Tweets from Tahrir, five years on

tweets book cover

Five years ago I stood in Tahrir Square as one of the millions who brought down President Mubarak. The feeling then was that the world was opening before our eyes. The possibilities seemed endless. Famously, the events were reported in real-time on social media. The revolution may not have been powered by Silicon Valley tech tools as some in the West too lazily assumed, but the experience was shared with the world through those portals. I co-edited a book, Tweets from Tahrir, which collected tweets to tell the story of the revolution. A selection of them was printed in the Guardian — the world was eager to hear those voices.

But #Jan25’s bloom didn’t end in fruition; Few of Tahrir’s dreams were realised. If anything revolutionaries’ voices were muted in the months and years to come. The activists and ‘citizen journalists’ on Twitter, fluent in English and media-friendly, were only ever one part of the coalition that brought down the president. The spirit of their revolution lived on for a few years (a remarkable feat for a movement with little institutional base) but was ultimately overwhelmed by the organised strength of the Muslim Brotherhood, who were in turn overwhelmed by the military – which, it turned out, had never really been deposed.

On this anniversary, with Egypt back under the rule of an autocratic ex-general, I wanted to hear the voices of those original activists again. Was it worth it?

Was it worth it? And why?

@Salamander Of course!!! It was the best 18 days of our lives with all the fear and pain and agony, the sense of victory; of achievement. These are priceless feelings. But also it was worth it for what it entailed, that for one moment we all felt proud; we all stood up against injustice and united, we battled oppression. Would we have regretted not rising up at that moment, had we not? Who knows?

@Zeinobia Yes, it was because despite it not ending in the way we wanted – we do not have democracy or social justice – it still opened the eyes of many on the bitter realities. Taboos are being challenged.

Anonymous Tweeter 1* It was definitely worth it, because it ignited a whole generation’s revolutionary spirit to stand fearless in the face of a powerful regime. It was worth it because it was a pre-cursor to an ongoing struggle against tyranny, inequality and oppression that will continue as long as the core issues remain unresolved. Because the unsustainable methods used by all past regimes will reach a breaking point, and then the experience of #Jan25 will be priceless as we move along the learning curve in iterations, bringing us closer to the goal.

@Ganzeer Yeah, I think so. While we may not have totally succeeded in bringing down The Man, it is incredibly satisfying to see The Man frightened and scared and using everything he’s got to cling onto power. The Man, in this case, being the Egyptian military apparatus and its business cronies. Admittedly though, I also can’t help but feel heartbroken over the lives that were lost and the dreams that’ve been crushed.

@Gharbeia Totally. There was no chance of building a democracy in 2011. I wish I could find my February 2011 interview with the BBC when I said tonight is a party, tomorrow we have a military coup to deal with. The real goal I think was to break the binary between traditional authoritarianism and Islamism, and the way to do this was to create a crisis (it is the only thing we are good at) to throw the Islamists in power, then throw them out of it, hopefully quickly and peacefully. This was the analysis of a small group within Kifaya (pre-2011 grassroots coalition), and it is exactly what happened.

Anomymous Tweeter 2* Absolutely. Jan25 revealed how a united and determined populace can topple the Pharaoh and shake his throne to its foundations. It inspired the ordinary citizen to reclaim his/her rights, freedoms, streets, public spaces, and their country. However, the counter-revolution has basically triumphed. In terms of rights and freedoms in Egypt, we are now worse-off than we were under Mubarak’s dictatorship. The Rabaa Massacre – orchestrated by Sisi – is on a par with the Tiananmen Square Massacre in China. In terms of our rights and freedoms (since 2013) – it’s not like we are back at Square One. It’s like we are starting at Square Negative 100.

Anonymous Tweeter 3* It was worth it. Not because of the initial outcome but because it had to happen. It was bigger than any of us and it was going to happen anyway. I can only hope that people learn from history next time, but that may be too hopeful.

@MohamedAhmos Yes, because the people had their voice heard.

@Gsquare86 We fought, conquered, bled, cried, laughed, were imprisoned and tortured, but for a moment we were free and it was all worth it.

