This post might seem kind of odd after last night’s celebratory post. I dedicate so much of my time and energy to talking about why the Internet is so special and wonderful. But sometimes the Internet can also be brutal and unforgiving. That’s not to say that Facebook is “the Internet” but obviously social media, like Facebook, plays quite a significant role in our lives (or at least mine). With that, I’m using this post to speak candidly about some of the issues I encountered last year that drove me away from Facebook.
Not to state the obvious, but 2020 has been rough. Many of us have had our own unique set of struggles. For the most part, I’ve been very lucky. It’s hard to discuss my struggles without first acknowledging the immense privilege that has carried me through this year. While I spent the first half of 2020 away from my husband and the Bay Area, I did have the opportunity to spend time with my family in Virginia; a rare opportunity given how far away I live from them all now. I especially appreciated the time I got to spend with my younger brother. We grew up very close, but college, law school, and life put some serious distance between us. I also started my full-time legal career at Google; an opportunity I consider an absolute miracle in the COVID-19 era. Not to mention, I’m one of few Americans that hasn’t (1) become another pandemic statistic; and (2) lost any family or friends to the disease. Though, I have watched many of my friends deal with one or both of those outcomes this year.
Still. 2020 has been personally hard. For starters, switching completely online for school did a number on both my physical and mental health. When I moved to Santa Clara for law school a few years ago, I did so knowing that I was leaving my family and the majority of my friends and connections behind on the East Coast. The SCU community, in many ways, became my family here in the Bay. The SCU campus became my home. Leaving that all behind so abruptly was hard. Today, I still haven’t seen some of those “like-family” people since March. Slowly realizing that I wouldn’t be coming home for the rest of my law school journey, broke me. Depression has always been a huge, yet tightly kept, secret part of my life. My time at SCU was really the first time in my life that my battle with depression seemed to subside.
As the months went on, depression started to slowly creep back into my life. I started feeling as though I was losing my sense of community and acceptance. Hopelessness became a very real and scary emotion. Being surrounded by death, racial injustice (again — noting my privilege), economic strife, and sheer political corruption, is enough to put anyone in a dark spot, emotionally. As the depression worsened, I started to withdraw socially, staying connected with only a few close individuals last year.
At the start of my 3L year, and when I returned to the Bay, I finally got over the grief-hump, and began accepting the “new normal.” That helped a bit, though I never really felt like I was ever at 100%. I don’t think anyone really ever felt 100% at any point this year (and if you did, kudos).
On top of the COVID depression, I started slipping into what some call “Facebook depression.” Saying the quiet part out loud here: it’s really hard to watch others doing well when you’re not. Which might sound crazy considering I was fresh into my new job at Google, speaking at major virtual conferences, and publishing like crazy over the summer.
But let this be a reminder that you should never compare your behind the scenes to someone else’s highlight reel.
Onboarding virtually at Google has been one of the most difficult and, sometimes discouraging, challenges of my entire career. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE my job, team, and the work I’m doing. But Google has always been a notorious imposter-syndrome factory, and I’ve never felt so behind in my life. It’s already hard to gauge your own success when you’re surrounded by brilliant minds every single day. But it’s somehow even harder when you’re surrounded by absolutely no one throughout the day. While I feel so much better now than I did 6 months ago, I still often feel like I’m not doing enough and I’ve yet to truly feel “successful” in my role. Not to mention, I’ve still met none of my teammates in person, so I haven’t formed any close bonds with anyone quite yet. All of this is to say that on days where I felt really down about my work performance, seeing my colleagues in the tech policy space absolutely killing it, spawned some intrusive thoughts that I was a major failure. (Gotta love that anxiety/depression double whammy).
I’ve always played the emotional support/cheerleader role when it comes to my friendships. So while I was quietly struggling, I was also trying to constantly maintain that classic, positive, extroverted “Jess spirit” for my colleagues, friends, and the new SCU 1L class. Being on Facebook put me in a spot where I felt like I needed to constantly make myself emotionally available for everyone all the time. Don’t get me wrong, being there for people is what drove me into the legal profession in the first place. But I’ve also always been particularly bad about being there for myself. By setting aside my own emotions and struggles to make room for the emotional burdens of others, I was doing a significant disservice to myself.
Zoom played a huge role in the withering away of my emotional and social reserves too. Because it’s so easy to hop on a Zoom call, I found myself constantly in meetings with students, colleagues, and friends. At one point this year, I had 18 zoom calls in one day.
Leaving Facebook gave me an opportunity to be anti-social for a bit. So, to those of you that felt like I sort of dropped off the face of the earth in the past month or so with our conversations, I’m sorry. But I’m also not sorry because I needed to take that step back for myself.
For those of you that have been following the news, the tech policy space has been an absolute dumpster fire since the beginning of this year. To say I’m exhausted with terrible Section 230 proposals is an understatement. And of course, if you know me, you know about my crazy passion for protecting the Internet and defending its most important speech law, Section 230.
This year, Section 230 has been in the news almost every single day for all the wrong reasons. Recently, Trump vetoed the defense spending bill because it didn’t include 230’s repeal (the veto was recently overturned by the Senate). And currently, Senator McConnell is using Section 230 as a bargaining chip to screw struggling Americans out of much needed COVID-relief spending. Watching the one thing you’ve built your entire career and livelihood upon being set ablaze every. single. day. is devastating. For me, social media became a cycle of bad 230 news anywhere I looked (“doomscrolling”). It’s not that I wanted to be ignorant to it, but at some point, I just needed a breather from the constant negativity.
