Historically, I work better in small groups. Because I’m not a very social person, I think I was always a little ambivalent about Facebook as a useful service. For many years after opening my account in 2008, I limited it to people I actually had a personal relationship with: family, close friends, close acquaintances, etc.
But then, as designed, it started to creep: friends from the past, acquaintances from the past, and friends of friends from the past. I would add them all, temporarily forgetting why they were no longer part of my life, but rationalizing that I had at some point had a relationship with them. So why not again?
And because I haven’t realized my dream of life as an ornamental hermit, I began adding the new people in my world or just on the periphery of it after moving back to MA. People who I wouldn’t have classified as friends per se, but had enough regular contact with that to reject would have made me feel really awkward.
Upon entering this new phase, something strange began to happen. The posts that used to be for a small group of people close to me, people who already knew me, began to take on a performative tone. I thought too much about what someone might think about what I wrote: Would they still like me? Am I sharing too much too soon? Are they going to make some kind of negative comment?
And as I experienced this new self-consciousness around posting to the platform, I also became increasingly aware of how I felt using it, grazing on the personal lives of people, some of which I hardly knew. Actual lives, now reduced to content I scrolled through or blithely “liked.”
Facebook was never about the numbers for me and even at its highest point I don’t recall my account ever having more than 200 or so “friends.” Maybe that’s why as the account began to make me feel uncomfortable, I came upon a temporary and painless solution.
Several times each year, I would cull the list, removing people I hadn’t heard from or had much contact with. Friends and relatives whose political leanings went beyond a simple disagreement and who’d barged into my comments to “educate” me were also removed, beginning with the “Do not try to kill my meeting Madeleine Albright buzz” blitz of 2012.
“Unfriending” was liberating. Watching the number get smaller made me relax and think less about my postings. I returned to being myself, knowing that for the most part, the people still on my list already knew what they were in for. And for the small group of relatively “new” people? Well, they’d figure out who I was sooner or later. No sense in softening the blow.
For awhile, having a smaller and more personal account was satisfying. But then I started to become more aware of the stickiness of the site itself and how much time I was spending on it. I’m not naive. I always knew I was the product on a service that’s free. It’s just that as the post mortem of the 2016 Presidential Election unfolded, and Facebook’s role in it became clearer, I decided I didn’t want to be a part of it.
It would still take another few years to fully wean myself from the site. I knew that most of the online relationships I had with family and friends would disappear when I stopped using Facebook and that’s probably what gave me the most pause.
I’d go on to deactivate my account several times before inevitable reviving it, excitedly scrolling through all that I’d missed and revisiting my own postings like opening a digital time capsule of my life.
What made me finally want to leave for good? It was the day I decided I’d had enough, chose the delete option instead of deactivate, and discovered that it’s not instantaneous. Instead, I was notified there was a cooling off period before they’d actually delete your account. As if the product is so invaluable they have to protect their users from themselves with a time out. This only made me mash the delete option harder.
How did I keep my resolve after 10 years of regular use and make it through those two weeks?
Well, it turns out Facebook made that really easy too. They referenced the loss of my memories if I deleted my account in several messages during that period. As though my life only existed online, curated by a bunch of nameless engineers in Silicon Valley trying to earn a buck and profited off of by a nitwit on a power trip.
After reading those I knew I’d never go back.
It’s been nearly two years since I deleted the account and I’ve never missed it. I will confess that Instagram was a bit harder to get rid of because I really like photography, but once Facebook rebranded it to remind everyone they owned it, I deleted that account as well. WhatsApp went at the same time.
I’ll be honest, maintaining relationships in the real world is much harder than on Facebook. I’ve lost contact with most of my extended family and far flung friends, just like I had before Facebook. Births and deaths happen and I remain unaware, just like I had before Facebook. People move and get new jobs and I know nothing about it, just like I hadn’t before Facebook. For some people this is too much to lose. For me? It’s the way life used to be.
I will thank Facebook for one thing. It’s made me rethink the power dynamic inherent in social networking businesses. Because if it’s that hard to leave, it’s not a place you should be.
I’m still very much online, just not a user of any Facebook services. I’ve decided to reclaim the value of my content by making it mine again. I also rediscovered Twitter about the time I left Facebook, which I find has just the right amount of private-public interactions.
It turns out, if I’m going to post something online, I prefer the company of strangers when it comes to potential negative comments or feedback. If I think of Facebook as a sandbox jam packed with people you kind of know, Twitter by comparison is a public beach where everyone’s shouting into a CB radio at the same time.
At that scale, it’s no longer personal.