I know Mark Zuckerberg as well as I used to know most of my Facebook friends. Which is to say – not very well.
We wandered the same campus as undergrads, attending that small school just outside Boston. I had friends who shared dining-hall meals with him and bumped into him in the halls. I was actually studying abroad when the whole Facemash debacle occurred. And by the time I returned to school, everyone asked me to Facebook them. I had no idea what they were talking about.
Obviously in the years since, the world and I have changed.
Like millions of others, I created a Facebook account that I obsessively checked and maintained. When the service was opened up to high schoolers and then to the general public, I was appalled. When the user interface morphed every 1.5 years, I was annoyed. But more importantly, when Annie broke up with her boyfriend, John moved across the country for a new job, Tom and his new wife had a baby before they were married, or Mary got a bad haircut – I noticed. And I cared.
On good days I would check Facebook once a day (and those were very good days). On bad days, I’d check it after showering; on the bus to work; waiting in line for coffee; every 10 minutes at work; while watching TV in the evenings; until the very last second before a plane took off. Let’s just say that I was like 90 percent of you. Addicted.
I’ll admit I have an addictive personality. I can spot the deep green of a Starbucks a mile away and instinctively find the fastest route to get there. I could eat hummus for days. I went through a bizarre phase of having foamed milk with every meal. Exercise routines are rarely broken.
When the rich blue of Facebook was on the screen, it welcomed me with open arms to the party I was never previously cool enough to attend. I loved dropping witty comments on friends’ walls. I loved sharing articles of interest and seeing how many likes I could rack up. I loved clicking through hundreds of photos to see the evolution of Jessica from high school kid to housewife. I loved obsessing over what someone’s status update really meant.
In the real world, driving by someone’s house three times would be considered stalking. There is no such law in Facebook land. Nope. You can creep on Deb’s profile to your heart’s content. And plenty of people do.
I defended my habits. I embraced the Australian study that claimed access to Facebook made better employees. I told everyone how nice it was to be able to stay connected and reconnect with friends from long ago. I credited Facebook with keeping many of my friendships alive as I jumped from continent to continent, state to state.
But then the tide started to shift.
More and more articles on the negative emotional impact of using Facebook started to catch my eye. I noticed that seeing the professional success of someone left me feeling inadequate. I found myself checking the newsfeed more frequently than there were updates (that’s a sad moment; you know what I’m talking about). It felt a little odd – even wrong – to know the color scheme of a wedding I wasn’t invited to and the sex of an unborn baby I would probably never meet. I would randomly bump into people and have to decide whether to play dumb and, for example, ask if they were still dating so-and-so or just go right ahead and tell them how sorry I was about the breakup. I actually thought about how many “likes” I’d get when I updated my relationship status to “engaged.”
At the time, I was living in tech-loving San Francisco, three time zones away from “home.” Staying in touch, however superficially, still seemed worth it.
But then I moved to Manhattan. Where Facebook friends live. I could I could grab drinks with Tom, Dick and Harry; meet up with Mollie and see how a career in law is treating her; have dinner with Sally, who I hadn’t seen since freshman year.
And I did.
And it was deeply disappointing.
The amazing, successful, interesting profiles I had so diligently befriended online did not show up. Instead, their creators did. And we had nothing to talk about.
These meetings were probably the most compelling “you gotta quit” experiences until a few months later at 12:40 am on a random Tuesday. I had just finished doing some work in bed while my husband slept next to me. Instead of shutting down, curling up, and joining him in dream land – I logged onto Facebook. Just 5 minutes, I thought.
Something was so very wrong with this picture. In a moment of divine clarity, I deactivated my account on the spot.
Well, it took a few minutes. Facebook, like a good friend, doesn’t let you go easy. You have to go on a serious scavenger hunt for the “deactivate my account” link, explain why your relationship with Facebook just didn’t work out, and decide whether you ever want to speak again (yes, you could continue to receive Facebook email updates even after deactivating). Then you’re subjected to photos of your friends with Facebook telling you how much David, Jen and Ryan are going to miss you — their profile pictures staring at you like adorable puppies in a pound. How could you leave us!?
But, a heartless bitch, I persevered. I deactivated my account, dammit – which really just meant my Facebook life was on hold until I signed in again. But somehow it felt more permanent.