@TheAlexandrian Well, that really depends on your time horizon. Any wholesale societal shifts of the sort that we witnessed across the region five years ago will naturally involve a period of adjustment before a new equilibrium is reached. This period will naturally come with quite a bit of difficulty. Even in the region’s lone “success story” Tunisia, consternation and unease remain high. At any given point in recent years, one could look to the continued repression, economic stagnation, and security breakdowns across Egypt and conclude that all this was assuredly not worth it. Yet, without minimising the real toll felt by everyday Egyptians, what we are seeing is the growing pains that generally attend to the breakdown of authoritarian rule. It will likely take a generation to pass before we can meaningfully assess whether the current tumult was truly worthwhile.

@omareldeeb Well five years later I’m very disappointed at what we have become. We are losing more and more freedoms to military rule, and the educated youth are leaving the country for better opportunities elsewhere. I’m guessing #25Jan is at its worst state.

If you knew then what you know now, what would you have done differently?

@Gsquare86 I would do it all over again every single lifetime. Nothing to regret only lessons to grow with for what’s yet to come. It’s not over.

@RamyYaacoub There needed to be a plan, any sort of plan, I recall my enquiries about a plan to be drowned by calls for the complete bringing down of the regime. But, there was never a plan, and I would’ve wanted one.

@Ganzeer I’ve been vocal about the dangers of trusting the military since around July 2011, and my stance has not changed since. I wish I and others had made that realisation as early as January 2011. Maybe, just maybe, the outcome would’ve been different, I don’t know.

Anonymous Tweeter 2* I would’ve sought to avoid conflict & infighting with people in the same revolutionary boat. I would’ve worked harder to organise with others to make #Jan25 a more effective & sustainable popular revolt.

@Zeinobia Not much. I would have participated and covered it. The only difference now is that the blind trust and innocence we had during then will be replace with political realism.

@Gharbeia Not much. Things are going OK given where we started from, aren’t they?

What are your hopes for the future?

@TheAlexandrian My hope for the future is simple: that #Jan25 is regarded as a means and not an end. That it not be relegated to an annual event in which we patronisingly ‘celebrate’ the Egyptian people, but rather recognise it as the opening salvo in a long struggle to establish an Egypt that all its citizens can celebrate and take part in. If this general ethos abides, then I have faith that all the specifics we wish for will have their due chance to come to fruition in time.

@Gharbeia That we build that movement before it is too late. We are facing an approaching perfect storm: worldwide structural crises and an unsustainable regime. We need to be ready before it falls apart, and it will.

Anonymous Tweeter 1* my hopes for the future are for Egypt to circumvent the bloody rebellion and all out conflict that appears to be the path it is on. To have a military that understands this threat and checks itself giving the space for civilian rule to dominate the political spectrum. We need technocrats in place strategising for an economy that reduces the recruiting power of extremist groups and utilising the resources of the country in a transparent and sustainable way.

Anonymous Tweeter 2* I hope for a revolution that will effectively safeguard the goals of freedom and social justice – against all opportunist politicians, against corrupt judges, against thieving businessmen, and against bloody generals.

@RamyYaacoub My hopes have been curbed, or in other words, adjusted to reality. 1. I hope for the end of torture in police stations; 2. I hope for some, consistent, economic reform/growth; 3. I hope that some political structures/organisations to be allotted the space to grow to give room for future generations to develop the necessary skills to create/implement real and positive change.

@Zeinobia I hope that for the sake of those who died, were detained and injured during not only those 18 days but those 5 years, we achieve the goals of #Jan25 and start a true civilian secular democratic transition that will save the future generations in Egypt in the future.

@Ganzeer Same as day one: bread, freedom, and social justice.

* Three activists asked not to be identified.

Tweets from Tahrir, edited by Nadia Idle and Alex Nunns, is published at £8 in paperback and £7 as an ebook. Available from orbooks.com

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This piece first appeared in Red Pepper on 25 January 2016

 

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The Lorax is Nye Beven. Or the Future. Or You.

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The Lorax is on at the Old Vic until 16 January. Go see it. It’s brilliant. It’s colourful. It’s fun. And it’s the best commentary on the state of a nation you’ll have seen in a long time. It’s an excellent reminder that sneering at people who give a shit is shit and if you do, you should stop it right now.

