Tag: facebook

The Impact of the Attention Economy

person holding iphone showing social networks folder

—and New Media on Individual And Societal Well-Being

I’m something of a computer person in that I’ve been enthusiastic about the possibilities computers offer from a very early age, but I’m also a computer person in the sense that I am engaged with a personal computing device—whether that’s my phone, tablet, or laptop,—a majority of the time. So are the people I see around me. Spending a lot of time as a computer could mean that I, like Scout, am out there learning about the world, accomplishing my goals, and expressing myself creatively,—and sometimes that does happen,—but more often than not, I find myself looking up from one of my displays after scrolling for an indeterminable length of time and thinking, “What am I doing? Why am I doing this? How long was I out? What the hell just happened?”

As it turns out, I am not alone. Over the past few decades, the attention economy has taken on a more prominent role in our society—both in the marketplace of ideas and the literal economic marketplace—and its role has grown exponentially in the past five years with the increasing ubiquity of smartphones. Today, 79% of smartphone owners check their device within fifteen minutes of waking up, and the average individual checks their device more than one hundred fifty times per day. Depending on the day and how many notifications I receive, I may be over or under that target, but generally my usage reflects these statistics.

In an effort to better understand my behavior, where it went off track, and how to regain control of it, I wanted to learn more about the attention economy’s influence on how I spend my time and—more importantly—my attention.

In this post, I’m going to share my findings as well as some tools to both evaluate your own place in the attention economy and adjust your engagement with it if you don’t like the effect it’s having on you. If you read science, I’m drawing heavily from data and arguments presented in this paper.

The Attention Economy and New Media

The attention economy consists of two specific transactions: Consumers like me give New Media their literal attention in exchange for a service (most notably a social media service) and New Media developers auction consumer attention to advertisers. This creates a symbiotic relationship between the three (the consumer, the developers, and the advertisers) that ought to be mutually beneficial. Any economy can have both harmful and beneficial effects, and a model proposed by philosopher Debra Satz suggests that markets are beneficial when they allow consumers to act autonomously and voluntarily but might be toxic to human values depending on their harmful effects and their disrespect to personal agency.

But let’s take a baby step back. What does “new media” even mean? It sounds like an instantly dated term that refers to whatever newfangled technology the young whipper-snappers of the day are cooking up, but in this specific context, we mean media that can absorb and respond to information about its consumers in real time, e.g. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and TikTok—even local apps like Google News or Apple News.

The most engaging and demonstrative examples of new media are social networking sites, defined by three criteria:

  • They allow consumers to create a semi-public profile within a bounded system.
  • They allow consumers to specify other individuals with whom they share a connection (however tenuous).
  • They allow consumers to view the profiles and connections made by others within the system.

For any advertisement-funded new media platform to be successful, whether it’s an app or a website, it needs to be able to capture and sustain its consumers’ attention for as long as possible. It’s that focused attention that the developers of new media are selling to advertising, and the data they collect about our consumption habits informs the advertising that is presented to us in a tidy little feedback loop. If an app or site fails to sustain our attention, advertising revenue peters out accordingly and natural selection takes care of the rest.

I like to consider myself to be a smart, rational, composed individual, so when I think about how easy it is for me to fall into a newsfeed or a page loaded with thumbnails for recommended videos, it makes me wonder—how are these new media so effective at getting me to pay attention to them? I want to believe it’s because they’re genuinely interesting—and important—but the truth may be simpler and more disconcerting.

The Hook Cycle

The same intelligence behind the system that defeated the human world champion at the game Go is sitting on the other side of your screen and showing you videos it thinks will keep you using YouTube for as long as possible.

— James Williams, Stand out of our Light, Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy

Modern apps and websites are developed using evidence-based tactics to manufacture habits that will keep consumers a reliable source of attention revenue. Manufacturing habits is essential to the survival of new media in the attention economy—without predictable revenue and growth, few businesses can survive. There are four key components to manufacturing a habit within a consumer, as Nir Eyal outlines in his book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products:

1. Attract the consumer’s attention .

This is easy. Push notifications can compel us to look at our devices at a moment’s notice, and good-old fashioned ads are notorious for giving us ideas for things to search, click on, watch, or read. The goal with attracting attention is to simply start the process of sustaining that attention and optimizing the advertising engine based on the consumer’s behavior.

