Don’t read this article. Seriously. Just deactivate your social media accounts now and go outside.
Still here, you rebel? Okay then.
I made a huge fucking mistake.
After disconnecting from Facebook for a month, I gave into the temptation and logged back in. I was immediately assaulted by the death and destruction that is the News Feed, and the inevitable petty, volatile arguments amongst “friends.” It was a quick reminder of why I had logged off and deleted the app from my phone 30 days earlier.
About that. I had this idea that I was simply processing too much information, too many names and faces and news stories, from too many faraway places. And it was beginning to affect my mood. I found myself quick to anger, quick to judge, and often in a general state of annoyance. But after being offline for just a week or so, my mood began to shift. I also stayed clear of the everflowing stream of negativity and disaster spewed forth by the main stream media. And I felt happy. Not a skipping down the street with a perpetual smile superglued to my face kind of happy, mind you; but my overall mood had definitely improved. The world seemed like an okay place again.
And that’s when I fucked up and logged in.
The world was no longer okay. Police were shooting civilians. Civilians were shooting police. Everybody was being shot and killed, everywhere. Or so it seemed. I had to fight the urge to engage in online debate with total strangers and opinionated friends alike. Instead, I said “adios” to Facebook once again and deactivated.
One common theme that I often saw on Facebook (and Twitter) was that “people suck.” Every time there is another tragedy, you hear it. People suck. People are horrible. I don’t want to live here anymore.
But they are wrong. People are awesome. The vast majority of us just go about our daily lives not hurting one another, not shooting up schools or blowing up abortion clinics. People invented the internet. People invented sports cars, and medicine, and space stations, and all kinds of other awesome stuff. And while a few of us with misfiring brains occasionally inflict violence upon our fellow humans, most of us are cool.
I’d like to now clarify that I’m not being flippant or dismissive of this latest round of violence. It’s horrible. It always is. And if you or a loved one was directly affected, then yes, I know that the world (and the humans who inhabit it) doesn’t seem so awesome right now. My heart truly goes out to you.
But the vast majority of us are being negatively impacted way more than we should be. Armageddon has not arrived. We don’t have a violence problem, at least not one as big as you may think. What we have is a numbers problem. Or more accurately, an over-connectivity problem. Our brains didn’t evolve to process this much data from this many sources.
In his 2009 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, cognitive scientist and psychologist Steven Pinker makes a convincing argument that violence in the world has declined in both the long run and the short. I won’t give you the entire synopsis, but he basically argues that the decline in violence is enormous in magnitude, visible on both long and short time scales, and crosses many domains, including military conflict, homicide, genocide, torture, criminal justice, and treatment of children, homosexuals, animals, and racial and ethnic minorities. He stresses that “the decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue.” I suggest picking up a copy of this book and reading it yourself.
In interest of fairness, I should point out that Dr. Christopher Ryan makes an intriguing counterargument in defense of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, with which I tend to agree. I would also suggest his book Sex at Dawn, which covers this argument amongst a range of other interesting topics.
But regardless of how peaceful prehistoric peoples were compared to modern man, I think the argument can definitely be made that statistically, we live in the safest and least violent time since the invention of agriculture and cities. Again, it’s a numbers problem. Our tribe has grown too large, both in terms of actual overall population as well as our digital tribe. I don’t know what the fuck to do about the former, but I’d like to discuss the latter. Which brings us back around to Facebook and Twitter, and to other social media. And to anthropologist Robin Dunbar.
You’ve probably heard of Dunbar’s Number, which is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom we can form social relationships. Dunbar set that number at 148. He argues that “this limit is a direct function of neocortex size, and this in turn limits group size where stable interpersonal relationships can be maintained.” Dunbar says his number “refers to those people with whom you have a personalized relationship, one that is reciprocal and based around general obligations of trust and reciprocity.”
I’ve read that the average Facebook user has 130 “friends,” which would obviously fall within Dunbar’s suggested number. But when you take into account the friends of friends who comment on posts, strangers who engage in debate on public pages and in groups, and the number of familial relationships and friendships most people have outside of Facebook, this number goes way up. Add in separate “relationships” from Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat followers and friends, and the overall friend count increases even further. And it may be worth noting that while this number of 130 may be an accurate representation of all users, a quick scroll through my friend list showed most people I “know” have a number closer to 300, with some going as high as 5,000. We’re definitely way past Dunbar’s number of 148 by this point.
It’s just too many. We’ve become too connected. Every time we log on we’re absorbing the problems of the world. Even 30 years ago, when something happened in a town 1,000 miles from us, we would never hear about it. Now we hear about it instantly. I think this continuous barrage of information is negatively affecting us in a very real manner.
To be clear, I am certainly no Ted Kaczynski, nor am I some type of modern-day Luddite. I’m not going to go around smashing up computers with a sledgehammer. In fact, I love technology. And social media is, in many ways, an amazing tool. But like any tool, it can be misused. Or overused. Especially if we let the violence and negativity of the 24-hour newscycle, and the opinions of thousands of people we don’t even know, saturate our conscious and subconscious minds every day.
Because as I said, when I logged onto Facebook this past week, based upon the amount of chaos in the news feed, one might just assume that the sky was literally falling. But when I logged off and went outside this morning…no gunfire, no bombs, no gang rapes, no child abductions, and the sky was still firmly in place above my head. That’s not to say that this is everybody’s reality. I’ve been to Iraq. And Chicago. Some people are living a life that is much more dangerous than my own. I get that, and I feel for them. But carrying the weight of the world upon your shoulders everyday isn’t going to positively change their lives. It will, however, negatively impact yours.
At the top of this essay, I suggested that you deactivate your social media accounts and go outside. I didn’t mean permanently. And there isn’t any reason that you should listen to me in the first place. I’m probably completely full of shit anyway. But maybe try it for a while. A few weeks or a month. See how you feel, after the initial withdrawals wear off.
It’s horrifying and depressing every time a cop shoots an innocent or unarmed civilian. What happened in Dallas was equally horrifying. Same with Orlando last month, and every other incident that takes place every day across our nation. Senseless violence should always be condemned, and people should continue to fight for good and equality. But sometimes, because our tribe has become so large and our media too pervasive, it’s easy to forget that these events are caused by a very small minority, on a very small scale, when compared to overall population size.
Are we going to be able to avoid these horrible stories and events? Of course not. No matter how much you disconnect, they will still seep into your life on some level. But we need to take a deep, collective breath as a nation and count to ten. Instead of focusing on the negativity, try to focus – as Fred Rogers said – on the helpers. And do what we can to help solve our problems on a micro-level, in our own communities.
In conclusion, here’s some breaking news for you to focus on: Roughly 325 million other Americans didn’t shoot, or kill, or stab, or explode, or rape anybody today. Same as yesterday, and the day before. So, good job to you folks. Keep it up.
Author: Nick Allison is just a banged-up Army Infantry vet of the War in Iraq. He lives in Austin, TX with his wife, their children and two big, dumb, ugly mongrel dogs. Don’t take anything he says too seriously… he’s just trying to figure out this ride we call existence like everyone else. Also, he enjoys writing his own bio in third-person because it probably makes him feel more important.
Please feel free to send your love letters and hate mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
“But it grieves my heart, love. To see you tryin’ to be a part of a world that just don’t exist. It’s all just a dream, babe, a vacuum, a scheme, babe. That sucks you into feelin’ like this.”
~ Bob Dylan
“If you ever start taking things too seriously, just remember that we are talking monkeys on an organic spaceship flying through the universe.”
– Joe Rogan