missing something crucial – what Kottke calls “ambient humanity“:

It is psychological gravity, not technical inertia, however, that is the greater force against the open web. Human beings are social animals and centralized social media like Twitter and Facebook provide a powerful sense of ambient humanity — the feeling that “others are here” — that is often missing when one writes on one’s own site. Facebook has a whole team of Ph.D.s in social psychology finding ways to increase that feeling of ambient humanity and thus increase your usage of their service.

Kind of hard to put my finger on why things feel so different outside of the Facebook bubble. Sure there are a zillion people having interesting conversations on other platforms, and I’m more than comfortable jumping in a pool with strangers, but the discussions are like drive-bys — I don’t feel invested the same way I do with people on Facebook. There’s something qualitatively different about talking things through with people you know or have known, compared to leaving one of a thousand comments on a topic with a bunch of random humans.

And there’s a level of civility on Facebook that I am not finding anywhere else. We are, for the most part, polite with people we actually know, and sadly, way too often rude with strangers.

Then there’s the news aggregation aspect. I found interesting content everywhere, of course, and wandered into great threads all over the place, but haven’t been able to shake the feeling that Facebook is not only great at social, it’s also among the best at news aggregation. Twitter is too noisy, even with tuning. Quora really isn’t about news. Reddit can be about news if you use it that way, but I find it much better for surfacing random stuff than for seeing what’s going on the world today/now. A dedicated RSS reader (I use Feedly) is right up there with Facebook, but feels “cold” in comparison.

But wasn’t this exactly what I was looking for — a break from the continual pressure to engage? If I so much as look at Facebook, I’ll post or comment. And when someone responds, I’m obliged to return and continue the conversation (you can’t just ignore a friend when they’re talking, right?). Outside of Facebook, that pressure vanishes. It’s exactly what I wanted, but it felt… empty somehow. The “ambient humanity” was missing.

There was a huge benefit to getting out of the Facebook bubble for a while — I felt and became a calmer version of myself, which allowed me to be more focused on the work stuff. There’s something about Facebook that seems to amplify outrage. “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Now more true than ever, and Facebook does make me feel more “in touch” than any other platform, but here’s the thing: Outrage is a drug. However justified your outrage may be, however much this messed-up world is pissing you off, this remains true: Start down the outrage path, and pretty soon you’re subconsciously looking for things to be outraged by, taking cues from your tribe on the daily outrages, dwelling on outrage, going to sleep and waking up with outrage.

Miles and Mardo, Frozen Shady Oak
Winter lake, Minnesota 2018

The paradox is that if you want to stay aware, you’re going to be outraged. But continuous outrage is a super-unhealthy state of being. Ditch Facebook for a while and tell me you don’t feel the difference. It’s lovely to check out of that hotel for a while.

I had intended to do a lot more blogging this month, but didn’t, because you know, work. I still want to. But paradoxically, I find myself longing for this month to be over so I can return to Facebook. Weird, right?

Just Wandering Away

About to post this to Facebook…:

I heard a pundit say the other day that people “are just wandering away” from Facebook. I feel that. The vibe has totally changed, and much of the old vitality is gone. Pre-Trump, Facebook was an enjoyable place for serious debate on an endless variety of topics. Post-Trump, FB became a place to rally and compare notes about the Decline and Fall of Western Civilization. But no one can stay in rage mode every day – we become exhausted. Now it feels like people are just kind of limping along, trying to keep their chins up against an inexplicable and endlessly infuriating backdrop.

Then there’s the whole Cambridge Analytica thing, and the ensuing #deletefacebook movement. If you didn’t catch tonight’s 60 Minutes interview with the developer of the app that scraped your data, must watch.

Three Facebook writers/friends I admire bigly have quit FB over the past month, leaving my stream all the poorer. Meanwhile, I find myself pining once again for pre-Facebook days, when it was all about blogs aggregated into RSS and FOAF networks. I’ve let my Twitter and Flickr accounts go somewhat stale. I don’t give Quora nearly the amount of time it deserves. Medium is an amazing resource. Reddit is a massive phenomenon of which I’ve barely scraped the surface. There are still tons of great blogs out there. And the stack of unread magazines and books on the coffee table keeps calling.

Coming to treat Facebook like it’s the internet itself, or like it somehow represents the “best of the internet” is a subtle trap, one that occurs silently, almost naturally, when you allow it suck you in. It’s too good at what it does.

I think a big part of the appeal of TV shows set in the past (“Call the Midwife,” “The Crown,” etc.) is that they let us spend an hour remembering how different the world was before the internet changed everything, for better and for worse. Lately, I’ve been leaning more toward “for the worse,” which is ironic given my chosen profession, but I can’t escape the conclusion that our culture’s seeming inability to distinguish truth from fiction, or to even care when our leaders use lies as a primary currency, or to think rationally as a collective, is largely due to the fact that anyone can now speak on the same playing field as trained professionals. What drew me to a career on the web – the revolutionary potential of an idealistic “democratization of voices” that could “give everyone their own printing press” turned out to be HORRIBLE for democracy.

