On the social front it was a question of Amistics, which was a term that had been coined ages ago […] to talk about the choices that different cultures made as to which technologies they would, and would not, make part of their lives. The word went all the way back to the Amish people of pre-Zero America, who had chosen to use certain modern technologies, such as roller skates, but not others, such as internal combustion engines. All cultures did this, frequently without being consciously aware that they had made collective choices.

—Neal Stephenson, in Seveneves


When not making active attempts not to, I tend to use Facebook more than I prefer to use Facebook. Your mileage may vary on whether Facebook does this to you, too, but I find that when left unchecked I will find myself on Facebook when I’d rather have been doing other stuff. This fact makes complete sense to me; the Facebook news feed seems to me to be a textbook example of the concept of a variable ratio rewards schedule. As I scroll down I’m rewarded with some new post or photo or link; each one is random in how much I enjoy it. Randomized rewards like these are the most prone to causing addiction: think slot machines, think internet gaming. Variable ratio rewards schedules cause users to repeat the addictive behavior by hooking into the dopamine system, exactly as opioids do.

I, for one, don’t appreciate my motivation system being hacked in this way; as a software engineer, I will never work for Facebook unless Facebook initiates projects to help users use Facebook in ways they endorse. Unfortunately, this is the antithesis of maximizing engagement, which in turn is the antithesis of maximizing revenue, and I don’t see it happening anytime soon.

But enough complaining. Facebook is a technological tool; it is my responsibility to ensure that this tool is a force for good in my own life.

I’ve tried a motley collection of Facebook-limiting software: Freedom, Todobook, Rescuetime’s “Get Focused” feature, News Feed Eradicator. Inevitably, though, each one doesn’t work forever. There inevitably comes a time when I decide that there’s something important I need Facebook for, whereupon I disable the software to do that thing – and at that point I have utterly lost, because I have trained myself that I am allowed to disable the software. The habit builds and builds, and soon the software does nothing at all. At which point I move on to another software, and am again protected… for a while.

But no longer! On August 13 I logged out of Facebook, and promised myself that I would not log in to Facebook again until September 1. Today is August 31, and I kept my promise to myself. Additionally, I have felt hardly any fear-of-missing-out this entire time. I guess I’ll see tomorrow whether there was anything I regretted not seeing earlier… but if not, this was a success!

The reason for this success is that I have finally factored out every piece of Facebook that I need. I rely on Facebook as a tool for these things: (1) messages from friends, (2) hearing about events, (3) keeping up with the pulse of news and conversation, and (4) looking up the occasional piece of info.

For (1), there’s a simple solution: Messenger. I keep myself logged in on the browser, I keep the app on my phone. I have so far been extremely pleased with how Messenger does not seem to be trying to hack my attention.

For (2), I have been using Facebook Event Calendar and it is fantastic. Really it was the final missing piece in this ecosystem. Whenever someone invites me to any event, it shows up on my calendar; I can see the descriptions and everything, without logging in.

For (3), I don’t actually have a solution, but it turns out that I can live without it. I just haven’t kept up as much with the pulse of news and conversation this month, and I think this is mostly okay. I ended up hearing about some interesting articles to read through having conversations with people, and it worked out. Also, RSS feeds for blogs I care about work well.

For (4), occasionally I need to look something up on Facebook, such as someone’s phone number or such as some clarifying information that’s posted within an event. On those occasions, I’ve decided that the rule is that I must explain why I’m logging in to Facebook to any other human, who I then ask to make sure I log out later. In this way, I prevent myself from acquiring the habit of letting myself make exceptions for trivial matters, while allowing myself the ability to look up logistics when they will be useful.

Sometimes I would find myself automatically opening a Facebook tab anyways (at which point, because I logged out, I’d be presented with the login page). The correct thing to do here is to close the tab and to mentally reward myself for noticing, instead of making myself feel guilt. If the habit of noticing is rewarded with guilt, the habit dies; however, if the habit of noticing is rewarded with happiness, the habit stays. It’s a little mindfulness-flavored.

After logging in on September 1, I intend to repeat this fasting process, committing once more to some amount of time before I will log in again. It seems to be working!