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Facebook Phreaks and the Fight to Reclaim Time and Attention

February 13th, 2017 · 47 comments

A Minimalist Trend

Last week, I sent a note to my email list asking readers about their personal digital minimalism strategies. I’ve only just begun wading through the more than 250 responses, but I’m already noticing an interesting trend: there seems to be a non-trivial subgroup made up of individuals who use Facebook in very narrow ways, and are very worried about this service’s attempt to manipulate their time and attention to bolster profit.

To accommodate both these realities, this group deploys aggressive tactics and tools to reshape Facebook into something that provides them exactly what they need, without all the other frustrating noise.

Reshaping Facebook

Members of this group, for example, often remove the Facebook application from their smartphone. Almost no important use of this service requires that you can access it at any time or place: loading the site through a web browser is typically sufficient.

Facebook pushes the mobile application mainly because it allows them to monetize your time attention in places that advertisers previously could not reach — standing in line, bored in a meeting, waiting for the metro. This is great news for Facebook investors, but bad news for those trying to maintain some autonomy over their time and attention.

Members of this group are also quite suspicious of the Facebook news feed — a source of engineered distraction sprinkled with injections of social inadequacy and annoyance.

Some respondents explained to me how they aggressively culled their “friends” down to essentially zero to neuter the feed. A surprising number deploy custom web browser plug-ins that block the feed altogether when they load the Facebook site.

Another common observation I heard from this group is that Facebook recently unbundled its messenger application from the rest of its services — allowing those who use the service mainly for communication to avoid having to see the feed altogether.

I’ve also received multiple notes from entrepreneurs who hired people to do the types of marketing related posts that seem necessary these days, while saving the entrepreneur’s more valuable time and attention from the Facebook vortex.

So what do these people use Facebook for? There seem to be three main reasons: participating in carefully curated Facebook groups, communicating with family and friends who are on Facebook but don’t use other communication tools as much, and marketing.

They reject the notion that any one of these reasons should require them to transform into a dehumanized gadget in the Facebook profit machine.

The Facebook Phreaks

I’ve taken to calling this group the Facebook phreaks, an homage to the phone freaks (including, famously, Steve Jobs) who used to hack the telephone network to place long distance calls for free. These modern day phreaks are doing something similar to Facebook’s massive network, except instead of avoiding paying a payphone quarter, they’re preserving the value of their time and attention.

I don’t know how widespread this movement is, but it provides me some hope. Just because a small number of companies have temporarily succeeded in monopolizing much of the Internet doesn’t mean we have to acquiesce to their dominance.

The phreaks are pushing back.

(Photo by Joe Piette)

47 thoughts on “Facebook Phreaks and the Fight to Reclaim Time and Attention

  1. George Gray says:

    I followed Cal’s ‘Deep Work’ advice and ‘Quit Social Media’ altogether.
    Didn’t bother auditing the pros vs cons. Just went all-in.
    Has been very liberating.
    You’re basically a manipulated Westworld host when you use those services. Your strings are being pulled by someone else.
    Right, off to create value now 🙂

    1. Cole says:

      I too quit Facebook and Instagram all together. I didn’t delete my accounts, but instead changed my passwords to random numbers so I could not access unless I went through the annoying process of retreiving a new one; even then I caught myself going through the process until I had a moment and thought, holy crap, this is a drug-addicts behavior. I have personally struggled with depression and bipolar disorder so these social media sites really take over my life. Liberating is exactly how I felt quitting social media all together. However, I do not have a business to promote, nor have anything to gain financially using social media. I was simply waisting time that I could be spending improving my life. I read a great qoute from Tools of Titans: “In a world of distraction, single-tasking is a superpower.” – TF.

  2. Daniel says:

    Another way of “hacking” Facebook is to create a custom list with a subset of your friends that you truly want to interact with. As this post mentions, I’m suspect of the news feed. I call my list “Dunbar” (in reference to Dunbar’s number) and keep it well under a 100. I’ve found that by creating this list, I take back a little bit of control as a user and also engage with the people I most care about.

    Enjoying this series on Digital Minimalism!

    1. Faure says:

      I have unfollowed everything and everyone so my feed is clean and I maintain a list of 20 people who I consider my closest friends. Sadly, I can only find the curated feed from them on the mobile web app. The option to see their posts in a single place doesn’t show up for me in the desktop browser nor in the native app. Do you have a workaround?