Meanwhile, it feels like a third of the country views people who just want to maintain common-sense, good-for-humans policies as if they are “leftist radicals” (excuse me now, WHO are the radicals?). Today I did something truly radical: I picked up the damn phone (remember those?) and called an old friend. Sat in the afternoon sun and talked, just like in the olden days. It was truly great.

Lately, the thing that makes me happiest is not having online conversations – it’s rolling through pristine countryside on two wheels. It’s bike season, and the centuries are coming up. That’s where I feel most at peace, and I experience a deeper sense of meaning making a new friend on a bike than I do clicking Like 30 times a day. Late nights, lately I take more pleasure in writing code than in “scrolling the feed” (which is why I’ve been posting less).

This is all a long way of saying I feel increasingly depressed by it all. By the internet in part, but by Facebook’s supremacy *in particular*. I need a mental health break from this platform. Not unplugging entirely, but needing more diversity of inputs and of voices, and to do more analog reading. I’m returning to my old haunts for a spell, and looking for new ones. Just deleted FB from my phone (it only takes a second!), and will not visit FB/web for one month (though I’ll probably check in on this post for a day, and may make exceptions for a couple of big events coming up).

I know it’s going to be tough — for all of its problems, Facebook is an incredible platform. The technology is good, all my friends are here, and it serves important functions for organizing events and interest groups. This will be tough.

For updates this month, see blog.birdhouse.org and twitter.com/shacker . Come May 21, I’ll re-evaluate.

Much love,
./s

Announcing django-todo 2.0

django-todo is a pluggable, multi-user, multi-group, multi-list todo and ticketing system – a reusable app designed to be dropped into any existing Django project. Users can create tasks for themselves or for others, or create ”assigned tasks” that will be filed into a specific list (public tickets).

That was the original project description, and it hasn’t changed in 10+ years.

When I first created django-todo, it was a simple “let’s learn Django” project I gave to myself. I open sourced it, it’s been relatively successful, and the project has received numerous contributions over the years (grateful!). When I heard that it wasn’t compatible with Django 2.0, I looked back on that old code and realized it was time for a major refactor/upgrade. I’ve been working on the update for the past couple of months (evenings only).

Virtually every module and template has been refactored, much more in line with current best practices. The update started small, but by the end, I had made 75 commits and written the first suite of working tests (finally!). And I adopted Bootstrap as the default layout engine. And finally got around to creating a live demo site for the project.

django-todo 2.0 requires Django 2.0 and Python 3.x – no apologies. Unfortunately, this is a backwards-incompatible update (you’ll need to migrate old data manually, if you have any).

Hope it’s useful to a few teams or individuals out there. Contributions still very much welcome.

ALL YOUR FRIENDS ARE HERE

Ello was founded as a social network devoted to never selling or sharing your data. Diaspora was founded as a social network devoted to decentralization so no one could “own” your data. Google Plus offered a better experience than Facebook in dozens of ways. There have been heaps of Facebook alternatives over the years, and they’re all virtual ghost towns. Why can’t any of them succeed? Because Facebook has one feature no one else can replicate: ALL OF YOUR FRIENDS ARE HERE. Now, with many of us fed up and looking for alternatives, I’m asking: How can we break FB’s monopoly on ALL YOUR FRIENDS ARE HERE? Until we do, the number of people who truly leave the platform will be close to zero.

Space Oddity

Easy to laugh this off or to get pizzy about space junk, but cannot underestimate the significance of what happened today – humans launched a Tesla into space blasting Bowie on infinite repeat, using a rocket many times larger than anything we’ve launched for decades, for a fraction the cost of what NASA launches cost, *and* brought two out of three of its booster rockets back for a perfect (and simultaneous!) landing, ready for re-use. And we got a view from the Tesla-in-space streamed live on YouTube as it all went down. Humans are awesome, and Mars just got a whole lot closer.

Great pics in the Guardian coverage.

Alexa, Shut Up!

Listening to a mother talking about how her 11-yr-old daughter was rude to Amazon Alexa, yelling “Shut up!” at it. Mother admonished her for being rude. Child: “Gosh mom, it’s just a robot, it’s not like it’s an AI or something.” In other words, child makes clear distinction that AI has “real” emotions and that we shouldn’t hurt its feelings, while a simple robot does not. Amazing times.

Año Nuevo – Elephant Seals, Costanoa

Spent a couple of days off the grid at Año Nuevo state park with families. The first evening, Amy and I found ourselves trudging across 1/2 mile of dunes to meet the sun just as it kissed the horizon of the sea. With a light haze blowing through the sand and tall grasses, scenery was mystical and perfect. Elephant Seals unfortunately weren’t very active when we were there – just sunbathing blobs, but neat to see anyway. Wrapped up with a hike in the foothills beneath Big Basin. Recharged!

Costanoa Sunset Beach Hike

Costanoa Sunset Beach Hike

Steve Bollman Pescadero

Elephant Seals @ Año Nuevo

Lots more in this Flickr set