First ritual

Inspired by my bemusement over Benjamin Burroughs’ seemingly contradictory claim that Facebook is at once “less about networking and more about broadcasting” and “a salient example of digital third places”, I decided to challenge it—that is, my own bemusement—with this week’s ritual.

I haven’t been active on social media for a few years now. My usage peaked after I moved to NY for my first job: I was a naive, introverted Midwestern girl, barely 22-years-old, newly single, with no friends and no social skills outside of the classroom; I naturally turned to Facebook and Instagram for human connection. Becoming reliant on social media basically means developing a hardcore addiction to its fickle yet relentlessly available stream of validation. It was devastating if my posts went ignored; I deleted the ones that accumulated less than double-digit likes, and continued posting more of what had been celebrated previously. The act of posting itself came with its own sick thrill (a mix of terror and pride), which could be reproduced to a degree by compulsively checking back in on the post at every opportunity, watching the “likes” count rise (or not). “Broadcasting” really is the best word for what I was doing: broadcasting evidence of my existence to everyone I’d ever known, then hoping for collective approval in return. I was like a boring, self-absorbed comedian with severe stage fright, returning to the mic day after day, desperate to trick everyone in the audience into laughing as if it was the only way I could feel good about myself.

So I was a pretty dysfunctional user, to say the least, and unfortunately didn’t realize how detrimental this was to my mental health until it was too late. That’s the thing about depression: even when it’s spiraled to a point where you hate everything about yourself and suicidal ideation is the only thing playing on every channel, at the end of the day, the truth is that you are obsessed with yourself. And social media is truly the best and worst outlet for the self-obsessed: best, because it’s essentially a big ol’ stage chanting your name; worst, because the audience never laughs hard enough.

Four years later, I set out to see if I could use Facebook completely differently—as a “third space” rather than a tool for broadcasting. Sure, Messenger isn’t exactly made for broadcasting, but it’s also not what makes Facebook, Facebook—it’s just a knockoff of the American Online paradigm. What I wanted to see is if I could somehow co-opt the Newsfeed into a third space; the broadcasting feature would just help to bring people into it.

My plan was simple: a collective gratitude practice. Every night, I would post a list of what I was grateful for that day, and beseech readers to do the same in the comments. I thought this would be an effective exercise because

  1. it had the potential to foster intimacy by…
    • requiring a little vulnerability (posting publicly is no small thing)
    • encouraging people to share joy and feel joy for others
  2. it shifts the dynamic between user and their audience
    • the content would be mundane in contrast to the big life announcements that are usually reserved for such broadcasts, thereby making it feel disarmingly low-pressure (theoretically)
    • it turns the focus on the audience and their participation, rather than me and my big announcement

Before submitting the first post, I had a moment of complete regret/panic for what I was about to do; it felt like I was about to text That Greenpoint Guy (you know, the unkempt but witty musician who only told you he loved you after the sun set and he’d had a couple to drink, which was somehow enough to keep you emotionally attached for six years. Yes I made terrible decisions in my early twenties) and fall into an emotional, codependent black hole all over again.

But then I just hit “Share”, for science.

Things of note from the fallout:

  • More people liked than commented
  • Two comments were just praise and didn’t answer the prompt
  • One comment was a gif and didn’t answer the prompt
  • One person DMed me instead of commenting
  • Thanks to a bizarre Facebook feature that displayed my post as a chat box whenever there was activity happening on it, I was able to witness in real time as “a friend” typed something, then stopped, then restarted—this continued for several minutes without actually producing a comment in the end, suggesting that perhaps even simply commenting on a post is as nerve-wracking as sharing the actual post itself:

It’s for these reasons that I started to scheme a different approach: same exercise, but through Messenger. I know, I know, but the broadcast-y nature of the Newsfeed seemed to be a major pain point in the way of engagement. Also, posts seem to get completely buried under ads (when did fb start serving so many ads?). I hypothesized that most, if not all, of my friends would humor me with their participation if I contacted them through a direct message. It would also afford for longer conversations, which are tedious and thus entirely avoided in comments sections.

Plus, the public interest in this experiment fizzled out nearly immediately:

Note the dreaded SINGLE DIGIT “LIKE” COUNT. Yeah, I was pretty done with this daily act of public humiliation.

So instead, I wrote a python script that collects moments of gratitude throughout the day in a json file; at 10:30pm, it launches an npm package called Messer (a command-line interface for FB Messenger that required me to author a few issues before it was working properly for my purposes), chooses a friend at random, and sends them a message requesting a shared gratitude practice.

Messer botched the first message it attempted to send (hence the bug reports), but it still led to a really wonderful conversation with an old co-worker of mine—from my very first job— that I hadn’t spoken to in four or five years. We caught up, shared our good things from the weekend, and at the end even made plans to meet up. It was so sweet and made me really happy—such a conversation would have never occurred if I’d kept up with my daily gratitude broadcast. In fact, he was one of my friends who’d “liked” my posts, but didn’t comment—even though he said my post made him miss me (which I like to think confirms my foregoing theories):

As much as I loved the idea of a mass gratitude practice, where everyone could benefit and feel a little closer to each other, this ended up being much more fulfilling for me.

Here’s the message it’s currently sending:

As my soft opening for this ritual, I’m only drawing from a pool of friends who had “liked” or commented on my gratitude posts. Later, I may expand it to my entire friends list.

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