The next few weeks were something akin to caffeine or alcohol withdrawal.
In the moment of deactivation I was exhilarated, proud, a little nervous — but alone. I went into work the next day and actually felt lonely without this “nest” of friends I had carefully curated. I felt like I was missing out on the discussions, events and news of a whole community.
As a replacement drug, I started surfing celebrity gossip sites – something I honestly never did before. Celebrities would become my new friends.
I received an email notice that @IHateFacebook decided to follow me on Twitter. Phew.
The following days and weeks were a mix of loneliness and heightened awareness:
- I itched to log on and, without thinking, found myself typing “Facebook” into my browser.
- I felt like I didn’t have as many friends as I used to.
- I wanted to know what was going on in other people’s lives, but didn’t want to call them.
- When something happened in my life, good or bad, I wanted to share it. Not in a long phone conversation, but in a short, ambiguous status update.
- I’d come across articles that I would’ve loved to share with my Facebook friends, but couldn’t. Directly emailing them to a select few felt too invasive. And on the few occasions that I did, they rarely responded.
- My eyes were opened to the social layer built into everything online. That insidious blue bubble ‘F’ was everywhere. I couldn’t even donate to some causes because I wasn’t on Facebook.
When I told friends and colleagues that I had quit, they were all amazed. And envious. Wow, good for you. I hate Facebook. I wish I could quit too! I’ve actually had a few friends contact me by email to ask, tentatively, if I had quit Facebook – and were so relieved when I said yes. Oh good! I thought you had de-friended me!
After about a month, the symptoms of withdrawal seemed to finally disappear. I didn’t want to log on. I was so relieved not to have to worry about what unflattering photo was going to be tagged next, whether John got that job, Tim had a shotgun wedding or Mary got an ugly haircut. I paid more attention to conversations. I read more real news. I was more productive, more present. I felt liberated.
I could just live and be me in the only place that it truly matters: real life.
In fact, now if I glance at a stranger’s computer and see Facebook, it gives me chills. Like going back to coffee after quitting caffeine – it is way too much. It seems crazy to post huge pictures of yourself for everyone to stare at; to voluntarily update the world on your latest romantic escapades and exotic vacations; to list, carefully, your interests, favorite books, movies, and quotes.
Are we insane?
And not only that. It deeply disturbs me to know that people (not to mention corporations) are fastidiously poring over the intimate details of your life. And I know they are. Because I did. Or at least I used to.
Maybe someday I’ll go back to “the ‘book.” Maybe it will become impossible for people to exist in the world without an account. I hope not. I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons from quitting Facebook that have made me very skeptical of the dominant social network – and concerned about the future it’s creating for us all. Lessons that will also make me a much healthier “Facebooker” should I ever reactivate my account.
I’d encourage you all to try your own experiment with Facebook abstinence to learn these lessons yourselves – because it’s the only way you’ll every really believe them. In the meantime, though, here they are – a living list.
What I’ve Learned from Quitting Facebook (so far)
- There are reasons we lose touch with people – and that process is also an important part of growing up. We are not who we were at 13. Neither are our friends or our friendships.
- Don’t forget to distinguish between the profile and the person. “Selective Facebooking” creates an incomplete and often carefully painted picture. Don’t be fooled. Nobody’s life is all beaches and bonuses.
- Facebook is an excellent way to get lots of people to look at something – for better or worse.
- For older generations, Facebook is a wonderful thing. A nice perk. Because they’ve grown up without it. For the rest of us, it’s another place in which we need to figure out who we are and who we want to be.
- People really are paying attention to what we do on Facebook. What we do online echoes in eternity.
- Facebook can be a great way to feel cooler than we are.
- Facebook can be a great way to feel more incompetent than we are.
- Imperfection is reality. Perfection is for cyberspace.
- I’m fine without it.
Some great articles I highly recommend checking out:
“The Facebook Resisters” by Jenna Wortham, The New York Times
“Facebook is Using You” by Lori Andrews, The New York Times
“Facebook is Making us Miserable” by Daniel Gulati, Harvard Business Review
“Social Media’s Envy Effect” by Don Peppers, Fast Company
“The Facebook Eye” by Nathan Jurgenson, The Atlantic
“Man Who Temporarily Disables Facebook Account Deems Self ‘Off The Grid,’” The Onion