      1. Daniel says:

        One difficult thing about Facebook is that they always seem to be changing things so that it’s harder to be in control… For example, the lists (like the one I created) are now buried from easy access. However, it looks like Facebook rolled out a new “News Feed preferences” pane, so maybe play around with that?

  3. I make scheduled facebook habits every weeks I checked facebook for reply messages etc. for the first week its seems impossible, at that point I know, this is kind of addiction that I need to get rid off. I called it facebook fasting. I do this habit since 1 years ago after watch the guy on ted theminimalist thing I guess. it worth to try guys. dont waste ur time for this modern addiction.

  4. I make scheduled facebook habits every weeks I checked facebook for reply messages etc. for the first week its seems impossible, at that point I know, this is kind of addiction that I need to get rid off. I called it facebook fasting. I do this habit since 1 years ago after watch the guy on ted theminimalist thing I guess. it worth to try guys. dont waste ur time for this new kind modern addiction.

  5. I use a custom plugin that transforms my feed. All posts are hidden and instead there is a single quote: “Rule your mind or it will rule you. – Horace”
    Since I created this, my time on Facebook changed from 1 hour to 2-3 minutes per day. I am very happy about it.

    1. Delia says:

      I do the exact same thing and it is very freeing to not be sucked into the newsfeed wormhole.

    2. Sara says:

      How did you do that? Can you pls share on how to? Thanks

      1. Sure. There are plug-ins that help with that. I use Stylish, it is available for all major browsers. Then I created a style for Facebook (I’m not sure if it will show well here, but you can still copy/paste it):

        @-moz-document domain("facebook.com") {
        #stream_pagelet{display:visiblity:hidden;opacity:0}
        #contentArea::before{display:block !important;content:"Rule your mind or it will rule you. –\00a0Horace";background:#fff;width:auto;padding:1rem 5%;margin:1rem 0 1rem;font-size:1.5rem;font-family:Iowan Old Style, Palatino;border-color:#e5e6e9 #dfe0e4 #d0d1d5;border-width:1px;border-radius:3px}
        }

      2. Delia says:

        Yes, I use a chrome extension called “Newsfeed Eradicator”. It automatically detects the newsfeed when you go to Facebook, and instead you see a quote about productivity or something positive and encouraging.

  6. Sam says:

    I have 3 friends on FB. My wife + 2 good mates. Works for me.

  7. Grace says:

    Hi Carl!

    Before quitting Facebook I already used it as you described: without the news feed, only to connect to friends when I needed it, and be able to see invitations to events. Also, I use StayFocusd to limit time in distracting sites.

    Turns out, that made easy to let it go completely: now I don’t have Facebook, Twitter and some other social media. I still have Goodreads. And Youtube is… well, I have to keep distance if I want to have a productive day.

    My current strategy is to turn the computer off and do most things with pen and paper, real books and notebooks.

    And here is the best part: I feel less tired. In the beginning it hard to pay attention, but once I do, things flow in a slower, but more satisfying pace.

    I still need the computer sometimes, for work related stuff, but I think now I can see technology as just another tool. Not the main one.

  8. First, I started “un-following” everyone and everypage so that my news feed would be empty. But Facebook is so annoying that even after my manual “purge” it started showing unsolicited updates from my contacts. I seems like you can’t have an empty feed.
    So then I installed a web browser plug-in that blocks Facebook feed and instead shows me a famous quote. Best decision I’ve ever made! I only use FB to exchange direct messages with my family (many don’t use any other way of communication) and a few discussion groups.
    I totally dislike FB news feed, it’s disgusting. And I don’t have the app on my phone.
    After these changes, I now use Facebook very intentionally without spending mindless time on it.

  9. Alex Barrett says:

    I unfollowed absolutely everyone in my newsfeed. It’s just blank now.
    I installed facebook purity to remove a majority of the other site elements.

    The best part about the unfollowing strategy is that it is not easily undone in a moment of distraction or boredom.

    I barely use facebook now. It has been good for my psychology.

