Jonathan Cutrell

The Terror of Facebook and the Endless Social Network


They died.

I have seen these words on my screen countless times. I fear them, in many ways, as they seem to hit closer to home all of the time.

Fear of death isn’t irrational - I know that when someone I love dies, it will be painful. It is natural, but that doesn’t make it easy to bear.

What is irrational is believing that death is related to proximity (except in horseshoes and hand grenades). However irrational it is, when something “hits close to home”, it can have a chilling effect, and if you’re anything like me, it can cause anxiety.

Irrational or not, when those words pop up on my screen, I immediately think about the proximity of death to those that I love.

Bad news makes the headlines.

And when I say headlines, I mean not only the ones on your TV, but also the ones in your browser (read: the top post on Facebook, or Hacker News). People attach themselves to bad news, for many reasons; sometimes it is because, quite simply, it is genuinely bad for that person. Like when someone they are close to is going through something horrible. Whatever the reason, this attachment naturally causes bad news to rise to the top. Thank you brilliant algorithms: bad news (amongst cats, surveys, and Candy Crush) is effectively micro-viral.

Bad things happen to everyone.

You know, everyone goes through tough times. And that shouldn’t be downplayed. When we see these headlines in our news feed, they are certainly not usually disingenuous. But unfortunately, while bad things happen to everyone, on average, many more good things happen. These things unfortunately don’t make the headlines as often, though. Normal, happy life isn’t viral.

A Time for Mourning

We’ve reduced mourning to comments on a feed.

It used to be the obituary section that housed this information. We would intentionally participate in a process of mourning with loved ones. We would either seek out the information, or the affected would contact us in some more direct way to inform us of the bad news.

Now, it’s broadcast.

And we participate in some perverse form of mourning. Next to our messages of consolation sit mountains of distraction, clicks away from invites, messages, and notifications that encourage us to make quick, efficient work of what once took intentionality. And why?

Because our massive volume of “relationships” make us believe we need digital methods to manage our infinitely growing network of friends.

A simple equation.

If you have a thousand friends on Facebook, how often do you think something bad happens to them? Once a year? If that’s the case, then on average, you will have more than two negative things on your feed every day.

And because bad news is viral, you’re fairly likely to see bad news every day on Facebook, if you visit Facebook every day.

Depending on the definition of “bad things”, this number could be wildly more (or perhaps significantly less), but it’s far more than if you were to sample, say, 150 people.

And that number happens to be a proposed number of people we can cognitively maintain meaningful relationships with. It’s called Dunbar’s number.

Meaningful Relationships

Your past is nothing to necessarily throw away. Don’t get me wrong, I love the people in my past.

However, I am responsible primarily for my present and my future. When my past stands in the way of my present and my future, it’s time to cut something.

My most meaningful relationships are the ones I intend to cultivate in my present and my future. Expending energy to cultivate relationships that were primarily from my past (as in, I don’t talk to the person even on a yearly basis) should always take second seat to the relationships I’m cultivating now.

And here’s the kicker: if I’m reading the sad news about my long lost high school friend, I’m adopting anxiety at the expense of celebrating the good news from my most meaningful relationships.

A Culture of Permanence: Learning to Say Goodbye

We live in a culture where everything is preservable (except snapchats). And why not? It’s supported by zeroes and ones, so anything is possible.

The problem is, our human brains are not computers; we can’t expand our cognitive ability to retain meaningful relationships. And as we’ve said before, putting energy into our least meaningful relationships takes energy away from our most meaningful relationships. And quite often, this energy is spent consoling and listening to patently bad news.

So the answer? Say goodbye. Cut yourself off from your past. Do so with very specific intentionality, understanding that you will love and live better with the people you care about most. Don’t spread yourself thin and risk living in a constant state of depression and distant relationship; instead, live and breathe deeply with those you are closest with.

Written by Jonathan Cutrell, Engineering Manager at Guild Education and podcast host at Developer Tea. You can follow him on Twitter at @jcutrell.