2. Give them an anticipatory action to do in response.

Whether this is reviewing the day’s headlines, catching up with a newsfeed, checking messages, or simply refreshing the page, this action should be something that the consumer associates with potential value. Maybe we want up-to-date information about the world around us, find out what our friends and relatives are doing, or talk to someone special—as long as we anticipate something of value from the action, we’re emotionally invested in the outcome.

3. Reward that anticipatory reaction with something that is sometimes highly valuable but oftentimes just mundane.

If there was always something of value on the other side of that anticipatory action, we might not repeat the action. Our desire would be sated. But if something is intermittently rewarding—say once out of every hundred times we pull a lever we get a hundred bucks—we’ll keep chugging along through the misses anticipating that big payout. Slot machines were designed with the same principles of variable ratio rewards. Sometimes a notification is a message from someone we really care about, sending our brain soaring with dopamine and serotonin, sometimes it’s just someone in our friends list liking something someone in their friends list did—in which case we pull the lever and refresh the feed.

4. Prompt the user to contribute something to the product.

Interaction is essential for the computers studying our behavior to better engage and sustain our attention. When we contribute something by sharing a link, liking a post, or retweeting something, we’re giving the new media service we’re engaged in something to attract our attention with in the future. Maybe someone likes the link we shared, or the website we gave our email address to sends us a welcome letter—maybe someone whose opinion of us really matters to us just commented on something we did—any contribution is an easy way to knock out Step One and kick-start the Hook Cycle all over again.

Introducing variability does create a focused state, which suppresses the areas of the brain associated with judgement and reason while activating the parts associated with wanting and desire.

— Nir Ayal, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

Despite deleting my Facebook account and limiting my interaction with other social media platforms, I nevertheless see all four of these behaviors in my daily computer use. I look at Instagram and LinkedIn to see what people I know in real life are doing with themselves, and if I see something that interests me, I’m likely to like, comment, or otherwise share my interest with those individuals. If you’ve read my article on Facebook and Social Pain, you know all about this self-perpetuating cycle of engagement.

Even when people I know aren’t involved, such as with Reddit or Apple News, I see the same behavior. I open the app, pull down to refresh, and hope for something interesting. If I don’t see anything that interests me, I am undeterred—surely scrolling down or pulling to refresh again will bring a little nugget of something funny or insightful that would make me glad I looked. If I find something particularly interesting, you can bet I’m sharing it with someone I know (or with strangers on the internet via Twitter or this very weblog) and that, in turn, opens the possibility that they’ll engage with me about it. Step Four leads back to Step One.

What’s the Harm?

Satz proposes a model for evaluating the relative harms and benefits of the attention economy, and she describes a market as harmful when it is “toxic to important human values”. I value my reasoning faculty, my ability to judge right from wrong and truth from fiction, but that is only the tip of the iceberg of real human values that are infringed upon by this function of the attention economy. The attention economy is toxic to essential human values in that it harms consumers as individuals and society as a whole while engendering and exploiting weakened cognitive agency and vulnerability.

On the Individual

New media use contributes to feelings of loneliness, anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide. Historical spikes in these mental health outcomes coincide with the widespread adoption of smartphones. In one study, participants quit Facebook for a week and reported increases in life satisfaction, positive emotions, satisfaction with their social lives, and ability to concentrate, as well as a decrease in negative emotions and feelings of stress. While Facebook use predicted a decline in how study participants felt moment-to-moment and how they felt about their life satisfaction, a decline in those feelings did not predict Facebook use.

Remember, on average, we check our devices more than one hundred fifty times per day. As of 2015, 97% of 12-graders were using social media sites, and that’s also the demographic that saw the greatest increase in mental health problems. In 2016, 95% of college students surveyed reported that they felt depressed.

