5 Things I Learned from Deactivating Facebook
I got a Facebook account when I was fifteen years old. Like most decisions I made as an adolescent, it was driven by a desire to get closer to a girl. Going in, I didn’t have a solid understanding of Facebook, much less how I would use it. I had tuned out the rise and fall of Myspace, I never took pictures of myself or my friends, and I feared the overly inquisitive status bar’s constant question, “What are you thinking?”
Still, despite my initial handicap, I slowly took to Facebook. I went through the requisite stages of Facebook growth. Initially, I had no idea what was acceptable to share, so I just guessed. Then I had a brief1 “emotionally complex” stage that was based primarily on posting deep2 song lyrics. Finally, I came to the point at which Facebook became a unique social space – a game of eliciting likes, shares, and circular jokes. With every subsequent stage Facebook became a bigger and bigger part of my life, and after five years, I never went more than a few hours without checking it.
And then, a year ago, I got off Facebook.
It wasn’t an extensively premeditated decision, but I also wouldn’t call it impulsive. After all, as long as Facebook has been around, there has been a (mostly adult) vanguard of people who continually warned me of the effect it could have on my life, future, and basic ability to connect with human beings. This kind of alarmism always seemed hysteric to me, but as I grew older I began to realize that it was hard for me to dispute. After all, I hadn’t spent any part of my mature or adult life without Facebook. I had no idea what it would be like. Was the world really that different without status updates and profile pictures? Without Facebook would my social life wither and perish, longing for the continual reinforcement and nourishment that constant connection provides? Or would my relationships become truer, more meaningful, and more important to me? Would any of it matter at all? Would people still invite me to shit?3 I wanted to know, so I made the fateful decision to open my settings, ignore Facebook’s desperate pleas, and deactivate my account. Here is what I learned from my year of hermitage.
1) You Have No Idea How Much You Know About People
Facebook provides an incredible amount of information about your friends.4 It has to, as the entire model is based on convincing you to provide enough information about yourself so that they can make a profit. But it’s not just Facebook’s marketing team that’s learning an incredible amount about everyone – you are, too. It seems obvious, but I never fully understood how much information I was absorbing from my newsfeed until it was gone.
Removing yourself from Facebook is like unsubscribing from a gossip magazine created about everyone you know. The barrier of knowing personal details about someone changes from “being literate and having an internet connection” to “having regular and personal conversations with each other.” In other words, molehills become mountains.
The subsequent loss of this interpersonal knowledge manifests itself in a lot of different ways. First off, you will become the friend that almost always has to ask, “What are you guys talking about?” whenever your friends are engaging in a bit of good-old-fashioned gossip. This can be a crippling blow to your shit-talking abilities, so plan accordingly.
You also lose the ability to Facebook-stalk any new acquaintances in your life. Wondering if that girl you met is single? Guess you can find out by asking her on a date. Curious what kind of television shows your quiet co-workers likes? You’re going to have to start a conversation. Want to engage in some Schadenfreude by knowing exactly how many bong rips that kid you hate from high school has posted for the public’s perusing pleasure? Abandon that dream. These details are beyond your reach.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Just because information exists about someone doesn’t mean that you have to know it. Plus, getting to know someone without already knowing what they’ve chosen to put on their carefully cultivated Facebook profile is a refreshing experience. It actually affords people the chance to exercise discretion in the information they share. This makes new pieces of information valuable, as they become something that was personally and consciously shared instead of a mere byproduct of a life that’s been broadcast. I wouldn’t say that my social life went from meaningless to meaningful with the banishment of Facebook, but I would say that getting to know a human being before getting to know their profile was a different, more personal experience.
2) Nobody invites you to do shit
Facebook has provided us with an easy way to invite people en masse to anything. Now, it turns out that anything is a category that contains everything I would never want to attend. No, I don’t want to go to 8 college theater productions this week. I don’t even want to go to one. But, despite the barrage of unwanted invitations, I value the events page. I think it’s worth ignoring ten shitty events to be able to attend one good one.
Of course, if you aren’t on Facebook there are no invites at all. You exist in a communication dead-zone, similar to how I imagine the dark side of the moon feels. The period when you’ve just left Facebook is particularly bad. For weeks I felt like I missed everything.
