Observations from a Facebook exile

A number of years ago I found myself staring at my laptop, fretting over how to best represent myself up in a single paragraph – for MySpace, none the less. It was at that point that I decided that enough was enough. One by one, I deleted my various ‘social networking’ accounts, before that was even really a word we attached too much baggage to. There wasn’t any pomp or ceremony; no feigned outrage. I simply dropped off the radar.

It was liberating.

More than any other network, leaving Facebook was the most satisfactory, and I wrote a blog to explain why that was after a few months of questioning. A lingering anxiety about what other people’s perceptions faded away. There was no pressure to think about what audience my comments were being directed towards; how I should present myself; or what things I could and shouldn’t say. I didn’t spend time flicking through the profiles of people to check up into what they were doing, and didn’t inevitably feel like I was being left out somehow. There wasn’t the same feeling that everybody in the world was having a massive party, and that even if you were invited, it was just to be polite.

After a few days, the constant stream of mundane updates from people who I wasn’t even that friendly with in person gained perspective. The behaviour of those whose social interactions were wound up so tightly into the fabric of Facebook, referencing it in all sorts of situations, began to seem increasingly unusual – just as the acts and seeming communitas of those deeply embroiled in drug use are impenetrable to those who are not going through the same experience. Facebook seemed like a bizarre addiction that I was glad to be rid of.

But there were consequences.

drowning in data

Whilst being removed from immediate exposure to every detail of other people’s lives was undeniably a relief, it became clear that there was very little in the way of a middle ground in this regard; many people who I was in touch with beforehand just disappeared completely. In a way, this was a great test of seeing who was interested enough in you to continue to stay in contact, but it isn’t really that simple. I discovered that I no longer knew anything about nights out organised by friends, as ‘invitations’ had been sent out online. When I challenged people about this? The response was simple: “Well you’re not on Facebook.” The default mode of communication had switched in people’s minds, and if you weren’t there too, then that was your problem.

This carried on into other areas. When deciding to terminate my account, I was painfully aware that there were a number of people who I dearly wished to remain in touch with, but who stayed in different cities that were strewn across the globe. I dismissed this at the time by asserting confidently that if we really wanted to speak, we would do so; Facebook isn’t the only way to communicate on the web after all. Thing is, whilst that might be a nice idea in theory, trying to get other people to make the mental shift towards sending e-mails rather than what they have become used to turned out to be a fool’s errand.

It was this that eventually led me to the position that I held up until the recent past. Upon travelling through America with no phone, and no way to contact people that I met, I decided to sign up for a Facebook account that I would keep entirely for people who I didn’t get to see in real life. I used a fake name and details; kept the privacy settings as tight as possible; and told everybody else that I simply didn’t use it anymore.

To some extent, it worked. I was buffered from most of what I had hated about the network so much in the first place, but it brought with it its own variety of problems. What happens when friends of your friends add you? You can’t exactly explain to them that you aren’t accepting the connection because it’s for people in a different place, because… well, so are they. What do you do about people in your own city that you don’t see very often, but for legitimate reasons? Are they excluded? Then there was the difficulty of dealing with other people giving you away by tagging you in posts (which you can’t do anything about if it’s on their timeline).

I’m back.

facebook list

Recently I decided that it was time to open the floodgates.

In the time I had spent living a secret Facebook existence, there had been changes. After consistent challenges from privacy advocates – including pressure from the European Commission – Facebook introduced additional controls to allow users to filter who saw what content. This was a welcome two finger salute to Zuckerberg’s totalising vision of people only having ‘one identity’. It meant that if you only wanted to see updates from certain people, you could. If you have to accept somebody as a friend, but don’t really want them to see everything you post, then you can sort that out as well. It was far from perfect, and remains so to this day. Many people are unaware of the possibilities; the settings are complicated and spread across different parts of the site; and the format is subject to such constant change that even users who are clued up can get confused in the process. However… it was a start. If I’m going to have a connection with someone halfway across the world that I’ve met once at a party, then I may as well have the same with people that I see every weekend. At that point, whether or not their tangible friendship is any more or less authentic is largely irrelevant.

It could well be the case that this is the inevitable result of the clever honey trap offered up by Facebook; offering more and more incrementally until you find yourself completely immersed in their network. It probably just underlines and demonstrates the hard truth that the only way to really avoid becoming sucked in is to delete your account completely. However, I don’t feel particularly bad about it anymore. I’ve put my qualms to one side. Years of working in marketing have meant that I am comfortable with the balancing act that is required, and frankly… it’s just a tool to promote the things that I am interested in. My real friends are still the ones I go drink copious amounts of whisky with; or cook with; or have long Skype conversations with. Facebook doesn’t have the same sort of hold, because the importance I place over transient relationships has diminished with time. I know who and what is important to me, so it doesn’t really matter anymore.

Insights from the Prodigal Son

It’s been a few weeks since I slipped back into the fold now, and it’s been interesting. Here’s what I’ve observed so far:

  • People really do post the most inane drivel. That goes without saying, but the sheer extent of it is almost unbelievable. People that I respect in real life come across as preachy, argumentative, naive, and simple-minded.
  • Despite getting bugged for years about signing up to Facebook, there was no massive rush for people to connect. Instead of actively seeking out others, people connect in a gradual way. I would say it’s organic, but it is heavily influenced by the prompts and suggestions offered by the service. Users are led in everything they do; passive rather than proactively engaged. Very few people actually use Facebook anymore with any sort of excitement or depth; it’s just something that’s become a ritual.
  • People check up on others a lot more than they post.
  • There is a severe drought of good original content. Rather than posting blogs, articles, poems, pictures, or things they’ve created, the same memes and drab political commentary is shared and re-shared without second thought.
  • The initial friend request is the only interaction I have had with almost all of those I’ve connected with since coming back onto Facebook ‘properly’.
  • People fail to respond to chat messages, despite appearing online, and actively resent any initiation to talk as some sort of intrusion. Coming from a web culture where you logged on to talk in this very manner, it boggles the mind why anybody would appear online if they have no intention to do so. This especially applies to people who have requested my friendship in the first place.
  • Even with contacts arranged into groups, there is still a strong inclination to default to the widest possible audience. That applies equally to reading, as well as publishing content. It’s difficult to resist looking through the full list to see what’s going on when you know it’s just a click away… and even though you know the lack of value.

Let’s see what happens next.