For adults, engagement with new media is becoming increasingly mandatory. Business is increasingly conducted on social networking platforms and social media sites, internally and externally. Important social events are increasingly organized on social networking platforms and social media sites, the neglect of which leads to the excruciating social pain of feeling excluded, as I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog.

On Society at Large

New media also undermines democracy because democracy requires individual citizens to see and engage respectfully with each other’s points of view. The way new media functions contributes to polarization, balkanization (dividing a group into smaller, more mutually hostile groups), and extremism, by facilitating the creation and strength of fringe communities whose individuals would otherwise be unlikely to encounter one another. Niche information channels are engines for polarization. When isolated groups of like-minded individuals are asked to discuss an issue, they invariably leave the discussion holding more extreme views than when they entered. This is especially prevalent with the growth of radical personalization in new media that has made echo chambers and filter bubbles almost impossible to escape.

YouTube is something that looks like reality, but it is distorted to make you spend more time online…The recommendation algorithm is not optimizing for what is truthful, or balanced, or healthy for democracy…Watch time was the priority…Everything else was considered a distraction.

— Guillaume Chaslot, as quoted by Paul Lewis, “Fiction is outperforming reality”: How YouTube’s algorithm distorts truth

Like old-fashioned talk radio, these niche information channels are reactive, ideologically selective, highly engaging, and internally intertextual. Rather than reporting the news, they are often reacting to it, and they are reacting with a specific pre-determined ideological bent. Niche information channels use highly engaging, emotionally-charged rhetoric that can stimulate positive or negative emotions and that is heavily dependent on the existing concepts and values of the consumer base to which it panders.

Unlike talk radio, new media niche information channels are much more difficult to escape. Sites and applications often send alerts to us on our smartphones to actively solicit interest when the we’re not seeking content, then their inter- and intra-connectedness communicate our consumption patterns to better inform their solicitations. New media sites and applications offer high levels of interactivity and engagement to consumers, especially when it comes to social media. Social media sites are rife with emotionally-charged exchanges that are difficult to disengage from because they involve consumers’ ideas and identity.

These vulnerabilities do not depend on a lack of individual understanding. You can completely understand this mechanism and still fall prey to it. Even innocuous apps implement Hook Cycle behavior which conditions our response to other “Hook Cycles,” further exploiting our behavioral and cognitive biases. Recognizing the different steps of the cycle is the gateway to evaluating our relationship to these new media, but it’s hard to self-evaluate whether that relationship is healthy or not.

Here’s a short list of yes-or-no questions to help you get a feel for your current digital boundaries. Remember that “new media” might refer to social networking services such as Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, as well as multimedia services like News, YouTube, Netflix, or TikTok.


  1. Do you spend more time using new media apps or services than you used to?
  2. Have you skipped or ignored activities because you were engaged with some form of new media?
  3. Has your smartphone or computer use interfered with any of your relationships, e.g. has anyone asked you to put the phone away to have a conversation or remarked that you’re “always on it”?
  4. Have you experienced increases in any of the negative mental health outcomes we discussed that might be attributable to new media use, e.g. heightened anxiety or depression as a result of regularly reading bad news? or Have you experienced any physical problems related to use, like repetitive strain, soreness, or fatigue from sitting at your desk or staring at a screen?
  5. Do you ever check your smartphone while driving when you aren’t expecting any urgent communication?
  6. Do you ever feel like you opened an app or website on instinct without a specific purpose in mind?
  7. Do you lose track of time while engaging with new media?
  8. Do you feel isolated, disconnected, and/or uncomfortably uninformed when your phone and other internet-enabled devices are elsewhere?
  9. Has new media use kept you from getting your work done?
  10. Have you made repeated attempts to reduce or discontinue your consumption of new media?
  11. When friends or family members ask how much new media you consume, are you able to answer truthfully, i.e. do you know how much time you spend on new media and is the amount something you’re comfortable sharing?


