My Experience on Facebook and Why I’ve Quit [Updated]
Some months ago I was swept up into the Facebook craze by old friends from my undergraduate college days. While I’d kept up with a few, most of these old comrades from our punk rock subculture had fallen well off my radar. It seemed every one of us was coming to Facebook at about the same time, and the initial flush of reunion was delightful. We shared many reminiscences, photos, and even some films from those heady times, and it was interesting to hear about Betty Goldberg (stage name “Trash Thatcher”)* who’d gone on to play bass with some of the luminaries of punk rock, tour with a luminary of contemporary alt rock, meet the likes of Bono and Bowie, form several of her own bands, and work as a session musician before ultimately souring on the music business, relocating to an unlikely city, and settling into work as a bartender and construction worker. Likewise, it was amusing to see how Frankie Coppola, drummer in my own band back in those days, a motorcycle riding rocker and the wildest of our bunch, how this maniac had married, worked his way well up the corporate ladder, and fathered a few kids along the way. There was even talk of a real-life reunion which, alas and perhaps predictably, never happened.
Over time, the nostalgia trip died down. People with whom I’d had an at best tenuous relationship “friended” me, perhaps only to peek at the old photos of the punk rock days I’d scanned and published to my account. Others, of whom I had no recollection, also friended me, and I began to wonder if the ugly shift from the verb “befriend” to the truncated “friend” had consequence beyond simple assault and battery on the English language. Maybe “friend” doesn’t mean “befriend” after all?
As the nostalgia and reminiscing wore down, I noticed two trends emerge. First, the banality of everyone’s day-to-day lives paraded itself in a woeful display of status updates like “Gearing up for a great doughnut breakfast with the kids.” Second, I watched with horror as we End-of-Boom-ers started adopting the online habits of the “Look-At-Me Generation” wherein the details of every life event are published online–often embellished to give them more sparkle–in the expectation of a congratulatory comment or, worst case, a “Jimmy likes this” replete with “thumbs up” icon. Imagine being solicited to watch the vacation slide show of a trip to someplace anonymous taken by a family you barely know or whom you knew fairly well 25 years ago but whom you’d hadn’t seen since–that’s the level of disconnect I began to experience. These things are all well and good but for the fact they’re foisted onto your Facebook “wall.” I immediately started “hiding” posts from the biggest abusers, even while catching myself repeatedly checking my Facebook account throughout the day to see what was up. This cannot, I began to believe, be healthy: I found myself spending way too much time looking at the trivia of other people’s lives that was of no consequence to my own. Trivia so trivial I didn’t even think it could provide or stimulate fodder that might find its way into my fiction.
Now, I’m not saying it was all bad. I do have close friends with “FB” accounts who reserve their posts for the truly interesting or, at worst, the fleetingly amusing (often with an ironic poke to the very idea of an FB post itself). Trouble is, these were the exceptions and still nowhere near as engaging as even just a few minutes in the physical presence of these people.
And maybe that’s what started disturbing me the most. When I compared the FB “presence” of close friends to their actual in-person presence, I realized that one of the maxims of postmodernity, at least as it manifests in Facebook, was bullshit: we are the narrative we create of ourselves. These were not people I was interacting with, these were digitized avatars, fictions. My digitized avatar was interacting with the digitized avatars of all my FB “friends.” The interaction, to my mind, looks something like this:
Me–>Facebook Me–>[contrived Facebook environment]<–Facebook Friends<–Actual Friends
So, while there's the appearance of connectedness and “networking” in the Facebook environment, I perceived a huge gap between the real-world me and the real-world friend with whom I was supposed to be interacting. This gap, to my mind, is distorted by the Facebook environment itself, which encourages that one-way, Look-at-Me-Generation brand of communication. It’s a communication strategy that is neither satisfying nor effective, and which is, to my mind, not particularly healthy.
Having already started thinking about shutting down my Facebook account, I finally pulled the trigger after a “friend” of a “friend” started spouting off the ugliest of right-wing talking points in reply to a BBC news item my friend had posted. Turns out this friend, who 25 years back had given me a Soviet Nikolai Lenin badge, had turned a hard 180 degrees to the right. Finding this trash confronting me on my very own FB wall, I realized that this thing I’d waded into, which had been so fun at first, was now causing me completely unnecessary stress and anger. Sure, I could have just “hidden” this person’s posts or even “de-friended” this person, but as I noted I’d already begun hiding posts. And once you start having to do that, is there really any point to being in the FB world?
“That’s it!” I thought. “I’m outa here.” And so I began taking the numerous steps required to disentangle from Facebook. Several weeks ago I had a trial run while on vacation and without an internet connection for 10 days. I’d found I didn’t miss FB in the slightest. So, cutting the cord has not been a problem. I feel liberated from my strange obsession with people I no longer know well, liberated from the brand of voyeurism FB imposes, happy I’m no longer providing the FB people marketing data, and perhaps a bit less narcissistic (though that’s still a work in progress!). My close friends remain close, and I can communicate with them in ways that don’t involve the funhouse mirror that is FB. I think our friendship will be the better for it.
*All names and nicknames mentioned in this essay have been changed to preserve the privacy of these individuals.
Update: December 29, 2009: Facebook in Real Life: