A month ago, I decided it was time for a split with Facebook. I didn’t delete my account and I didn’t post that I would be leaving. I didn’t even tell my wife, Kate. Instead, I took a page out of Hollywood’s celebrity dating manual and simply vanished. I was ghosting Facebook.
Facebook is supposed to be about connection and communication with friends and family. But the connections I had with people over Facebook lacked depth. I was increasingly inundated by:
- Useless information. I’m not looking to adopt a dog in need, I’m not worried about food/product recalls in another country, and I won’t “copy and repost” your message of good hope. No judgement (not much, at least), it’s just not for me. I went through and stopped following a number of friends or types of posts that just felt like clutter. It was an improvement, but still not perfect.
- Lots of extremes, little discussion, no change. This is most noticeable in the area of politics, but you see it in nearly all social media topics: health, parenting, money, sports, media. We post things that are provocative and that generally support an opinion we’ve already held (e.g. “here’s why climate science is bunk” or “this article shows why the latest superhero movie is the best (or worst)” or “kids who spend more time on their phones have lower test scores” or “here’s how meat is destroying the environment and your health”). These posts have triggers in them for each of us: positive ones that stroke our egos in applying our confirmation bias, and negative ones that inflate our egos by thinking of how much better we are than the author of the post. What’s the point in posting if my posts will be viewed the same way I view everyone else’s: some will cheer or some will boo. It is not a path to deeper connections, learning and, ultimately, change.
I can count on one hand the number of people I know on Facebook who start and develop a robust discussion with people of varying and informed opinions. And I’m not one of them.
- All ups, no downs. Friendship is certainly about sharing good times. But we also turn to friends when everything has gone pear-shaped. And, when we’re not posting about our “views” (above), our feeds are dominated by our successes, smiles, and travels.Imagine sitting down with a friend and having her pull out a stack of photos and begin rattling off a laundry list of achievements. “Here’s a photo of our feet in the sand at the beach at our amazing villa in Tahiti. Little Timmy won his state competition in swimming. I am now the SVP of finance at ABC company. And I agree with Richard Branson that ‘If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you’re not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later.’ Yesterday I ran a 10k in 50 minutes. And two days before I did it in 52 minutes. And last weekend I ate at the super expensive restaurant downtown. Now you go.” Perhaps they’ll pause for a few seconds in between statements and await your acknowledgement, perhaps they won’t. In return, you provide a similarly boastful account of the highlights of your week. Then you both abruptly walk away, each feeling a bit empty.
I am not suggesting that Facebook turn into a whingeing support group. But the stream of pictures of me on a beach or checking in with a fast run or smiling with my kids are such a massively two-dimensional view of my life. When we take everyone else’s 2D life and compare it to our 3D reality the reality is far less glossy than even a #nofilter photo. Recovery groups call this comparing your insides to other people’s outsides, and it’s a recipe for feeling less-than, insecure, and unhappy.
A month away from Facebook?
It’s hard to quit you, Facebook! I removed the Facebook app from my phone, but for the first few days I didn’t know what to do with myself when waiting in line, walking down the street, or eating a meal. I was so used to compulsively flicking through Facebook posts that I was still holding my phone and just looking through apps. Or refreshing the BBC news. I was genuinely surprised (and a bit alarmed) at how distracted I was by the absence of Facebook in my hand.
After a few days the compulsion began to wane, giving way to some sense of pride in that I hadn’t checked my feed. That said, the first time that pride popped up and I reflected on my personal strength of will, it just as quickly receded upon recognizing that I had only been without Facebook for 2.5 days.
I pressed on and after a few more days I started to do what any addict does in their early days of recovery: judge everyone else. I would stand on the train, pitying the poor souls around me who, despite having physical companions, were trapped in their little digital worlds. So, in lieu of having Facebook posts as the yardstick for my judgement of others and my relative superiority, I could simply rely on the fact that I had both the knowledge of an enlightened path and the self-control to follow it. The occasional reminder that I was exactly like everyone else just days served as a humbling reality check.
