I joined Facebook on April 5, 2005, not long after it became available at Baylor University. I remember thinking how cool it was, and I spent hours on my profile. I was in love.
Nine years later, I am filing for divorce. At least, that’s what it feels like. Call it irreconcilable differences, but I can’t live my life with Facebook as my partner anymore. It’s simply not healthy for either of us. Perhaps it is true that sometimes divorce can be the most redemptive course of action.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here are my reasons for wanting to part ways with the most influential social networking site in the world. Bear in mind, what follows are my own problems in this relationship. Your own marriage to Facebook may be the picture of health. But here are my observations on how this has all gone wrong:
#1 – It’s All About Attention-Seeking
Let’s start with status updates.
I’m no statistician or professional researcher, but it is my observation that for every one status that is a genuine word of thanks or encouragement, there are about fifteen to twenty others born out of desire to effect others’ opinions, views, and/or admiration … of me! Yes, I’m talking about the statuses that I type out in that little window, and then click “Post” like I’m a hungry fisherman casting my fishing line into a sea teeming with fish. I want to catch something that will feed me, strengthen me, make me feel good.
I’ve begun to recognize that these statuses are a kind of vanity. I’m not speaking from a standpoint of piety or a holier-than-thou attitude, either. I’m genuinely afraid of what these increasingly frequent attempts to shore up my own identity is doing to my personality. Wanting people to read what I’ve written (or the article I’ve linked to and commented on) and think I’m funny, or introspective, or erudite. Wanting people to recognize that, hey, I see things a little differently, as they will no doubt notice by my not-so-conservative-but-also-not-blatantly-liberal commentary on whatever absurd story or unavailing debate has set the Internet and cable news ablaze.
I’ve had enough disappointing experiences with this kind of behavior to finally learn that no matter what I do, I always end up establishing the wrong view of myself – one that is far different from the one I was hoping for. I suspect many of you do the same, at least from time to time. There are probably very few Facebook users who have never muttered under their breath the phrase, “That’s not what I meant!” when reading status comments.
The worst part of all this attention-seeking behavior is that it forces my friends (potentially all 911 of them) into the awkward position of either indulging my narcissism by offering me the comments I’m fishing for, openly disagreeing with me and risking whatever bond (weak or strong) exists between us, or disregarding my status altogether and wondering if that makes them bad people because they ignored a friend.
And while we’re considering what this relationship with Facebook does to my relationships with friends…
#2 – It Drains the Desire for Physical and Emotional Interaction
There was a time when we physically sat down together with someone for the sole purpose of “catching up.” Having few tools at our disposal to stay current on them and relay our own updates, we knew the most comprehensive way to care for the relationship was to carve out adequate time to spend with one another. There would be long stretches of story-telling involved. One person’s lunch would be gone before the other one began eating his own because that person went first while the other one chewed and listened.
And if we couldn’t meet with them physically, we spent long hours on the telephone, running up usage charges but determining that it was worth it.
Sometimes, with certain friends, we would share our most secret hopes, or our most anxious fears, because not only did we trust this information with those people, but we also knew that they would receive this not as mere information; it would be handed over to them along with our facial expressions, body language, long pauses, stutters, and maybe even tears. That knowledge could never be considered mere data passed from one person to another. No, that was a person’s very identity being communicated! Hold it close, and handle with care.
More and more often, since 2005, Facebook (and really all kinds of social media) has taught me how to reduce a person’s identity to facts on a page, or to a few paragraph over a written message. A person’s status, even if it is intended as an honest expression of the soul, is viewed not as a sacred thing, but rather an exclamation blurted out into a crowded, darkened theater filled with indifferent, half-listening audience members. One’s personality and attitude is left up to the interpretation of people who do not have all the requisite empirical evidence to correctly make an interpretation.
And there is no telling who will read something one way at the exact same time another person reads it the way you intended. I once commented on a friend’s photograph of his baby niece, that she was gorgeous and so much prettier than my own newborn niece. It was an inside joke about humility, because that friend was notorious for gushing over his new nieces and nephews as if they were the most glorious children to ever grace the planet, and it was funny… to my friend. It was not funny for my brother- and sister-in-law who read the comment in their own news feeds and had no idea that what I’d written was jest. And how could they have known?
So in an attempt to make one friend laugh, my publicly offered joke broke the hearts of two other people. It made me long to go back and just make a phone call instead.
But that’s the problem with Facebook. We seem to ignore the fact that…
#3 – It Brings Out the Worst in Our Integrity and Judgment
The comment about my niece was a terrible experience, but it was the first in what would be many little lessons on the power that this significant other of mine has over people. Ever have a friend whose spouse or partner doesn’t want to share time with you? Who treats you poorly because your relationship with your friend is apparently not as important as their own relationship? Sometimes, I can’t help but think this is how Facebook operates. I know it is an inanimate thing, but given that all of its users are animate, it makes sense that Facebook holds the power not only to bring people together, but to also drive us further apart.