I’m convinced that Dr. Seuss books, particularly the Lorax, shaped my values and world view more than anything else. I was obsessed with reading the books over and over as a child. I love Dr Seuss’ psychedelic rhyming narrative so I worried the play wouldn’t live up to expectations but it very much did.

It’s not a spectacle cum west-end musical type production. In fact it doesn’t fill the space at times. But it’s joyous, colourful and clever. It’s striking how good a commentary it makes on London life in 2015 and on the work, buy, like, die culture of metropolis living in general. It exposes the poverty of the supposed gains were trading in for our freedom to live in a state of civility. The Once-ler tears up his promise of a regulated business model of Thneed production when seduced by The Bigger Better Things. He goes full turbo capitalism when faced with the prospect of a bigger desk and chair. A bigger desk and chair. It’s perfect. It shows up the absurdity of it all.

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It’s also a great comment on how facts and science are deemed insignificant in the face of media and The Bling when it comes to our collective judgement. The TV viewers drop their skepticism and concerns when the Once-ler puts on a Bling-tastic  Thneed showcase at his factory. None of the facts change, Thneed production is still causing environmental and social devastation but the Once-ler sure can put on one hell of catwalk show with flashing lights and a great DJ! So he’s in the good books again. Expose eshpose! Hey presto, the viewers <heart> the Once-ler.

On sneering

The Lorax is the dude that get gets shat on for giving a toss. Or in less metaphorical terms, he’s the guy who gets sneered at for calling out the impending crisis and for trying to stop it. This is synonymous with the prevalent discourse that giving a shit about anything that doesn’t gratify immediately is a cop out. All The Funz only equals a succession of minute long head rushes. If you say yes to a long walk but no to balloons you are No Fun. In a way this makes sense; it’s a defence mechanism London 2015 has developed for dealing with the fact that we have no money and no time to dream of any future, let alone plan for one. But this attitude also incapacitates us from thinking collectively about solutions, so that we can have more space to dream, be and own this city.

The Lorax, Nye Beven, founder of the NHS, and countless others over history have fought for Progress; that is making things better and brighter for more of us. They thought laterally and they thought big. They had ambitions and sights bigger than themselves and that was generally commendable not prime sneer material. We live in a weird reality when the burden of proof is on those who want life to be better for more people, to prove that they are ok in the head. It’s a double weird reality when you’re supposed to not give a shit about anything but yourself and maybe your immediate family, AND only seek pleasure in The Bling. Empathy is seasonal, only ever allowed at Christmas, and only when it’s channelled through sanctioned philanthropic institutions. Beyond that giving a shit makes you an idiot apparently.

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On shrugging

If sneering is the appropriate response to someone giving a shit, shrugging is the only response to bad news. Were supposed to respond to policy decisions like we would a volcano erupting: A sad inevitability. It’s as if there aren’t actual people responsible for blowing London back to an era of destitution. The correct response to the privatisation of our National Health Service a looming end to a universal postal service, 600% rise in benefit sanctions on people with mental health issues, homelessness in London rising by 38% etc, is to shrug and scroll. Just reach over for your phone to check your feed in search of that dopamine hit to kill any urge to think about the destruction of the very premise of civil life let alone do anything about it.

Joy & empathy

The Lorax loses his cool, and finally walks away because he doesn’t get why the Once-ler is set on killing the joy and is baffled by why he lacks empathy and foresight. He’s totally unseduced by the story of bling. Now I -like anyone not living in a cardboard box in 2015 – have been seduced by The Bling in some form at least. Regardless though, I’m with The Lorax here: Where is the joy and where is the empathy? I’m not a critic of The Bling because I’m no fun, but because it’s no fun. It’s shit and soulless, and a poor substitute for the good life, which is now out of reach. No amount of X-Factor Instagramed Facebook Likes are as good as having a laugh with friends, and the time and space to do it in.

I, like the Lorax, want to hang out under Truffula Trees with my mates without some property developer coming round and drilling into my head-space and ruining the party. And in London, it’s happening to us every day. Every day your umpteenth favourite spot is bulldozed to perk up some rich person’s short-term profit, inflate GDP and add to the growth figures. And we’re supposed to shrug, like the people responsible don’t have names and addresses, and scroll down our feeds for light relief instead.