After a while, people will get used to you not being on Facebook, and then you’ll occasionally receive a personal invite to something (which is THRILLING), but for the most part, events will continue to slide right past you. Once you’re off Facebook, it becomes more important than ever to be friends with people who are on Facebook and run in the same circles as you, as they’ll be the ones that can remind you that So-and-So is having her birthday party that night.
3) Not having a Facebook is as big of a statement as most of what you could say on Facebook
I keep hearing that more and more people are abandoning Facebook, but I don’t believe it. I don’t know where they’re getting their numbers. Almost everyone I’ve met in the past year has been on Facebook. The conversational-ending “I’ll find you on Facebook” became a dreaded and inescapable occurrence. To be without Facebook is an aberration, a stance, a statement. “Not having a Facebook” becomes part of your identity, a descriptor people apply to you.
I even had a class where we did a “getting to know you” game in which the goal was to find people that fit certain descriptions. Many of the descriptions were things like “has been scuba diving” or “considers themselves a spiritual person,” but one square was also set aside for “does not have a Facebook.” And just like that, you’ve become a categorical anomaly.
The problem with being a categorical anomaly is that just like any other weird phenomenon, it gives people the chance to speculate.
First off, you could just be a weirdo. One of those people who doesn’t live a normal social life and has solidified this lifestyle by withdrawing from the modern world. Secondly, you could be one of those people who is protective of their personal information – which would probably be admirable if Google didn’t already know your penis size, which diet you’re trying, and whether you’re thinking about buying a clownfish. You might be a hipster, Luddite, one of those people who thinks cameras steal souls, my mother, or even someone who’s just trying to cut down on time-wasting.5 The explanations are endless, and people will explore their limits.
It’s not that everyone assumes these things, or even that all the assumptions are bad. But it certainly allows people the chance to speculate in a space where you were once unremarkable. Falling off the Social Network can put you on other people’s network in a different way.
4) Old friends disappear
I have a friend that I’ve known since the second grade. We aren’t terribly close anymore, and I think I’ve only seen him one time in the past year, but I’m still fond of him. When I fell off Facebook, it was a complete moratorium on all communication. When I finally reactivated my profile, he commented, “glad to c u r alive.” All I could do was agree with him.
One of the strange things about Facebook is that it offers effortless life-support for a certain class of relationship. For the people whose lives you care about but who are no longer really a part of your day-to-day, Facebook provides a comfortable way of watching their lives unfold. When you lose Facebook, you lose access to all those stories.
For all of its flaws, Facebook actually bestows us with an amazing ability to hold huge numbers of people in our lives at once. And no, not every “friend” is a friend you’d call up, and not every status carries an emotional message of great importance. But the sum of these great and small relationships is something that I couldn’t even come close to accomplishing without Facebook.
5) There is a culture that you are no longer a part of
There’s a short-lived mythic quality to great Facebook posts – a momentary immortality that comes when someone speaks the coveted phrase, “Did you see that on Facebook?” These blessings are not infrequent. For those who are vigilant, there is no shortage of cool things to see on Facebook. From amazing videos that you got to see a few hours before they went viral, to art projects posted by your friends, to something as simple as a funny picture caption, Facebook can present you with a lot of great content. And I, like most people, have brain space set aside for such stunning virtual occurrences. What people remember, people talk about. Facebook is a social network that can bring people together even when they’re offline.
To leave Facebook is to be unable to talk about Facebook, to be on the outside of small conversations that pop up almost daily about the exciting events revealed by that rolling blue newsfeed. Most time spent on Facebook is wasted, but it’s wasted collaboratively, and to exist outside the time-wasting is to abandon an almost ubiquitous activity.
I enjoyed spending a year off Facebook. There are a host of immediate benefits: increased free time, an actual feeling of solitary existence, and freedom from a constantly churning and updating sea of updates and posts. But as much as I enjoyed my time apart from Facebook, I’m enjoying my time with it even more. For all of its offenses against privacy, intimacy, and occasionally literacy, Facebook is a tool that allows me to maintain more human connections than I ever could on my own. And yes, not every friend is my favorite, and not every post is something worth reading – but at the end of the day, I think it’s better to have more people in your life than fewer, and when it comes to increasing that ratio, there are few tools better than Facebook.