Gain freedom: How to escape your Facebook feed

Processing the jumbled deluge of content on the typical Facebook feed can cause distraction, cognitive overload and intermittent alarm from its cack-handed delivery of serious news. But this formidable mental challenge is made tricky to escape.

Social media’s commercial goal is to gain and hold our attention for long periods rather than efficiently inform, a role it is unable to perform. The Facebook feed is the crowning achievement of the sector, being the most effective technique ever for distracting nosy animals like us.

We find it almost impossible to stop looking at it, just as we find it hard to resist looking through an open doorway as we pass.

Facebook’s master stroke was to pump-prime our feeds by making it the default to follow people at the same time as we add them. This means it is time-consuming and (superficially) socially awkward for us to reverse the compliment, so we tend not to bother.

People even abandon Facebook as a way to avoid the dilemma, but jumping ship carries a cost because Facebook is a useful personal address book, directory and messaging service. The most targeted way to cure Facebook-feed overload is to disable the feed alone, not to desert the platform.

Thankfully, it is possible to completely disable the Facebook feed and any ill-feeling for doing so is misplaced. Outside Facebookland it has long been accepted people should opt-in for updates rather opt out of them. Facebook should be no exception.

It could take a while to readjust to a feed-free life, but Facebook is not nearly as much of a time-sponge without it. And unhooked from the feed you can also choose when to consume serious news, rather than leaving yourself open to unsettling updates from across the planet at any second.

You are not left “out in the cold” this way either. You can still visit contacts’ Facebook pages, and send and receive personal messages. Disabling your Facebook feed transforms the site from chaotic information maelstrom to convivial blog community, message service and directory.

Of course, there are billions of people who are perfectly happy with their Facebook feeds as they are and I do not begrudge them a moment of enjoyment. I had many laughs and learned a lot from mine — not least my limits — before finally finding a way to turn it off.

Instant relief
You can now instantly block the feed on a PC: in Chrome install the News Feed Eradicator or the Safari equivalent; Firefox, meanwhile, has Kill FB Feed.

On mobile phones uninstalling the app and not visiting the site seems to be the only way.

Feed freedom
Facebook makes it difficult to leave the feed more permanently, but it is possible:

The empty stream

(1) Unfollow contacts: You can do this in one go using this app, being careful to unfollow rather than to unfriend.

(2) Unlike pages: This is more painstaking and has to be done one like at a time. Visit your homepage and click “View activity log” at the bottom right of your cover picture and on the left-hand-side click “Likes” and go through them.

(3) Regulate groups: Some groups can be very rewarding, others less so. For the latter go to “Home”, click on “Groups” on the left-hand-side and click “Edit notification settings” or “Leave group” accordingly.

After a lot of arduous clicking, the end result should be as below, saying simply “No posts to show. Find Friends.” One last type of notification remains, most stubbornly on mobile: people’s birthdays. ■

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Social media and the brain

Social media’s serious news problem

Embracing imperfection

Weaving happiness into journalism

In praise of politeness

Embracing imperfection

Polydorus: Laocoön and His Sons. (c.200AD)

We are imperfect beings in an imperfect world. We all know that. It is strange, then, that examples of imperfection should bring us surprise or distress, but they often do.

A car which goes phut on damp mornings, or a bus which never comes or a pop-up toaster which flings its contents onto the table can all send us into a simmering rage. We fume over mismatches between our hopes and reality.

With people it is not so different. We can become infuriated by lies, unreliability, a lack of interest or compassion, or leaving the top off a toothpaste tube. It seems we cannot help making unfavourable comparisons.

We often feel this most acutely with people we pair up with someone, as philosopher Alain de Botton says in his thought-provoking talk “Why We Marry the Wrong Person”.  Our capacity annoyance tends to rise in proportion with our expectations.

At its most extreme the disappointment can be between finding “the  perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning”, as de Botton puts it, and the imperfect being we inevitably end up with.

This is easy to understand on a rational level. The real problem is developing emotions which reflect it because most of us cannot find everyday consolation in passages of Kierkegaard.

Wabi-sabi tea bowl (1500s)

What to do?
A more effective route may be by altering our aesthetics, which help guide our feelings.

Most of us are surrounded by the aesthetics of perfection, through the images used in marketing, Hollywood films, sleek design and, more broadly, art and literature drawing on heroic classical models.

But other aesthetics are potentially more helpful in learning to appreciate reality as it is, instead of seeing it as a disappointing failed attempt at perfection.

Among them is the Japanese idea of “wabi-sabi”, loosely translated as “imperfect beauty”. In this tradition nothing can be said to be truly beautiful without some quirk.


It prefers asymmetry to perfect symmetry, which seldom appears nature. It celebrates blemishes, transience and plain construction. In the case of “kintsugi” pottery it highlights the beauty of repairs (pictured).

Something close is found in the West, only nobody has got round to naming it. We might cling jealously to our  favourite mug despite a chip or we might cherish a car despite misbehaviour.