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I don’t buy the Once-ler’s I-once-was-a-poor-boy sob story as an excuse for his drive for short term profit at the expense of his and everyone’s future. Just as I don’t buy the sneerer’s vision of activism’s outcomes. The idea that fighting the doom avalanche is action in vain is frankly a defenceless argument. If you look at history and basic facts, the seed of progress was often planted by a small group of people declaring that some trajectory was shit and needed to change. Fukuyama is an idiot, and Thatcher was a twat, so don’t believe the hype. As the dumb-ass Once-ler finally sees at the end UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

Don’t be that guy. Be part of history. Don’t settle for the shit.

You are not alone.

Offerings on Time & Space

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Hey, you. Friend. Hold my hand.

TIME – Our attention is finite. This oppression has architecture designed to tire. Overstimulating yourself and others will only weaken the resistance. Do not participate. Slow down.

TIME – People hyperventilating through their calls for more action, more demos, more reaction, to work harder, to give more time that will lessen your time to think, to pause, to relate, to be human. Slow down. Be mindful of what you may become; running Capital’s races on its treadmills to a soundtrack long gone.

SPACE –To socialise, organise, support, trust. The physical places to congregate, collect and experience communal thought, smells, sounds and energy are being tugged from its mother, the collective soul of us. Many coves, street corners, benches, gardens, centres and squats have gone to waste, like a skip of food covered in bleach. Induced to eat that shiny commodified morsel, a shadow of what togetherness once was. And pay for the privilege as you choke. Today, a pre-emptive strike to protect and expand the communal, or tomorrow there will be no haven to imagine a world lacking acid.

SPACE – To think in our day. To fight the alienation, the agitation. To not add to the heap of upside down cockroaches, squirming in vain for a way to overturn, for a lifeline or a rope, or a hand to: Get. You. Out. Be mindful.

TIME – We’ve moved forward. We’ve moved us forward. You exist in time built on the struggles of many, the stories whispered and those untold in the noisy lie of stagnation, denying our histories. It’s a lie! We built Civilisation We can see the Krispy Kream barbarism on the horizon, around the corner and above you. You’ve got a taste of it now in your mouth. Acid.

TIME – Don’t believe the hype. Our actions do not exist in a vacuum. We stand on the shoulders of our comrades, in the shadows of friends long gone who fought for justice. We are situated in history! Be inspired!

SPACE – Allow yourself to dream. Allow ourselves to dream. Dream. Our futures die when your dreams end. Don’t let them take your dreams away!

TIME – By day we struggle. Night time is our time. The night is ours! Take the night! Let’s take the night together!

SPACE – Make it visible. Your struggle to have moments. A moment to feel. A moment to pause. A moment of deep breaths not taken on a toilet seat with your head in your hands, for once. A moment to rethink that thought, not swipe left and move on untaught. It is your right to reflect! Your right to rethink! Your right to make eye contact and smile and ponder and take a step forward. Stop. And take a step back. Turn around. Walk in a circle and walk back in your head.

SPACE – Think solidarity, friend. Do not individualise your grievance, for you are not alone. Do not despair. Do not sink into your identity. Collectivise that pain!

Hey, Friend. Hold my hand. Hold it tight. Ready? Jump!

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This piece first appeared in B A M N – An Unofficial Magazine of Plan C

Reclaim your Brain – Ten steps to liberation from Facebook addiction

Last week I wrote about how getting off Facebook had changed me. I feel like I’ve come through a fog or woken up from some drunken stupor made of anxiety, self-doubt and mini failures. Five weeks and counting. It’s pretty sweet on the other side.

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What made me finally get off Facebook was reading about the science in The Organized Mind: What Facebook does to the human brain. Each status update and cat gif is literally competing for resources with things like where you left your passport and how to reconcile an argument with a friend. Your brain has a fixed bandwidth and daily processing capacity.[1] Constant checking interferes with things you want to do in your day and in your life.[2] Cognitive overload is linked to making errors in judgement[3]

Checking Facebook constantly, Daniel Levitin argues, constitutes a neural addiction.[4] The “social networking addiction loop” is A Thing. Facebook and other social networking platforms send chemicals through your brain’s pleasure centre that are genuinely, physiologically, addicting[5]

So if you check Facebook first thing when you get up, plan your next status update in your head, or obsess about uploading pics while on holiday, give this a go. You might feel liberated.