My devices are all connected through my iCloud account, and it gives me a “Screen Time” report so I can see how much time I’m using each of my devices, and what I’m doing with them. After spending some time paying attention to my habits and reviewing my Screen Time data, I can honestly say I’m personally a “yes” for about seven or eight of these. My most recent report, which prompted this blog post, showed that I was spending more time on Reddit, YouTube, Instagram, and LinkedIn than I was on my writing—which, as you know from my current projects list, is how I would prefer to spend my time.

While there’s no DSM-V criteria for new media dependence (the closest related disorder is internet gaming disorder,) that may be because the DSM-V was published in 2013—just two years after smartphones started to become prevalent and before any reputable research was available about their effects. I am not a doctor or specialist, so I am not qualified to diagnose or treat any disorders—I created the questions above from the DSM-V screening criteria for substance use disorders and internet gaming disorder. If this were about alcohol, gambling, or gaming, answering “yes” to two or three criteria would suggest a mild case of dependence. Since I answered “yes” to seven or more (no one has explicitly asked me about my new media consumption, so my answer to question eleven is indeterminate,) my dependence on new media could be classified as “severe”. Everything in between would be “moderate” and fewer than two “yes” answers is below the threshold for diagnosis.

I hope you answered two or fewer in the affirmative, dear reader, because this is an uncomfortable truth for me to reconcile with my understanding of myself. Remember, I consider myself a smart, rational, composed individual—how could I be addicted to something so silly as YouTube or Reddit?

One of the questions I answered “yes” to was “4. Have you experienced increases in any of the negative mental health outcomes we discussed that might be attributable to new media use?” If you read my post on Facebook and social pain, you know my personal history with feelings of worthlessness in conjunction with my Facebook use, and that was the primary reason I stopped using Facebook. But I still feel a sense of impending doom or a flash of righteous indignation reading headlines from the news, I still feel left out of the interpersonal exchanges I see in my timelines, I (obviously) still feel invalidated enough that I’m willing to execute Step Four of the Hook Cycle just so you can read this thing that I wrote and maybe all of this self-discovery won’t be for nothing. The data would suggest that there is a causal relationship between my new media consumption and my personal well-being, my relationship with the communities around me, and even my philosophical and political ideology.

“You are wise and powerful. Will you not take the Ring?”

“No!” cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. “With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly.” His eyes flashed and his face was lit as by a fire within. “Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great, for my strength. I shall have such need of it. Great perils lie before me.”

— J.R.R. Tolkein, The Fellowship of the Ring

Just as many in Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings series demonstrated, everyone believes themselves to have the unique constitution necessary to resist the temptation of wielding the Ring, but the Ring does not share our values. In the case of the attention economy, its guiding principle is to commodify human attention, human thought, and render a profit from it—like pulling cash out of thin air. The reasons I tell myself I keep using new media—to stay informed, to kill some time, to have a laugh, to connect with people,—are all things I wish I was getting from it (except for killing time, I really should get back into meditating,) but the truth is that I’m not. If I was, maybe the negative effects would be worth it, but the simultaneous erosion of democracy and increase in suicidality are steep costs for me to occasionally see a picture of a cute cat.

I also answered “yes” to “10. Have you made repeated attempts to reduce or discontinue your consumption of new media?” and, repeatedly, I have ended up back on the sites and apps that I know only keep me from my goals. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from quitting smoking the last nine or ten times, it’s that you only fail to quit if you stop trying to quit. So here’s what I’m doing to mitigate the noxious effects of the attention economy on my own life. (A lot of this will also be familiar if you read my post on Facebook and social pain already.)

Techniques for Mitigating the Noxious Effects of the Attention Economy

1. Identify Habits and Set Boundaries

This is what my Screen Time looks like. Forty-two hours per week of device use, split between things I want to do and things I know I shouldn’t do. The first step to changing a problematic behavior is to become aware of the behavior, and its severity. This information, combined with my own answers to the makeshift internet dependence screener above, tells me that I am using my electronic devices for new media way more than I want to.

