February 16th, 2017
One month ago I deactivated my Facebook account. I had a book to finish writing by the end of January, but I also was feeling overwhelmed by the Trump presidency. It was bleak and there it was again and again on my Facebook feed.
I admit that I checked Facebook far too often during the day – often without even realising I was doing it until I was there on the page. Because I work from home, alone, Facebook was my virtual watercooler. It was where I caught up on everyone’s news, where I congratulated those with birthdays and new partners and babies and said I was there for those going through a hard time. It made me feel connected. I live in Australia but am from the US, with lots of family and friends still there, so this feeling of connection was addictive.
I first joined Facebook the year my daughter was born, 2007, because of my Sydney-based mothers’ group. We used it to organise our get-togethers, and as more and more friends joined it became a way to share baby photos and catch up on everyone’s news in a single place. Before that I had kept in touch with a dozen or so university and high school friends, mostly through emails and in person every few years. Now I was suddenly connecting with friends who I hadn’t seen since 1995, when I graduated from high school. Then friends from primary school, or people who I only met once. Work colleagues in Sydney, ex-work colleagues, mother’s group members and friends-of-friends became connected via Facebook, and my feed was filled with all of these lives which I otherwise hardly would have known.
I have always been the type of person with a few close friends. I’m loyal and love their company, but I’m an introvert and this makes me poor at maintaining lots of friendships. Facebook, on the surface, makes it easy, but I began to question whether it was real as well. Was liking a post maintaining a friendship? Would I actually recognise some of these people if I saw them on the street? If we were in the same city, would we catch up for coffee?
Is it right that I know so much about their lives? Should I be telling them this much about my own?
So I culled some of the people I didn’t really know, and I ticked a few as acquaintances. I wasn’t one of those people with 1000 friends, my number hovered somewhere around 250.
But when I caught up with some of those 250 I realised our conversations became predictable. ‘How was your holiday? I saw you went to Sri Lanka. Beautiful photos.’
‘Thanks! And how was your trip to Perth? It looked amazing.’
What’s there to talk about when you’ve seen the highlights already, scrolling down your screen? I always had friends who weren’t on Facebook, and when we caught up for dinner or coffee the conversations were filled with genuine surprises. We were actually curious about one another’s lives because we had been living them in isolation from each other – we didn’t know.
That said, now that I’ve signed off I find that people expect me, still, to know what’s happening in their lives. ‘I’m not on Facebook these days,’ I have to say, for them to fill me in. A few have asked if I defriended them. ‘Did I do something to offend you?’ one mum asked at the school gates.
‘No!’ I said, feeling awful. ‘I’m not on Facebook at all. But you can still message me. I’m sorry.’ I do feel like I need to apologise for not already knowing their news.
So I do miss out – no question – on some of what goes on in the lives of people I care about. But how much are we meant to actually know? My mother, who is retired, spends at least an hour, sometimes two a day on Facebook. She clicks on all of the silly animal videos and looks at all the photographs from everyone’s weddings. She comments and sometimes has discussions with others in the comment sections and posts photographs of all of her trips. She also reads a lot, does Zumba, volunteers for several worthy organisations, cooks delicious meals and manages her finances – but I wonder what she’d do if she weren’t spending that time on Facebook. Would she email or write letters, talk on the phone more? Would she catch up with more people or fewer?
I haven’t even gotten to the best thing about being off Facebook. It’s not that the Trump disaster isn’t constantly there for me to see – it is, I still read the news. It has to do with my subconscious, which is directly related to creativity. When I was checking Facebook approximately 20 times a day I knew far too much about an eclectic collection of people. They were people who would normally just be on the periphery of my life, but because they posted a lot on Facebook they were in my life at least once a day, sometimes more than my husband (who is also one of those people not on social media). I found myself thinking about their families at odd times, dreaming of them, wondering how they’d gone with their job interview, their breakup, their new tattoo.
I knew them but I didn’t know them – I knew that carefully curated selection of what they chose to broadly share (some people on Instagram actually call this their portfolio). They took up space in my subconscious which is now freed for the characters from my novels or short stories, or the topics or projects I want to write about. I have kept my author page, and given my mother administrative powers. I don’t see her quitting Facebook any time soon. Will I go back one day? Not sure yet. I’m still enjoying being gone.
And those friends I still find myself wondering about? I do what I did in those pre-Facebook days. I send an email, or a text. If I’m feeling especially brave, I give them a call.
Update: I only lasted about three months, but it was a very productive three months. I’m hoping to make it an annual break.