You may now have Facebook related anxiety just thinking of going off Facebook. How will you keep in touch with your friends? Your family will complain! How will you know what’s going on? You’ll have FOMO all the time! Relax, trust me, it’s worth it. You may feel better about yourself and your life in general when you gain back control, or as I think about it, freedom. Do you even remember yourself? Get your humanity back.

A few things worked for me. Here’s my ten point plan for kicking the habit

1. Uninstall FB as an app

This is absolute step one. No notifications on your phone. You’re a human not Pavlov’s dog. Get serious. Just uninstall. You’re not deactivating. Take a deep breath. Just uninstall.

2. Turn off sound/vibrate notifications full stop

For everything. Twitter, Whatsapp, etc. You may not be addicted to the others (Twitter just doesn’t “get me” like Facebook does) but constant alert response conditioning will affect your Facebook addiction negatively. Your phone is not your child. Do not let it demand unequivocal attention. Free yourself.

3. Is your phone your wake-up alarm? Get an alarm clock

You need your phone not to be next to you when you wake up. Get an alarm clock or alarm radio to wake you up.

4. Plug your phone as far away from you as possible when you go to bed

Now that your phone is no longer your alarm clock (or your child), move it away from your bed. On the other end of your room. Or better still another room. Ringer off, face down, arse in the air to stop the notification light from tormenting you. Or better still under something as it charges at night. Better yet, on airplane mode.

That was the prep. You’re doing well. Here’s the hard part. But once you’ve done it, it’s done and you’ll know it works.

5. Put the internet to sleep two hours before you

Whether you’re on a train home or better yet at home two hours before you go to bed, abandon your phone and laptop. You may not need to be this strict once your addiction is under control but for now no internet two hours before sleep. Use a site blocker on your phone and laptop. If you’re home and find reading a book intimidating, read a magazine or a crap paper or watch some good/bad TV. Doodle. Have a chat. Cook some food. Make some music. Anything not internet based.

6. When you wake up – leave your phone alone

This will be hard at first. You’ll be searching for the dopamine based gratification. Tell yourself it’s just the chemicals. Do all the other things you’d normally do in the morning, but leave your phone alone.

7. Start listing your needs and excuses

As you attempt to do 6, your brain will tell you that you have to check your phone/Facebook because of x y and z. Write these things down. Externalise this information using pen and paper. Then take a breath, sit down for just one minute before you leave home for work (if you do) and ask yourself: Do I actually NEED to do/know any of these things before lunch time or even today? Chances are, for most things you don’t.

8. Leave your phone in your jacket at work

If possible, don’t have your phone next to you when you’re at work. Wherever work happens. That counts for all sorts of work, not just office based waged work.

9. About to cave? Go for a walk

When you feel yourself about to cave (which you will) get up and go for a walk. Even if it’s just to the loo and back.

10. Start listing all the things you need from Facebook this week

Whenever your brain tells you that you need to check Facebook, take a pause after your walk/change of scenery and write the reason down. This will probably happen all day for 48hrs or so from when you last checked. Even if you don’t know what you’re going to write, write it down. Using pen and paper. Articulating your thoughts in writing will help you decide a schedule for extracting information from Facebook when you will log on in the future. Writing your perceived needs will help you decide if Facebook is your only go to place to:

  • Find out the address of that event. Can you search online or ask a friend?
  • Check your messages for a friend’s response to a question. Can you text/email them instead?
  • Say happy birthday to someone. Call, email or text?

It may be that you find you don’t actually need Facebook this week or even this month.