Near the end of week 1, I started to wonder if anyone had noticed that I was gone. Surely, people would have questions. “Where are Stephen’s snide liberal posts defaming Donald Trump, calling everyone in the U.S. South (or even the GOP at large) back-woods, inbred, no-nothing hillbillies, hell bent on voting against their economic interests, discriminating against gays, blathering about freedom whilst making every attempt to insert the federal and/or state government into women’s vaginas, and complicit in the sacrifice of thousands of Americans each year on the altar of the Second Amendment?” Or, “where are Stephen’s 5k runs? Is he still exercising? Where are Stephen’s humble-brag check-ins from some airport lounge?”
Oddly enough, I didn’t get any emails, sms messages, or even Facebook Messenger messages asking where I had gone. But it turns out that my abstention didn’t go unnoticed. Facebook noticed.
I have Facebook configured to notify me via email when someone tags me in a post/photo, or when someone comments on my posts. And, so far as I can remember, those are the only times I received emails from Facebook.
But just as I was closing in on one week off of the social treadmill, I received an email from Facebook notifying me that one of my close friends had posted a photo. Not a photo of me, not a post I was tagged in, just a photo. An hour later came the second message with the subject “Stephen, you have 12 new notifications, 1 poke and 7 messages.” 7 messages? That’s weird, because I still had Facebook Messenger on my phone and I had no unread messages there.
On my 8th day away, I received the same pairing of messages: another friend had posted a photo; I had 16 new notifications, 1 poke and 7 messages. Day 9’s message was a list of suggested friends. Perhaps, recognizing that I was not lured back by outstanding “messages” or even pictures posted by my friends, Facebook figured I might just need new friends. A thoughtful gesture.
Throughout the rest of the week, I had a relatively steady stream of these messages from Facebook. Usually two a day, but with a whopping four on one very special Wednesday. On this Wednesday not only had Kate posted a photo, and not only did I have “38 notifications, 7 messages and 1 poke” (note the reordering of “messages” versus “pokes” in the subject line—was Facebook A/B testing on me?), but I also had two separate lists of suggested friends. Facebook was really worried that I was lonely and they were hell bent on connecting me with people whose posts I would want to read.
Any thoughts I had about missing out on Facebook were overridden by the sheer challenge of total abstinence.
Throughout week 3, the volume of emails from Facebook increased to 16 total for the week. Instead of convincing me to come back, each email was part of a running private joke to myself where I’d chuckle and toss the alert into my special Facebook folder.
Beyond the increasingly desperate messages from Facebook, I stopped noticing its absence in my life. I would read an article that would make me angry, sad, intrigued, or amused, and the thought to post it to Facebook would enter and leave my mind without much consideration. Instead, I would sometimes email those things directly to Kate or, better yet, bring them up with her in person. Rather than saying “hey, did you see that thing I posted?” and her responding, “yeah, that’s crazy,” I would actually have to describe something with my own words. And she would take my words in and respond. Things I would have otherwise sprayed out indiscriminately to my social network instead became the fodder for actual conversation.
I don’t know if the “it takes three weeks to make/break a habit” rule is scientifically sound, but after three weeks off Facebook, I was spending much less time looking at my phone. And the removal of Facebook from my day-to-day life didn’t leave a hole or a feeling of sacrifice.
Life without Facebook has mostly become my new normal. There have been a handful of instances where Kate has sent me a link to an article on Facebook and I’ve refused to click it for purposes of this experiment. Without complaint she has had to either show it to me on her phone or find another place where it’s posted. I’ve become one of those weird people who say things like “I’m not on Facebook.”
I found myself using my phone camera to take pictures of more personal things—a funny outfit in a shop that reminded me of late eighties/early nineties hip-hop group, a picture of my gelato from the shop we frequented when our friends visited—and sending them to friends with a short email. I wasn’t changing the world any more than I was with my Facebook posts, but I was letting people know that despite being over 12,000km away, I was thinking about them.
Over 4 weeks away, I received a total of 41 emails from Facebook and, according to one of the last ones, had “72 notifications, 1 poke and 7 messages” awaiting my return. That’s stalker territory.
I still haven’t decided to delete my Facebook account or to swear off its use for good. In fact, Facebook is the first place I’ll post this article.
But, in reflecting on the last month, I’ve begun to question how to maintain and even grow my connections with the friends and family I don’t see on a regular basis. What Facebook gives in breadth and expedience, it takes away in depth. I expect the converse will be similarly true: maintaining deep connections with people takes time and effort. But I am convinced it is worth it, and I’m looking forward to what’s next with my post-Facebook friendships.