Screen Time lets me set daily time limits for specific apps and websites, and entire categories of apps and websites. Based on my usage (and my history with trying to curb it,) these are the limits I’m imposing:

One cumulative hour a day for all the stuff I know is wasting my time ought to reduce my consumption to seven hours per week, less than half of what it is right now. This technique might be even more effective if I specifically scheduled the times I would use these new media services, or if I passcode-protected the limit and asked my wife to set the passcode so I couldn’t bypass it, but I won’t know if those measures are necessary for a couple more weeks.

2. Change Up the Routine

Screen Time does a fine job of reporting cumulative time spent on new media, but I also need to become cognizant of when I’m reaching for my phone. When I was quitting smoking, the task was to identify associative triggers, things like getting a cup of coffee, taking a break at work, or driving, that would prompt me to light up a cigarette. This is the same sort of deal.

If I can identify when I’m caving to the craving, I can substitute other, more healthy activities instead to manufacture my own habits. I already know I want to write and meditate more, so maybe I’ll start there. When I feel like scrolling Reddit, I’ll meditate for five minutes instead. Afterwards, I’ll brainstorm a list of five more things to do instead of consume new media.

Turning off notifications for everything but emergency communication is a great way to get a sense for when I’m picking up my devices of my own accord—with intent—and when I may have just been falling for Step One of the hook cycle. There are plenty of things I love doing with my devices (have I told you about Obsidian?) that I see no reason to curb.

3. Participate in Other Forms of Socializing

This will both be the easiest and hardest technique to implement, given that it’s January, 2022, at the time of this writing, and the world is still enduring the COVID-19 pandemic. But I have a wife and son whom I adore, and if I’m losing time with them to YouTube, I know how to immediately rectify that situation.

There is some evidence that older adults experience less loneliness and a higher degree of satisfaction with their social role when using social media because it allows them to augment their communication with their naturally shrinking social networks, but I’m not ready to consider myself an “older adult,” so I’m going to stick to directly messaging people with whom I have a personal history, preferring phone calls and handwritten letters over any other form of communication. (That’s an invitation, friends. If we know each other, call and we’ll chat.)

4. Get Educated about Other Ways to Overcome New Media Dependence

A lot of research went into this post, and I intend to read even more on the subject. Prior to writing this, my reading focused primarily on understanding the problem, so my reading list includes resources for managing and overcoming dependence—and maybe working to improve the digital society in which we all live.

These are the places I’ll start reading, and I’m open to any other suggestions to increase my understanding of this complicated subject:

And please feel free to feel conflicted about whether or not to use any of the buttons below to start up someone else’s Hook Cycle.

Collecting Ghosts

When I was in high school, I would try to punish people who crossed me by “excommunicating” them. Not from the Church—I lacked the papal authority for that—but from myself. I would refuse to talk to the individual either in person or online, ignore them whenever they tried to get my attention, and generally treat them as if they didn’t exist.

Now, we call this practice “ghosting”. While all my attempts at excommunication were ultimately unsuccessful (and, in retrospect, rather desperate and transparent pleas for attention,) I have been ghosted enough times as an adult that I have felt the sting of what I was trying to inflict as a teenager. Sometimes it doesn’t bother me so much because I expect it or at least accept it as a possible risk—such as in online dating—but other times it cuts so deep that I end up nursing the wound for years. What’s the difference?

Ghosts who are former (or prospective) romantic partners are the easiest for me to wrap my head around. When I was using an online dating service called OKCupid, I had made a connection with a woman named Kari. We exchanged messages, a few photos, and eventually set a date to meet in person—only she called it off at the last minute and I never heard from her again.

Ghosting makes sense to me in the semi-anonymous world of online dating as a means of establishing boundaries. She didn’t know me, I didn’t know her, our social circles didn’t intersect in the slightest, and so it was somewhat expected that she might suddenly decide to stop talking to me and that was okay. It didn’t hurt at all, I just thought it was a little rude because of how well we were hitting it off until she suddenly dropped the thread of conversation.