Photography often celebrates impermanence, while antiquarians savour signs of age, like patina and wear. Part of the charm of the sculpture pictured above is arguably that one of Laocoön’s sons is missing a hand. 

With people too we can be a little wabi-sabi, valuing someone as a whole, including their weaknesses. We might also benefit from being valued this way too, including by ourselves.

Pursuing perfection is a reliable goal, but it is also a reliable source of disappointment. Wabi-sabi-like aesthetics can help us realise imperfection also has a beauty. ■

Weaving happiness into journalism

Happiness provides a rich source of inspiration for readers and writers alike, journalists among them.

Reposting on social media means we more often consume stories when off-balance and in isolation, sometimes without other stories to provide emotional counter-point. We should take care to manage the emotional impact of the stories we consume and those we deliver.

All this is likely to raise doubts over whether the results would count as serious journalism. After all serious journalism is meant to be hard-bitten, raw and cynical. When we think of something serious we tend to think of something sombre and edgy, while something happy is goofy. 

But happiness, as scientifically understood, is not about becoming a beaming emoticon. Happy people are not constantly elated. In fact they tend to experience an elaborate fabric of emotions, with plenty of negative and awkward feelings woven into a backcloth of positivity.

This makes sense even if we are not among the happy few. The things which make us happy are often imperfect or visions of imperfection: following a football team, a holiday, a film or novel, a picture, a piece of music, a group of friends or family. All have a balance of high- and lowlights.

The way we tell our stories is something we can change to reflect this without ignoring nagging facts and uncertainties. Relentless confrontational, provocative or alarming angles are unsustainable. Readers will tire and begin to mistrust such monotone impressions.

We do not need to ignore conflicts, crises, uncertainties or tragedies. In fact we should not. We need to face them to improve our understanding and foster solutions. But we also need to be able to come to this understanding without undue unease, which may mean we close down our curiosity.

This, perhaps, does not describe the mental state of many journalists kept going on caffeine, alcohol and a passion for their work. There is romance and excitement to this approach, but being overstretched makes it harder to write stories with an open outlook.

Communication requires recognition of our own needs and adaptation to the other’s. Happiness is among them. With imagination and consideration journalism can be woven in.

For auld lang syne

Closing the bulging manila file on 2016 will be a relief to many. But, with the ink still damp on the tab marked “2017”, it is hard to avoid a nagging concern about what will fill it.

It is easy to be disheartened. But human affairs on every level are as prone to changing for the better as they are for the worse. This is, in part, because we as individuals and as a species are able to learn, value our advantages, avoid errors and find solutions.

The world as a whole still produces far more material resources than it needs and no end of untapped ideas. Democratic institutions generally function well, despite their missteps. Very few seriously contest their central role in the future.

The checks on democratic power can still minimise the cost of representatives’ errors, restraining moves which unjustly harm people’s interests. Votes cast in a bid to assuage negative feelings can be shifted to viable solutions through listening and persuasion.

We are not locked into an unalterable course as individuals or as societies. What we need are attractive alternatives. Their source is the recognition of common interests, alliances, goodwill and ingenuity. Their attractiveness will only increase if they benefit long chains of interests.

Working for such solutions is not a dreary task, coming with a unique payoff: happiness. Happiness comes, numerous studies find, from our feelings of connection, cooperation and capacity to rebound from mishap. Our buzz comes from building, not hoarding or demolition.

Our world of artificial division, knockabout debate and dented confidence offers fertile ground for initiatives, large and small, founded on more accurate analysis. We all have the chance to receive the rewards of contributing through our curiosity, thought, action and influence.

So, for auld lang syne, for old time’s sake, and for new, there is good reason to look forward to 2017. There is no certainty its opportunities will be taken, but they will certainly be there.

In praise of politeness

HandshakeIt is no coincidence simplistic movements are finding success when our worldviews and personal relations are being shaped by chaotic and often ill-tempered online interaction. Opportunistic rabble-rousers are only too happy to ride this wave of digital bombast. The answer is a counter-wave of online civility. Continue reading “In praise of politeness”

Mezica: The Balkan Lord’s

The Mezica cricket ground.
The cricket ground in Mezica, Slovenia.

MEZICA, Slovenia, summer 2013—The distinctive thwack of leather on willow is not the first thing you might expect to hear in a remote alpine valley in the former-Yugoslav republic of Slovenia. But it is almost 40 years since cricket was first played in Mezica, in the far north of  the country, making it the cradle of a growing regional cricket scene and enthusiastic host of international touring sides. Continue reading “Mezica: The Balkan Lord’s”

Dedication, addiction’s other half

So how do the high-achievers at the Winter Olympics do it? Well, ask a Brit who grew up in the 70s or 80s what is needed to “be the best” or “beat the rest” and they are likely tell you, without much hesitation: dedication.

The pat response comes from the closing song of Record Breakers, a BBC children’s programme itself wholly dedicated to witnessing world records. A weekly broadcast cataloguing bids for global supremacy in every conceivable area must say something about the Britain’s flagging self-esteem at the time.

