Have you ever wondered if Facebook is worth it? Has it begun to feel a bit unreal, as though you are Alice falling down a rabbit hole?
This post is not for people who love Facebook and rarely doubt its role or value in their lives. In no way do I want to argue that everyone or anyone in particular should leave Facebook. I know plenty of people—many good friends—who have found ways to make Facebook work well for them, whether they interact with it several times a day or only occasionally.
Also, if you already know that you like your life better without Facebook—maybe you no longer have (or never had) an account or keep an old one around like that pair of jeans you might fit into someday, just in case—then you don’t feel the ambivalence I want to address here.
This post is for anyone who uses Facebook with ambivalence. To quote The Clash, “This indecision’s buggin’ me.”
Definition of Ambivalence
1 : simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action
2 a : continual fluctuation (as between one thing and its opposite)
b : uncertainty as to which approach to follow
Leaving Facebook, Part I: Deactivation and non-status living
During the winter holidays I deactivated my Facebook account for about a month. Our son and daughter-in-law were coming for an extended visit, I had a lot of work to do before they arrived, and I wanted to be able to focus on enjoying their company as fully as I could. When I returned to Facebook, I promised myself I would not lapse back into using it as a fallback activity whenever I didn’t know what else to do or as a transition between tasks. You can probably guess how well that worked out.
During deactivation, though, I didn’t think much about Facebook at all. Sure, the first few days brought gnawing regret for what I might be missing: holiday photos, links to interesting resources, newsy family items, the latest memes, the oh-so-easy sense of connection that comes from increasing a like button counter. It didn’t take long at all, however, to begin to experience life in pre-social media, non-status ways.
Without the crutch of Facebook, I found myself (pause here to consider the full connotation of that phrase) thinking and reacting in ways that were only a few years ago normal. When meeting with friends in person, I had more to talk about and could ask to see vacation and other photos, no longer preempted by “I already saw that Facebook.” I read slowly to the end of provocative or funny or insightful articles without interrupting my own concentration after the first or second paragraph with the thought of sharing it on my wall. When working at home during the day, I switched from a Word document to checking research information on the web and back to my writing or indexing without the inevitable “Facebook check” interludes.
Leaving Facebook, Part II: Celebrity culture, voyeurism, and the icky factor
What brought me back to Facebook? I think it was wanting to see some photos of family members that I knew had been posted. Regardless of the reason, it didn’t take long for my old habits to return. While I never have spent hours on social media or felt addicted, it still took too much time and provided too little lasting enjoyment.
“It’s always tease tease tease”
So, several weeks after my initial winter hiatus, I began to ask the Facebook question with more urgency than before: Should I stay or should I go?
If I left, what would I miss (not “miss out on” but truly miss)? The ease of staying in touch with friends, especially friends from my youth or those who live far away. The sense of community that comes from being one of dozens of people to offer congratulations on an accomplishment or condolences on a loss. The reassurance that I am not one of the face(book)less, that I belong.
These are not minor considerations. On the other hand, my time on Facebook was feeling more and more like an Alice in Wonderland existence, a bit surreal and inauthentic. I couldn’t stop wondering about the strange fascination we have with peering into others’ lives. A book I indexed recently likened it to celebrity culture run amok, in the sense that scrolling through news feeds and profiles is like reading People magazine. I felt increasingly uneasy and even voyeuristic about the public nature of much that felt private. I found it harder and harder to justify the opportunity costs—what I could be doing or thinking or creating if I were not checking Facebook.
Harder to explain is the general “icky” factor in terms of how I felt about own reactions. I consider myself to be an open person in the Big Five personality sense and value tolerance, but can anyone really avoid the tiny, silent, often unconscious judgments we make about how “other people” use Facebook? Ick.
One extra consideration, though, that gave me some pause was that, as a writer, I sometimes used Facebook to share new blog posts and connect with readers. Writers and other creatives today are urged to have a strong social media presence as a part of their platforms. Would the trouble be double if I decided to stay—or to go? Would my website and newsletter and Twitter be enough?
You might say that I should just have the discipline to check Facebook once or twice a day for five minutes and leave it at that. I wish I could. I have tried. I know some people can. But I don’t want to lurk and not participate—it feels rude to post something then disappear while others respond—and five minutes are never five minutes once I start liking and commenting and sharing.
Pulling the Plug
In the end my decision to go rather than to stay had less to do with time and more to do with wanting to experience life and people differently. Before deactivating my account, I downloaded an archive of my content and made notes of a few birthdays that I wouldn’t otherwise remember. The archive includes a list of my friends, so I am going through that list to see who is on Twitter and Instagram (neither of which affects me negatively for some reason), what email addresses I have, and whose contact information I still need to obtain. I plan to email a lot of those friends individually in the coming weeks and months.
In December I posted a status that I would be in deactivation mode for awhile, but this time I decided to slip away quietly. There is the risk that a few people might wonder if I have unfriended them; however, anyone who knows me well would, I hope, not make that assumption too quickly, as I have never intentionally unfriended anyone.
This time around I have also gone beyond deactivating to deleting [see my April 14, 2015 update on un-deleting]. Why? Because my uncertainty about Facebook’s effects on our daily life, self-perceptions, attitudes towards others, empathy, and compassion reached a tipping point. Because I am 50 years old and feel an increasing pull toward creative generativity and a decreasing amount of energy to fritter away. Because I am confident that I will maintain contacts in other ways, maybe not right away, but in time. Because I want to exercise my freedom to make my own decisions based on what feels right to and for me.
Because I can.
Life somehow goes on.
If you feel ambivalent about Facebook, watch the video below and don’t be afraid to give yourself permission to deactivate, delete, or just decompress for awhile. Or, if Facebook is for you after all, skip ahead to enjoy The Clash singing “Should I Stay or Should I Go.”