There are a lot of reasons to be suspicious of strangers on the internet. It is an investment of trust and vulnerability to allow someone you barely know to stay in touch with you. I can imagine any number of scenarios where a potential suitor is too obsessive or aggressive to keep in touch, and in those cases the simplest conversation is likely no conversation at all.

Kari was not my first ghost. My first romantic ghost was a woman named Dayna, whom I met on a business trip in California. She was from Long Island, New York, and I was from Alabama. Our company flew us there for a week of training at their corporate headquarters, and we hit it off suddenly and surprisingly—so much so that we started a long-distance relationship as soon as we were back in our home states.

Long-distance relationships are hard to manage, but we were able to sustain a level of interest, intimacy, and commitment nonetheless. We were getting along so well that we talked about closing the distance between us. There was a job opening in nearby Yonkers, New York, so I applied for it. While we waited to find out if the transfer was approved, Dayna and I planned a weekend trip to New York City for her birthday, to see if the spark we found in California would kindle a sustaining warmth.

Instead, we found more sparks. Dayna was strangely controlling over our time, resentful of the fact that I wanted to see the only person I knew in New York (my friend Drew) while I was there. This was despite her birthday party taking the entirety of one evening and being filled with tons of her friends, none of whom I knew and few of whom she was interested in introducing to me. It got so bad that at one point she and another dude were talking past me on a booth seat, making plans to go to a concert together.

Dayna broke up with me in Washington Square on her way to take the train back to Long Island. I got the call that my transfer application was accepted the same afternoon. I texted her the news that we had another chance to work on our relationship, but she wasn’t having it and I never heard from her again.

I don’t think I deserved that kind of ghosting, but I eventually understood where she was coming from. To her, I was just some guy she had a fling with and while it was fun as long as we were long distance, she was uncomfortable with how physically close I was getting and didn’t want to deal with the fallout of telling me distance wasn’t the reason she didn’t want to be together. I felt blindsided and tried to reach out to her a few times, but my best friend River always said that if you send three messages and get no reply, it’s time to move on.

On the other hand, I totally deserved to be ghosted by Bethany. Our relationship was tenuous from the start. She developed an interest in me while she was still living with her boyfriend at the time (who was just the nicest guy ever) and I was new enough to the poly-curious dating scene in Portland that I didn’t question it—I trusted her to manage her own interpersonal boundaries. Our brief romance was hot and fast, ending after an ideological disagreement resulted in a lengthy email exchange before she went to stay with her friend in Canada and I never heard from her again.

The fact that she took a romantic interest in me while she was living with her boyfriend meant she was volatile and unpredictable—which, incidentally, made the ghosting after our breakup seem more predictable, less hurtful. It hurt to be dumped, but the ghosting didn’t really bother me because we had just demonstrated via email that we couldn’t communicate effectively with each other.

In all three cases, the people ghosting me didn’t know me very well, and I think that was a big part of why I didn’t take it as personally as I did my other ghosts. When someone is unfamiliar and unpredictable, it can be scary to maintain contact with them because you don’t know how they might try to hurt you, emotionally or otherwise. It’s a precaution, a protective measure, a firm boundary that I have to respect.

It’s harder for me to wrap my head around the friends who have ghosted me, especially when we’ve known each other for years. Ghosting is saying, “From here on out, I’m dead to you,” and the first time that happened to me, it was fairly literal. I had a friend who was expecting to die for one reason or another, and he told me that he would have to cut off contact with me after a certain date as a protective measure for me—he wanted to avoid the appearance that I might have had any foreknowledge of his death.

As that date came and went on the calendar, I entered into a state of mourning for my friend, working through the stages of grief until I had eventually come to terms with it. He was a literal ghost, in the sense that I would never again be able to get in touch with him.

Except he came back. It is hard to adjust to the notion of someone being alive again after you thought they were dead for some time, especially when your primary correspondence is long-distance. He just showed up in my town, unexpectedly and all of a sudden. I had been acting under the assumption that he was dead for months, and it was shocking to have to rewrite my reality in such a way. He was dead—and then he wasn’t. In a way, he was haunting me, and that’s the only time ghosting feels more malicious than defensive.

