|"Fancy a poke?" Yeah, I know, hardly original. Ho hum.|
The decision to deactivate my account (there does not appear to be a permanent delete function, or at least there wasn't back in the blistery, heady winter of 20-10 to 11) was not taken lightly. As a self-defined "active Facebooker" I officially used the site to communicate with a number of friends who are difficult to see regularly owing to location and life schedules, and unofficially for looking up random people with whom I am acquainted just to sate my boredom and curiosity as to what they are up to these days, despite a latent disinterest. In short, I did it because I could, and because it ultimately saved me the inconvenience of doing something more productive with my time.
I will be honest and, deep breath, admit that I did used to log in to the site at least once a day, and it was not uncommon for a planned fleeting visit to morph into a longer, sweaty session during the evenings lasting an hour or more, with news of what someone I did not really know had eaten for dinner slowly but surely burning into my retinas. And even now, I admit that I am probably underestimating the time I did spend skulking around the site, especially during the honeymoon period following registration, probably because my brain is trying to protect me from a true calculation of the percentage of my youth I have wiled away literally doing nothing. But, that all changed, and while Facebook was once a substantial constituent part of my online procrastination programme, it became difficult to justify my membership in its particular incarnation. Essentially, it was no longer serving the purpose for which I had signed up.
Far from being a platform simply connecting individuals, it felt like an increasingly claustrophobic, crowded and loud place in cyber space, with people spouting and shouting (!) out status updates by the second, informing their handful of friends, slightly more acquaintances and mass of strangers of the conversations they'd had during the day, holidays they were planning, where they'd been the night before and how hungover they were as they typed (because they had had, like, such a fantastic time), and all manner of mundane, boring and fundamentally irrelevant private information that is of no real interest to anyone but the person posting.
Ultrasound photos (which all look alike - like a big-headed alien stuck inside a black bag) suddenly started sprouting up all over the shop, with women I did not know that well sharing extremely intimate information about their pregnancies that most would have reservations about discussing with their closest friends. It is a site that, at best, offers a medium for the individual to vent and, at worst, encourages the worst kind of self-absorbed behaviour and navel-gazing about one's bodily functions and sex lives. Photos posted range from exotic images to intimate moments as most wish to appear overwhelmingly interesting, fulfilled and enviable. After all, when your life is on show alongside everyone else's many find it difficult not to yield to the pressure to compete and receive affirmation, in the form of lengthy comment threads, that they are fascinating, beautiful and admired.
It's not that I am criticising individuals for being candid and wanting approval/attention (I have, at times, also been guilty of this behaviour). Plus, I can understand why, in a world where we are encouraged to share as much of our lives as possible with virtual strangers, our collective threshold for what is acceptable cyber talk has been consistently lowered to the point under which is would be impossible for the tiniest ant (the runt of the litter, if you will) to limbo underneath, and nothing is sacred. Produced a particularly nasty piece of faecal matter? Slept with your best friend's partner? Why not tell the world via a status update and see what The People think? Introspection is overrated, and theirs are the opinions that matter most, after all. Ahem. But while, obviously, this is an individual's choice, as someone who regards my personal life as private I was worried that I was being swept along with the tide of over-sharing to the extent that soon I would be offering a complete exposition of my evening meals under the tacit assumption not only that people would, but that they should, care. The problem is that by allowing the masses to dissect the minutiae of our everyday lives, and our most mundane decisions and actions, this promotes self-absorption and narcissism; the idea that we should be the centre of everyone else's universe as well as our own; that every little thing is actually a big deal (it isn't); that there is nothing worse than appearing static; and the most undesirable feeling you can inspire in others is indifference.
Furthermore, the thoughts and postings of my nearest and dearest were lost amidst the surplus of commentary posted by those people I did not really know. Yes, sure, I can appreciate how Facebook is an excellent way of keeping in touch with those people who one does not see regularly, and that my particular problem could be remedied with a swift and brutal "cull," alongside selective friend requesting/confirmations. This would, of course, superficially solve the problem, yet my primary concern was that the site was lulling me into a false sense of security regarding my keeping-in-touch abilities. "Liking" someone's status, bashing out a throwaway "hehe" to a humorous status update and offering a dispassionate "happy birthday" greeting all served the function of making contact, and yet were in no way a substantive or significant way of maintaining a friendship, despite my initial belief otherwise. Plus, sharing information on the Internet, something that we consider (regardless of privacy settings), to be a fundamentally open platform, devalues the importance of the information we share, since we are not confiding in the handful of people that are our closest companions.
Despite regularly seeing photos of old chums on nights out, and reading their profile updates to determine that they had, indeed, got that promotion, this was a poor substitute for direct and engaging communication with someone who did, in fact, wish to share the information with me personally, and with whom I could congratulate in a way that was not comparable with offering the unfeeling template of approval that is the smiley face. What I started to realise was that the more information I shared, the faster Facebook started to become about me, rather than about keeping in touch. The increase in online friend connections started to eclipse those who really mattered, and convinced me that I was making a concerted effort to maintain friendships when what it actually highlighted was my failure to share any truly personal sentiments. In getting rid of my account I had no option but to send personal e-mails, texts, cards, letters, and make phone calls, and have the quality and substantive contact that is impossible to achieve through Facebook. While the amount of contact I make with individuals on a daily basis has, of course, decreased, the quality of that contact has been greatly improved and I have started to re-establish meaningful friendships with those whom, despite social networking, I had lost touch.
While it would be foolish to dismiss Facebook as insignificant, I think it is worth pointing out that, for many, it is more than a directory of their family and friends, a one-stop-shop for those that matter, and more a medium through which they try to enhance their popularity, and in the process become lonelier than they were at the start.