And one more…

 11. How to Log in with control

At some point – even if you’re feeling the benefits, you may actually need to log in. Plan for The First Log In as if you were planning for war. Know which day it will be. Have your hand written list of what information you need. If you don’t have a list you don’t need to log on. The first time you do this do it with a sympathetic friend if possible. On someone else’s laptop if you can and not your phone. Log in slow. Type slow. As soon as you log in, take a deep breath. Try covering the notifications on the top right hand corner with one hand as you slowly start searching for the information I need from your list. Try to avoid looking at your feed or notifications at all the first time you log in after a break. Write down the answers to the questions on your initial list. Log off. Close Browser. Get up. Ideally go for a walk. The next few hours will be difficult. Try not to intoxicate yourself that night as this will make you more vulnerable to relapse.

As suggested in last week’s piece, my hypothesis is that a significant number of us are addicted to Facebook and this is affecting the health of society as a whole. I also think our addictions are no surprise: When the very foundations of society are being uprooted by the current government’s austerity measures, many of us are depressed. We have less time, money, energy and spaces to socialise and gain pleasure, so we turn to digital substitutions to mitigate our dissatisfaction, frustration and loneliness.

We feel uprooted. We feel we can’t invest in friendships or futures. So we search for the cheap short term thrills. You cant afford to travel so you get sloshed on the weekend, you can’t afford intimacy so Facebook will do.

Except it won’t. The real stuff is better.

You are not alone.

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 References from The Organized Mind

[1] P7

[2] P102

[3] 148

[4] P7

[5] P209

Confessions of an addict: A month without Facebook

I’ve been off Facebook for a month. The difference in me is incredible.

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I acknowledged I had a serious problem when I caught myself doing this:

Checking Facebook. Folding a jumper. Checking Facebook. Putting the kettle on. Checking Facebook. Folding another jumper. Checking Facebook. Making tea. Checking Facebook. Getting up. Checking Facebook. Sitting back down again. Checking Facebook. Getting up, then sitting back down again to check that one last thing on Facebook.

Two hours had gone by. I had neither put my washing away or drunk my tea. Two whole hours. I felt defeated and anxious.  I couldn’t complete any simple tasks without fidgeting or getting distracted. I felt pathetic.

So I took action. I’ve been off Facebook for a month and this is what happened:

  • I feel calm & centered. I’m sleeping really well.
  • I read a whole book. A whole book!
  • The pain has gone. For over a year I’ve had pain at the back of my jaw and a feeling of pressure in my ears, and temporary loss of hearing quality like when you’re on the Jubilee Line.  This came and went at various points in the day. At first I thought it was something in the air-conditioning at work making me ill. Then I realised it was anxiety related. But now it’s gone. Nothing all month.
  • I’ve done the filing I’ve been wanting to do for two years.
  • I’ve had lovely, slow catch ups with friends which didn’t feel taxing.
  • I’ve been less irritable and stressed at work.
  • The anxiety has gone. I’ve had a whole month without anxiety. I haven’t had “an episode” –  where I fall into a dark hole for a few days – all month. My problems haven’t gone away, but everything seems so…manageable.
  • I’ve read so many articles and made so many notes on activism, art,  creative ideas and collaborative work that I’ve lost count.
  • I’ve written this blog.

This of course illustrates correlation, not causation. I haven’t run a controlled experiment. But in Daniel Levitin’s Organized Mind I read that obsessively checking email, Facebook and Twitter constitutes a neurological disorder. And that was enough for me to try and kick the habit.

When I tell people Facebook makes me ill, I get one of two reactions: Laughter, like I’ve reached a weak punchline, or a pause then “me too”.

Not everyone who uses Facebook is an addict. Just as not everyone who drinks alcohol is an alcoholic. But with more than a third of the UK population visiting Facebook every day, what percentage of those have symptoms like mine? How many people would struggle to log off for a week? A day?

When a rise in the number of people with an addiction becomes evident, we have a social problem. A political problem. Begging questions of causes and symptoms. And of effects of society and how we relate to each other in our daily lives.

At the top of this blog I say I’ve been off Facebook for a month. I lied. I’ve been on for a total of 10 minutes over two sessions, 12 days apart. I’m learning how to use it for my needs. To find out about events and keep in touch with a few people too difficult to contact with other means.

Next week: Facebook on a leash – How to liberate yourself from obsessive checking.

Had a similar experience? Let me know.

You are not alone.