  10. Frank says:

    One thing that is not mentioned here – perhaps because it is too obvious – is to eliminate all emails from Facebook (except for security concerns). I found that I would get a few emails per day, then I would click on one of them to read a post I was interested in . . . then lose an hour of my time to the unending feed. Instead of unfriending or unfollowing people and pages, I have eliminated Facebook emails (and I never ever installed the phone app, which is pure evil genius on FB’s part). By taking this simple step, I have gained a few extra hours per week. These hours I’m gaining are usually from 9-10 PM, when my will power is low, but I can now spend this time in much more enjoyable ways.

  11. victoria says:

    Honestly, just not having it on my work computer or phone takes avoids a huge majority of timesuck issues for me. I can correspond with folks whom it’s tough to get in touch with any other way, and I can use the groups I’m part of and want to keep up with, just not every minute of every day.

  12. Ravin says:

    Cal,
    Likewise I removed the app from my phone. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I had little self control when I was free for a second and almost always clicked into it. Another benefit though is that the app is a memory and cpu hog and reduced my battery life substantially.

    Like Victoria above I also just make it a rule to never log into Facebook at work. Besides the attention benefit it also ensures that some “friend’ I have doesn’t post something NSFW and my employer sees it and judges me. It’s just too much of a risk to even be bothered with.

    On a similar note I really think you need to take Top Performer off of Facebook. There has to be another platform, like a discourse board or something, that is not on that distracting platform.

    1. Jonathon says:

      I agree re Top Performer; it would be great to take it off Facebook. I created a “clean” Facebook account for the course & even that gets bombarded by Facebook notifications etc. As such, I have deleted Facebook again and just go to the TP website.

  13. Taimoor says:

    I am a Computer Science graduate student. I have been following Cal for quite sometime. I read Deep Work, followed his blog and am deeply inspired by his thoughts.

    I have quit Facebook altogether, following Cal’s advice (and came to realize that no one really misses me out there on Facebook).

    Hence I would recommend more people who want to live Deep satisfying lives to quit such monetization of their attention.

  14. Ryan says:

    Isn’t there something quite wrong about only using Facebook to market to people when the person marketing thinks Facebook is trying too hard to keep users addicted so they can sell more ads and market to other people? Like they somehow are above it, but think the rest of the world is okay being marketed to?

    1. Ted says:

      Life is about being the predator, rather than the prey.

    2. Sarah says:

      I’ve actually been thinking about this very problem for a while. I unfollwed everything on facebook and instagram except for a few people I know in real life, and feel much calmer an less distracted ever since. Yet I keep my public profile on both networks to promote my photography. Which technically means I force people to use a communication channel I consider harmful. And since we’ve already agreed that these platforms are designed to be addictive, this feels a little like placing a crate of beer next to an alcoholic. For now my best strategy is to post only snippets that link back to my homepage, hoping to expand this platform in the future and redirect people there.

    3. Johan says:

      That’s a demand side problem–not a supply side one.

    4. Tallat Satti says:

      Hello Rayan, its not only the Facebook people use to market products and services. I believe every social media channel is now working hard for the same reason.

  15. Skip says:

    Some helpful hints here.

    I deleted the mobile app but still found myself mindlessly visiting via mobile browser. To stop that, I changed my password to gibberish that I would never remember. Now I can check it on my home computer, but by being logged off and not knowing the password, I’m able to stay off on my mobile devices.

  16. Alex says:

    I “collect” friends on Facebook mostly to have a quick base to gain information (people from different jobs, students from different courses at my uni, friends from my home town, friends from current town and people who post interesting things on the topic of architecture – also enables to catch contests or new trends). Even though I have over 600 friends, my feed is empty – I unfollowed every friend, liked pages and groups. 99% of time I use it for instant communication – easier than a tekst since you see they are online and whether they read it when you needed; also sending pictures for easier communication, especially when working on projects with people around the world.

  17. Ramin says:

    Fascinating. Recently I did the same but I didn’t know there were so many people. I’ve unfollowed all my friends on Facebook this way I can message them but I don’t see them in the newsfeed. Now my newsfeed is basically empty with just ads in it. I use the messenger for all the people i don’t have on whatsapp. Still using Facebook as mentioned to market my blog and follow up on very highly curated groups as well as university related groups (at my university there is just no way around that if you want to know if a class is at a different day or the prof mentioned something for the upcoming exam).

    Thanks for the great post!

    1. Laolu says:

      I would really like to know how you promote your photography without the retinue of too many friends on facebook? I want to also prune down my friendlist,I have also deleted instagram, i only use instagram for web and i install it when i need to post a photo.