The ghost that hurt me the most was when River, my best friend of fifteen years, ghosted me after an argument that wasn’t much worse or more personal than a lot of arguments we’ve had in the time that we’ve known each other. It was completely unexpected and it hurt so much.

Most of the time, I understand ghosting because it helps people feel safe, or it’s necessary for them to process the relationship and move on from it, but I also expect it more from people who know me less, people who don’t feel like they can ask me not to talk to them, or feel like I wouldn’t respect their request if they did. When my best friend ghosted me, it felt like a repudiation of the core of my being. He knew me better than anyone alive, yet he, too, felt he had no other recourse. This, in spite of the fact that he knew better than anyone the trauma I had associated with ghosting. The dying friend who ghosted me was a friend of his, too—and he did eventually die, becoming as literal a ghost as can be said to exist.

Whether my best friend was intentionally or accidentally trying to hurt me, the message I took away from his ghosting was that something was so rotten inside of me that it was worth the retraumatizing just to never have to hear from me again. I sent three unanswered messages and took the hint, but I never really understood it. Because his existence in my life was at his leisure, he sent a wedding present after declining my invitation to the wedding. A ghost when he wanted to be, but haunting me when he pleased.

I would never want to date someone who didn’t want to date me, despite how much unrequited love might sting. I have done my best to respect the wishes of everyone who has ghosted me, trusting that they would know better than I would if they’d prefer silence over another apology. (That being said, I am sorry.) And I guess I don’t want to be friends with someone who doesn’t want to be friends with me either.

The hardest part about that particular ghost was that we were still tangentially connected to each other via social media. We had mutual friends on Facebook and mutual followers on Instagram, and every time I logged into one of those platforms I could see all his interactions with everyone else—everybody but me. It hurt so much to see him so active with people he had such a comparatively tenuous relationship with while completely ignoring me after everything we had been through and everything we meant to each other. Eventually, it made me feel so bad I simply deleted my accounts, effectively shunning myself from our social circles.

After a few years, River did eventually tell me why he suddenly and unceremoniously severed all contact with me, and he said he didn’t know what a path forward would even look like for our friendship. Personally, I don’t know that I could be friends with him again, knowing he’s comfortable ghosting long-term intimate friends, knowing he’s comfortable ghosting me.

And if I couldn’t be friends with River again, how can I be friends with anyone after driving someone who was so close to me so far away? Now everybody is a potential ghost, whether literally or figuratively, and these experiences have left me incredibly reluctant to be open and vulnerable with other people. While I’ve been ghosted several times by people who hardly knew me, River knew me as well as anyone ever has and still found ghosting was the only option.

My experience with being ghosted has left me thinking that there must be something about me so dark, so deep, and so terrible that anyone who gets to know me will eventually come to the conclusion that I must be shunned, excommunicated, completely severed from all contact, and that I will deserve it. I take small comfort in the fact that, for the majority of my ghosts, the ghosting has been more about circumstances and an intersection between issues they were dealing with and my own personal shortcomings.

And yet—I still wish I could speak to them all again, just one more time.

A More Personal Note

I’d like to say something to my friends who use Facebook because I feel like I’ve lost touch with nearly every single one of you due to my abstinence from this medium, what friendships remain have atrophied to being only echoes of the raucous chorus we used to share,— and I’d like to be better friends. There are few burdens or blessings that are not made better by sharing them with friends, and I bear the bulk of the responsibility for pushing most of mine away.

I stopped using Facebook about a year ago, in 2018, after a longtime friend of mine ghosted me with no word of explanation. Every time I thumbed through my newsfeed, I saw dozens of posts and comments between him and our other friends. It took a few months for the sense of loneliness, isolation, and rejection I felt every time I opened Facebook to become unpleasant enough for me to stop using it entirely. No one noticed that we had stopped talking so suddenly after fifteen years, and when I removed him from my Friends list, Facebook eliminated all traces of him from my newsfeed and post history. It was like he didn’t exist.