The weird part about this one is that I stayed pretty active on Twitter throughout my hiatus. I haven’t quite reasoned out yet why Twitter doomscrolling was different from Facebook for me. It just was.
I Hated My Social Media Personality
I also started to hate the person I was becoming on Facebook. When you spend every day passionately advocating for the things you love, that inevitable zealousness is bound to leak into your personal life as well. Instead of having normal conversations with my peers on Facebook, I was aggressively agenda-pushing as I’ve regularly had to do with Senate offices and 230 opponents this year. I couldn’t shut it off and as a result, my colleagues bluntly pointed out that I was no longer fun to be around (virtually that is).
Additionally, to boost my own decaying self-esteem, I found myself not-so-humble-bragging a lot more than usual. I was no longer excelling for myself, but rather, I was excelling just for the satisfaction of being able to boast about it on Facebook. Facebook made me ravenous for the social validation that I wasn’t getting anywhere else because we’re all stuck at home all the time. That is incredibly toxic. And at the same time, I was also suffocating and alienating my peers.
Whether you’re willing to admit it or not, Facebook is super addicting. The more you post, the more social validation and feedback you get and the longer you stay. The amount of time I was wasting on Facebook engaging in silly banter or posting stupid status updates started to add up. As I mentioned in my post from last night, I don’t have the time to waste anymore between Google, school, and the other extra tech policy projects I do on the side. For as productive as I was last year, a majority of my time was lost to mindlessly scrolling my Facebook feed. It’s just like bad eating habits. Some people snack when they’re bored. I was scrolling Facebook for hours on end.
Again, I haven’t quite worked out the differences between Facebook and Twitter here. I guess the upside with Twitter is that the time I spend on Twitter is mostly productive (engaging in tech policy debate, advocating for Section 230, learning from other field experts, networking, and building my professional brand).
The last straw for me was when one of my close law school friends started aggressively sexually harassing me. Like most women, when met with awful and uncomfortable situations like the one I found myself in, I shutdown. In response to the harassment, I posted a status (and Tweet) about how my husband and I were finally excited about one day starting a family now that we know our children don’t have to grow up in Trump’s America. While the message is true, I posted it with the intent of sending a subtle hint to that student. Instead, it backfired. I not only received more messages from that individual, but also from many random strangers. Welcome to being a woman on the Internet.
I also got mixed up with some underground online communities that eventually ended up turning on me. My vocal 230 advocacy coupled with my association with “Big Tech” started bringing me death threats, doxxing, and other heinous shit from the Internet’s worst basement dwellers. These threats were mostly on Twitter, but people were using my public photos and information from my Facebook to create those threats. On one of the nights I received a death threat, someone showed up at our house (just 10 minutes after I read the threat). Fortunately, it turned out to be a porch pirate, but the incident shook me to my core.
I didn’t really know what to do anymore. I felt violated, disgusted, unsafe. So, I left. And it was one of the best decisions I’ve made for myself in a long time.
Why I Returned and What I’m Changing
Put simply, I rejoined Facebook at the start of the new year because I finally felt ready to do so. I spent the time away rebuilding my self-esteem and my self-worth. During my desert hiatus (and on some long soul-searching hikes), I figured out how I could manage my Facebook presence without falling back into the same toxic cycle I fell into last year. Here are some of the changes I’ve made for the future (and if you’re feeling any of things I described above, I suggest considering some of these changes as well):
- Post limiting: I realized that not everyone needs to be informed of what I’m doing every moment of the day and no one is entitled to my constant life updates. The people I care most about (and the people that care about me) remained an active part of my social circle through instant message, email, Twitter, and other means of communication, without Facebook.
- Eliminating Notifications: To cut down on the context switching, distractions, and productivity loss, I no longer have the Facebook app on my phone. Additionally, I silenced all notifications that were going to my email or popping up in the chrome browser. The only time I’ll be interrupted by Facebook is when I’m on my computer and only when I choose to visit the site. [Please note: I still have my FB messenger notifications enabled as this is still my primary means of communication since I don’t really text].
- Personal Goal Setting: To combat imposter syndrome, I’m creating both professional and personal goals for myself this year. This stemmed from the peak-bagging hobby I recently discovered on my trip to Indian Wells. Accomplishing the reasonable goals that I’ll set for myself this year will be my source of validation, not Facebook likes.
- Guarding My Time: I have a lot of professional goals I’d like to accomplish before I graduate. While I’m always here to help and I will still find ways to be an actively engaged member of my community, I am also going to be a bit more guarded with my time and my emotional reserves. This means that I may not always instantly respond to messages, texts, or emails (so, please be patient). But I will still do my best to help route you to the right resources when I can.
- More Reading: Instead of wasting my time on Facebook when I’m bored, I’m going to get through my SSRN list, some books about content moderation and online communities, and some other major reads I’ve set aside. I’ve always loved reading legal scholarship and becoming even more of an expert in my field. I’m not sure why that dropped off for me throughout law school but I’ll be getting back into it this year.
- Limiting My Exposure: My dad will appreciate this one the most because he’s only been telling me to do this since the day I got online. To mitigate the inevitable harassment that comes with my career, I’m going to be a lot more careful about the personal information I share on my public social media. What this doesn’t mean is that I’m going to back down from my vocal 230 advocacy (quite the contrary, in fact, I’ll be ratcheting it up, even more, this year). But I am going to be more mindful about how my personal information can be weaponized. If you need my information, you know how to contact me.
So maybe this is just my longwinded way of sharing my New Year’s resolutions. I love the Internet, and social media has been absolutely crucial for keeping us all connected when our world became lonely and dark. But everything in moderation, even moderation.