Last month I committed social suicide.
I deleted my Facebook account.
With no small sense of irony, I went to see The Social Network shortly after. What struck me about the film wasn’t the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg’s lack of social skills (funny, for a guy who now runs our social lives), the speed of his success, or even how Justin Timberlake brought sexy back to hacking. All I could focus on were the dates: Facebook was created in 2004! It sounds like yesterday, yet I can hardly remember a time when Facebook didn’t exist. I climbed on board in early 2007 with trepidation, anticipating another MySpace or Bebo—too busy; little of value. Only three years later, it’s hard to fathom how we planned high school reunions, shared wedding photos, or found out if our exes are still hot before Mark Zuckerberg came along.
I intended to find out.
My intentions were noble. After nearly five years of living abroad, hubby and I were gearing up to move back home to the West Coast. It seemed like the perfect time to put an end to our virtual social lives and start focusing on our real ones.
Admittedly, I was scared. I deliberated a full week before I even researched how to delete my account, and another week before I merely “disabled” it. It took me one more week to hit the official delete button. Then I waited for the fallout.
They say withdrawal is nastiest in the first few days, but my symptoms only increased over time. Like a smoker, it was initially the ritual that I missed most. A week after quitting, I was still wondering what to do each morning once I’d checked my email accounts and my blog feed and wasn’t quote ready to delve into work. Twitter suddenly got a lot more attention.
After two weeks I really started to miss my friends. I’ve lived away from them for nearly five years, but for at least three of those years I felt very much a part of their lives. My expectation that those friends would simply revert to emailing was seriously off base. My 15-year-old cousin informed me, “Nobody emails anymore.” And with the dearth of emails also came a drought of event invitations. Sure, in the past I had to turn them down due to distance, but I appreciated the thought no less.
After three weeks, panic set in. What was I missing?! What fabulous parties had passed? Who was pregnant? Engaged? Divorced? Who was at last night’s Canuck’s game? Who hates the new Sufjan Stevens album? Who was excited about the arrival of eggnog lattes at Starbucks? Wait, are eggnog lattes available already?? How would I ever know? And would my life be complete if I didn’t?
After an entire month I was faced with a serious existential crisis. Who am I apart from Facebook? Are my social interactions less valid because I do not document them afterward? Will everyone forget about me if I never again update my status?
My husband, who hasn’t missed Facebook in the slightest and is content to have three (real) friends in the world, reminded me that, indeed I am still a valid, complete person without an online profile. He also reminded me that dissolving a Facebook friendship is not dissolving a real friendship.
If Magritte were alive today, he would say, “Ceci n’est pas un ami”. These are not my friends. They are simply virtual representations of my friends. They do not “satisfy emotionally.” Just try filling them with tobacco.
Hubby also pointed out how much more time I now spend calling my family in the evenings, reading books on public transit, and working out on weekends. These are good things.
But while we’ve all discussed the shortcomings of Facebook (it’s a time vacuum, it’s voyeuristic, it violates privacy and lacks boundaries, it substitutes virtual friendships for real ones), how often do we discuss the downside of not being on Facebook? Point blank, it’s isolating.
I’m fascinated by my one friend who isn’t on Facebook. A busy schoolteacher and a mom, she always said she preferred real relationships to virtual ones. I was pretty excited to tell her about my own departure from Facebook. But the day after I quit, she emailed to say she had finally signed up—she was tired of feeling she was always missing out on things.
Facebook has become a casual, non-threatening way to make first contact with new friends. It’s how many of my wonderful real life friendships took root in the UK. Nowadays, calling someone you don’t know well can feel intrusive and overeager. Email can be inconvenient and slow—if I want to know how Kelly is doing, I have to remember to write her, and hope she finds time to email back. As a self-employed editor, I am hugely dependent on my personal network for contracts, and Facebook has often been a source of work. And though Facebook can’t replace my relationships, it is the easiest way to facilitate them.
I resisted cell phones for years, on principle, thinking I was preserving my independence and carefree lifestyle. But when I finally bought my first Motorola I discovered cell phones just make life easier. So while deleting myself from Facebook sounded like a liberating “eff you” to technology and the constraints of modern social expectations, in fact, it just made it harder to enhance that “real social life” I had idealized.
It’s no surprise my Facebook absence is unlikely to last much longer, but my time “unplugged” revealed the lack of constructive boundaries I had previously put on my use of it. When I do venture back into that digital abyss, it will be with new parameters—I’ll never spend time on Facebook when I could be spending it with real people; I won’t use it to kill time in public places; I will not accept friend requests out of courtesy; and I will prioritize deepening my existing friendships over being nostalgic about old ones. I’ll approach it as a tool to make my relationships better, not as a relationship in and of itself.