It didn’t intentionally start out as a year-long experiment by any means, because if that were the case, I could pinpoint the exact date that I logged off Facebook. I was never the Facebook user that oscillated between being “on” and “off” for stints. I’d describe myself as a pretty typical user. I suppose one might say I always prided myself in being of the “original Facebook generation.” Facebook was founded in 2004. I created my account in 2006 as it extended beyond the original East coast elite schools for which it was intended and to colleges and universities across the country. At that time, mothers and great uncles were not allowed, nor were random neighbors or strangers. No university affiliation, no deal. Status updates were drop down menus “I’m at a party” and the whole concept was not the stimulation overload it became once I left it. Not that that’s the reason why I jumped ship.
To be honest, I went off Facebook because like the relationship status, it just felt “complicated.” The lines between friends, colleagues, family, and random acquaintances was blurred, and I was tired of the game of keeping up with the Jones that was happening in the virtual world. I was feeling somewhat “over it” as they say. I didn’t really care about who was having their bathroom remodeled or worrying about the Facebook prowlers who’d know every detail about your life even though you last spoke to them in 2010.
Facebook to me was about college friends and old acquaintances, keeping up with old colleagues and professors who’d work you’d admired and the occasional witty meme or update. For awhile, I realized it had also become my news source albeit, a highly biased one as it was what my friends found newsworthy, but still it worked. In a nutshell, Facebook lost its allure. So off I went with the intention of staying awhile for a few months, which then quickly turned into a year. And then, well over a year. The psychologist in me did not take copious field notes of the experiment in my case study of n=1. I did however, reflect on themes of what I observed about myself, my social connections, and life without Facebook. Below are my lessons learned.
1. Life gets a lot more authentic when you’re not thinking in status updates. It’s amazing, but after a decade of Facebook usage, your thinking slowly starts to warp. It’s thinking, “what would be the most creative thing I could say/post/do” instead of thinking “what is really me?” Life on social media is like life on reality TV-esque steroids. Getting likes, hearts, whatever it may be, is the most primal form of Pavlovian conditioning. More likes I get, the more I increase my behavior. And in social media where everyone is trying to set themselves apart, it can become a full-time commitment to have the funniest, most glamorous, most [insert over the top adjective], posting in the social realm.
Once you start living more authentically, you also aren’t snapping a million photos carefully posed and edited to showcase your best self. You have a few photos for memories, and then can put the phone down and live your life.
2. Social media does not equal social connection. In person connections must be made and fostered. As one who did quite a bit of hopping across the country during school, I’ll admit that during those times Facebook was my lifeline to the outside world. When you are a psychologist in training in the university counseling center world, your social options can become severely limited. Due to potential conflicts of interest (e.g. your new friend turns out to be the girlfriend of a male client you are seeing), your social circle quickly diminishes, especially in small towns. Further, when you are moving every few years, you aren’t able to stay around long enough to set down roots. Thus, social media such as Facebook can become essential in maintaining connections.
But once you do start to settle down somewhere, Facebook can quickly become a crutch. You can bemoan all the lost friendships and connections from afar, glorifying them, and not tuning into reality and new friendships. Especially as we mature and are no longer in a college setting where we are meeting new individuals each week, we can quickly hit a rut and become stagnant socially. This is not to say we need to be hitting up the clubs into our thirties and forties, just that saying hello to neighbors and tuning into our communities is critical.
In my year without Facebook, I was surprised to observe that I felt lonelier. I had to try harder in maintaining connections because for so many of us, Facebook is friendship convenience. We can look at our number of friends and pat ourselves on the back for our 300 “friends.” But how many can we really call in times of need? In our fast-paced life, we can log on, catch up, and feel satisfied that we’re in touch with friends. But are we really? I came to see that even though I felt lonelier, the sense of connection that I’d held onto through social media was tenuous at best. It was a superficial connection that didn’t really hold much weight on its own. It forced me to take a look at who my real friends were and who was actually willing to pick up the phone and talk.