When I was more engaged with my friends, I felt that we had stronger, better friendships,—friendships that were augmented by Facebook (and Instagram, for those who see them as separate,) so that we could share more of ourselves with each other. As we started to spend less time face-to-face, it became harder for me to feel connected to the people I cared about. The best parts of of my friendships have been the quiet moments of mutual reflection in between the chaotic vicissitudes of fate, and as our relationships transitioned from “Facebook official” to “Facebook exclusive,” I felt like I lost my value as a friend.

All I could see were ghosts of the people I used to know, carrying on in my absence as if I also didn’t exist. It’s not their fault—I’m not trying to blame anyone by myself for any of this,—my experience simply results from the mechanism by which Facebook operates: engagement begets more engagement, and isolation begets more isolation.

There are many conversations I would love to have in person with any of my friends that I nonetheless refrain from engaging in online, and that preference for discussing sensitive or incendiary topics in a calm, face-to-face manner has left me with seemingly nothing to say in a culture that demands allegiance to a faction, where silence is taken as defection instead of consideration. I spent most of my teenage years locking antlers with people on message boards, engaged in digital debates that stretched on for pages,— and that’s just not the way I like to have a conversation anymore, if such a discourse can be called “conversation” at all.

Without engaging, I deprived my friends of whatever they used to value about my perspective, simply by withholding it. Since I wasn’t bringing anything to the table, I stopped showing up entirely. I thought I could sustain the friendships I cared about without the help of this social apparatus, but the world has moved on and I see that I was wrong,— wrong about my capabilities, wrong about the constitution of my friendships, and wrong about the way I tried to manage my transition. Honestly, I’m no longer sure what my friends even saw in me to begin with. What was I bringing to the table in the first place?

I owe you all an apology. When I decided to stop using social media, without a discussion and without informing anyone beyond the few friends I reached out to directly, I ghosted you. As far as you could tell from my online activity, I stopped caring about you and abruptly broke off all attempts at communication. As anyone who’s ever known someone who died can attest, it’s deeply troubling to hear a voice to which you’ve grown familiar suddenly fall silent.

I ghosted you, and I’m sorry. I was hurt, embarrassed, lonely, and afraid, but that was the wrong way to handle it. I remember when we used to be better friends, and I wish we could be closer. Enough time has passed that we are undoubtedly different people now than we were then (I’ve become a father, for starters,) but I never stopped being in favor of the idea of you and I would be delighted to get to know you better.

When it comes to social media,—Facebook in particular,—I have some challenges to overcome, but I’d rather do something challenging than risk us drifting any further apart. Social media is a problem for me in the same way that alcohol or gambling is a problem for some others, so I hope you can appreciate why I needed to get clean before trying to figure out how to use it in moderation.

If you think we should be better friends, I want you to know that I am open to you via whatever means make you feel most comfortable. If that’s a phone call or a text message, you have my number or I can share it with you in a private message. If that’s chatting over a coffee or a beer, I’ll buy the first round. If that’s meeting you at a party or other social event, I have made great strides in managing my anxiety and work a regular 9-to-5. And if that’s exchanging Likes on Facebook and commenting on each other’s posts, I’m prepared to meet you where you are.

Thanks for taking the time to hear me out. You’ve made me a better person for knowing you.

P.S. If you’re curious about the relationship between Facebook and social pain, I compiled some research on the subject.

Facebook and Social Pain

Insula and Somatosensory Cortex

Look, we all love facebook, but it’s hurting both us and our relationships.

Pain in the Brain

Pain consists of two components—the sensory and the affective—and those components reside in distinct regions of the brain. The somatosensory cortices allow us to know where we are injured while the posterior insula tells us how bad it is. The physical experience of pain is what we call the “sensory component.” The “affective component”—provided by the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and the anterior insula—gives us the feeling that the pain is unpleasant.

Insula and Somatosensory Cortex

Insula and Somatosensory Cortex