The show’s late host, the multitalented entertainer Roy Castle, sang from experience, having been the fastest tap-dancer (24 taps/s), longest aeroplane wing walker (3 hours, 23 minutes) and player of 43 different musical instruments in four minutes. This gave the closing refrain extra gravitas.

From the show flowed millions of impromptu rival record attempts by its half-pint viewers, including one spirited bid for the distance record for cherry stone spitting. The secret is, we learned, to maximise muzzle velocity by forming a barrel with your tongue. Alas, even armed with this valuable knowledge dedication was not enough to come close to the record, which now stands at a colossal 28.5m.

Other featured records, however, seemed to go completely against the dedication theory, relying entirely on chance, like being tall. Here it was clear no amount of dedication could change our place in the world rankings. In another case we were told Donna Griffiths started sneezing in 1981, at the age of 12, and continued for two-and-a-half years, clocking up a million sneezes. Chronic disease seemed like a foul play at the time, but less so now.

Despite a few questionable examples, it does seem dedication — a posh word for persistence — is required for success in every case requiring skill or physical training. We need to repeat things many times to improve on our innate abilities, often dramatically, allowing some of us to become unbelievably good musicians, footballers, bricklayers, programmers, teachers, dancers, runners, cobblers, artists, cooks, students and cherry stone spitters.

An engine for learning
Dedication sounds like hard work, but it is made easier by our ability to acquire benign “addictions”, like the ones we get with computer games. The right blend of reward and dissatisfaction we will make us want to try again. Blinking pixels are not needed. We can get a kick from something as simple as catching a ball in a cup or knocking one into a hole in the ground with a set of metal clubs.

This capacity to get hooked on practising and learning can create a domino effect which can take us from beginner to expert with minimal effort. Allowing ourselves to get carried away like this is fun and, potentially, a free ride to success. Taking it to extremes can have extreme payoffs, like Jimi Hendrix who kept a guitar slung round his neck even in the bathroom. Who cares if it scuffs the wallpaper?

We might sometimes find the rewards fade. So we might need to use some willpower, ingenuity and “dedication” to find a way to get the process going again. A break can help. But, so long as we can find new ways to get hooked again, perhaps by focusing on a different kind of reward or finding a new, related activity, the process of improvement can restart where we left off.

So the majority of our “addictions” are helpful to us. They provide a kind of engine which allows us to enjoy a potentially gruelling learning curve. Sometimes, however, we can start to repeat activities which do us harm, perhaps unduly sapping our mental resources, health or money.

It is in cases where there are “adverse consequences” like this that the word “addiction” might be applied, making into a kind of disease. But this does not stop the problems from emerging from the same capacity for repetition that is typically helpful to us.

We do not like to make unwise choices and like it even less if someone else points it out. And history is full of stories of people told they had made a mistake only later to show otherwise. Our autonomy is important and we are right to defend our right to chose.

Informing our judgement
Where our intuition fails us we can get useful insight from others, using their perspective to recognise illusory rewards and hidden costs.

Dysfunctional golf addictions occur. But it is more common to make over-commitments to gambling, eating and smoking. Regularly taking psychoactives like alcohol, opiates and cocaine can also start to hog our resources without us realising. Social media too can arguably take more from us than it returns.

Tragically Roy Castle, the host of Record Breakers, died at just 62 in 1994 of lung cancer, despite being a non-smoker. He himself believed it was the result of working the smoke-filled pubs and clubs of his heyday. So a dedicated entertainer may have fallen victim to an addiction seen then as a benign social custom.

Castle worked on the show up to the end, inspiring the British smoking ban and leaving behind a foundation dedicated to finding a cure for lung cancer. His onstage ebullience suggest that, as well as singing the praises of dedication, he enjoyed the rewards. Our passion for repetition has two sides. 

Curbing an appetite for distraction

Multitasking: fun and profitable
Multitasking: fun and profitable

Who does not like the rich melange that pours freely from social media? Hardly anyone I know of. I have gorged on it until I am round. It seems to be in our makeup to feast like this, but it is also in our interest to find ways to control our intake. Continue reading “Curbing an appetite for distraction”

Social media’s serious news problem

Terrorist attacks have been in the news ever since I remember news. If it wasn’t one group, it was another. Someone has bombed three of the cities I have lived in. I have visited a couple of disaster sites. But it was hearing about the Paris attacks on November 13th which delivered the biggest initial impact. It was more like the incongruity of coming upon a man lying on the grass in the sunshine outside my local supermarket and finding he had multiple stab wounds. Continue reading “Social media’s serious news problem”

Help the curious

phil cain (1) I am extending my work to books, allowing me to go deeper into the mysteries, paradoxes and absurdities of complex topics.

The longer format should provide interesting reading for better lives for the mildly to seriously curious. Your support is helpful, so please leave your email (above) and connect through social media (below right). Continue reading “Help the curious”