3. The past can remain in the past. As a therapist, I often hear my clients discuss triggers in their day. Maybe a friend said something to them, or simply seeing a certain teacher brought about feelings of shame. When you’ve been on Facebook for awhile, you start to realize the connections you’ve collected along the way are not unlike a closet that has not had a good spring cleaning. Some articles of clothing simply need to be tossed out. Others remind you of that time you wore those shoes, tripped over your feet and skinned your knee. Friendships and connections are very similar. Perhaps we befriended some folks when part of a group project or class. Maybe it was when we weren’t at our best. Do we want to be reminded of that period each time we see that person pop up on our feed? Many of my college students had concerns every time there was a breakup and they didn’t know how to deal with an ex. De-friend and move on, or de-friend and seem like you cared too much. These are the dilemmas Facebook engenders.
I have known many to start entirely new Facebook profiles and this is something I have considered many times myself. But then this brings up a whole new host of problems. Do you manage two accounts at once? Do you have double the feed to go through? Will it hurt feelings if you keep your profile and do mass de-friendings? Once again, “it’s complicated.” When there is no Facebook, there are no triggers from the past. There is no being contacted by old friends or former friends or any complication. The past is in the past. And life can move on.
4. Time is your friend again. I was fortunate rarely to be one of those individuals who got lost in the time warp that is Facebook. All in all, I was pretty good at setting a time limit and sticking to it. But it’s amazing how freeing it is not having that obligation to keep up with a feed. After all, that’s how you miss the critical info, like who is having a baby, who moved, changed jobs and so forth. It allows you to simply check your email and leave it at that. For the first time ever, I found myself skimming through style blogs, cooking blogs, and a host of other posts independently found by myself. I identified the most comfortable travel pants, and work yoga pants, read reviews and actually spent time on myself for a change. When you aren’t so focused on what everyone around you is doing, you actually have a chance to take a moment and just do you.
5. Needless worries vanish (mostly). Like most people, my brain has a way of taking flight into never never land, or as I would call it what if, what if land. Facebook is excellent for making us question life choices, stages, and frankly, what the heck we are doing with our lives. In many ways, Facebook robs us of the joy of the present moment as we drift into thoughts of how our lives might look different if we lived more like those whose smiling faces we saw on Facebook. What if I had become a lawyer too? What if I’d saved up for a house instead of that trip around Europe? Maybe I should think about settling down too. We compare our lives with people who are simply not us, and end up with fabricated worries as a result.
The reality is that life without Facebook certainly exists. Whether it adds or detracts from our lives is a matter of perspective and preference. While I enjoy not having to keep up with endless feeds, certainly there are friends and old acquaintances I miss keeping up with. I like to know that my friends are well. On the flipside, if they are true friends wouldn’t I know already? Would it take a social media app to establish this? To be frank, Facebook essentially promotes prowling and nosiness. Whatever happened to so and so? Did he/she end up more or less happy/successful/attractive than me? We don’t like to admit it to ourselves, but many times, this is what it ultimately comes down to.
However, we also live in increasingly isolating times and Facebook partly helps with this. In her book Alone Together, Sherry Turkle describes how the advent of technology which is meant to make life more efficient does the opposite. Instead of creating time, we now have less of it. Because we are available all the time. With constant access to email, text, and social media, we are always “on” responding to one thing or another. All while sitting by ourselves clutching a tiny device, and peering into it with hunched shoulders almost as if we are attempting to fit ourselves through the glass screen into the world where life is happening. When all along, it’s happening all around us, passing us by.
So what to take from my year without Facebook? While I have obviously not been chomping at the bit to get back on, I play around with the idea from time to time. There are organizations that I am a member of where I’d love to interact more with colleagues and peers. But I also don’t want to deal with the mess of cleaning out my Facebook closet. So my account sits there in the background. Maybe this Spring something new will happen, but only time will tell. All I know for now is that I have the peace of not being assaulted by a newsfeed and the dramas associated with social media. While I’d love to share this article with friends and would in the past post them on Facebook, I don’t know that I will. At least not quite yet.
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Turkle, S. (2012). Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books.