  18. Josh says:

    I block 3rd party applications, pages, invites from certain friends, and those I no longer or never care to interact with, with reckless abandon. It’s a “whack a mole” game of sorts. I realize I’ve turned Facebook into even more of an echo chamber than it already is, but that’s okay by me.

  19. Kaja says:

    I’m always surprised to see people of my generation (“millenials” if you will… a.k.a. people who are tech literate and should know better) use Facebook as it’s “supposed” to be used and the moan about it.
    I think Facebook, and the internet itself, is a wonderful tool, but you have to make sure you use it on your own terms. Since all this stuff is designed with the intention of hijacking your attention and keeping you there, clicking, for as long as possible, it’s only reasonable to set up some defences of your own. Which means unfollowing everyone, blocking that endless newsfeed with a plugin etc… and the Page Manager app and pre-scheduled posts make it easy to run a public page without putting in much time or ever having to go to Facebook proper.
    (Though of course if everyone blocked their newsfeeds my public page wouldn’t get any action, so maybe I shouldn’t be telling people to do that! 🙂 )

  20. Hi Cal,

    Really loved this post and the similarities with the old phone freaks etc.

    Funnily enough I wrote about something very similar a while ago, after some email conversations with Derek Sivers about using FB without any distractions. The link is here if anyone would be interested:

    http://alastairjohnston.co.uk/sivers-and-fb/

    1. Marcel Samyn says:

      Nice, thanks for the article!

  21. George Darroch says:

    Unfollow is your friend. Keep the very closest people in your life (family, friends you’d telephone), unfollow every other person without exception.

    ‘Hide all’ from pages also works very well when applied consistently.

    The firehose becomes a cupful, and is no longer a demand on your attention.

  22. Marcel Samyn says:

    If you use Stylish (a browser add-on that lets you change the styles of different websites), I created a style that hides the Facebook News Feed. Just put it online, it might be helpful for some of you 🙂

    https://userstyles.org/styles/139046/focused-facebook

  23. Paul says:

    Yep, pulled Facebook off my smartphone 8 months ago and couldn’t be happier! I have the Messenger App, for communication purposes. I check Facebook for about 3 minutes on my home PC maybe twice a week. Thanks Cal for posting, great article!

  24. Marc Plotkin says:

    “Newsfeed Eradicator” is the best thing. (https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/news-feed-eradicator-for/fjcldmjmjhkklehbacihaiopjklihlgg?hl=en)

    Now if I need to look someone up on Facebook, it isn’t a distraction because there is no newsfeed to look at 🙂

  25. Donald Cole says:

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  26. Cassie says:

    Great article! I deactivated my FB almost a year ago and have never gone back. Those who wished to maintain friendships with me outside of FB, have done so and they were already in my life in that capacity before FB. Some I lost touch with and well, I guess that’s meant to be. I thought about putting messenger on my phone but I would have to reactivate to use it and I am not willing to do that. I absolutely refuse to use their service. My friends know to text, call or email me instead.

    My children, all millennials, do not use FB either instead opting for snapchat or text to communicate with each other. They also are a fan of face time and phone calls. I love this about them!

  27. Very informative and well written post! Quite interesting and nice topic chosen for the post.

  28. yolo says:

    Since I havn’t seen it posted yet, the following link gives you the messanger without the feed on desktop (a la using the Messenger mobile app) https://www.messenger.com/

  29. Bragadeesh says:

    It was two years after I fully quit facebook, I read the book Deep work in 2016. It kind of affirmed that the decision that I took a couple years earlier was the best I could ever have taken! I am actively campaigning to people I closely interact with about the manipulative effects that these social networks are bringing and shredding our concentration skills!

  30. Robyn says:

    My fiance has always complained that I spent too much time on social media; he personally has never had an account. I finally decided to delete my accounts to see what would happen. It has been one of the best things I’ve ever done. I probably spent an average of 2 hours a day on Instagram and Facebook. Now that time is spent reading, working, going to the gym, etc. I feel far more productive and also far more informed by what’s happening in the world. Also, when I see friends now, I can genuinely ask “How are you? What have you been doing lately?” without already knowing the answer.

  31. Amanda Y says:

    I’m one and wish more would be too!

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