Ask people what they would do if they could make themselves invisible, if only for a day. Often times, their answer includes actions that common decency, propriety and/or lawfulness prohibits: peeping, eavesdropping, robbing, etc. On some level, what prevents most people from acting on these secret desires, however lewd, is the reality that they would most likely be seen, found out, caught (and possibly arrested). Whether in trying to overhear a conversation not meant for your ears, or pulling a Dillinger and robbing the First National Bank at gunpoint, you are breaking a deeply established social contract.
Facebook, on the other hand, allows you access to the thoughts and feelings and deeply rooted convictions of tens of thousands of people each day, including some of your closest friends as well as your worst enemies, and the convenience of this access is that you have the option, if you like, of anonymity. And distance. There exists a personal disconnect between me and everyone else online. Therefore, because few consequences can reach through cyberspace, we do not fear another person’s judgment as soberly as we would if we were sitting down face-to-face with him or her.
Take a look at the comment section of almost any article on CNN.com, let alone the Facebook comments of anyone who posts a status or links to an article that is even remotely connected to a hot-button issue. You rarely find civil discourse. It’s anger, confusion and tangential dissent. These days, people post responses to the issues, casting those fishing lines out into that overcrowded sea, but ironically they will include caveats like, “These are just my thoughts. I’m not trying to start a debate and I don’t want to argue about it, so please don’t comment anything negative.”
If these are just your thoughts, and you don’t want to engage in debate, why not keep them to yourself? That’s what we do with almost all the thoughts in our minds. Why not these?
You see, it’s not only the vitriolic commenters who have no filter. It’s us. It’s me. Facebook has somehow made me believe that any little viewpoint I have on any issue, big or small, is worth tossing into the public sphere. At the same time, I somehow reserve the right to be angry or indignant when that viewpoint is challenged. There are people who are taking others to court based on an exchange that took place, or personal information that was gained, on Facebook. People are getting fired, or failing to land jobs, based on things that they uploaded to their public profile. And they are shocked.
It’s a voluntary public forum, but we want people to respect our privacy. Am I missing something?
It’s no wonder that one of the biggest problems I’ve found with Facebook is that…
#4 – It Wastes Time
As a college pastor, I find myself continually talking to students about the dangers of conforming to the pattern of this world – namely falling into the habit of comparison. We spend so much time shoring up and developing our individual identities based on comparing ourselves to other people. We want to be more like this person, and to avoid acting like this person, and to try to look a little more like this person. Magazine cover after magazine cover feeds our desire to rate ourselves. How do I measure up to him? How closely does my appearance match hers? How impressive do I seem to them?
I say all this to point out that a lot of what I’ve been doing on Facebook is not simply catching up on the lives of friends and acquaintances, but subtly, almost subconsciously comparing myself to other people. So that’s what he believes… What a pointless status for her to post… I can’t believe he would actually support something so stupid… And I can easily spend hours making comparisons.
I don’t visit Facebook to feel worse about myself. And, as I’ve already mentioned, judgment is an easy response when you’re surfing your news feed. However, the bigger problem for me in particular is not the judgment so much as the time I spend doing all that judging and comparing. I don’t visit Facebook to feel worse about myself, but as inevitable as visiting an all-you-can-eat buffet, I walk away from each session clutching a swollen gut and regretting the trip.
It’s because time spent on Facebook is rarely time well spent. We have only a limited amount of time each day to do the things we love – the things that we find important and worthwhile. After nine years on Facebook, I’m not convinced that any of the thousand or so hours I have spent on the site qualifies as productive or rewarding. I’m not against just taking a break and paddling out for a relaxed surf in cyberspace, but I never come away from Facebook feeling rested or recharged. Mostly, I feel drained, scattered, and sometimes even more stressed than before I logged in.
Yet I keep going back for more. And that’s because…
#5 – It’s Addictive
…and that’s the part that makes all my other problems with Facebook so difficult to solve.
It’s also a reminder that Facebook itself isn’t really at fault at all. The fault lies with me. My behavior is what wastes time, lapses judgment, drains my desire for personal interaction, and makes me a selfish, self-seeking person. That’s the nature of an addiction. Some people can’t drink. Some can’t gamble. Some can’t eat just one doughnut. As for me, I’ve learned that I can’t “do” Facebook.
It’s a privilege to have so much information about so many people right at our fingertips, and yet very few of us sip at it like it’s a fine wine. Instead, we gorge ourselves like it’s Ladies Drink Free night at the local bar & grill.
The first step in AA and NA and most other recovery programs is admitting that we are powerless over our addictions and that the result of giving in to them has resulted in our lives becoming unmanageable. Such is the case with my unhealthy marriage to Facebook. It may seem a bit dramatic, but I believe my life has become harder and harder to manage lately. While I can’t blame Facebook for all my problems and hangups, I do know that every minute spent on Facebook is a minute lost – a moment I’ll never have back and one that will not bring me healing or wholeness. Mostly, though, every bit of time I give to Facebook leaves less time for me to do what I love – hang out with a friend, read a novel, write a short story, play with my kids, talk with my real wife. And, God help me, I want more of that. A lot more.
Thus, I’ve begun my own step-by-step process with regard to this divorce. I’ve contacted good Facebook friends no longer living nearby and asked for their contact information so I can update my real address book and not depend on the site for a line of communication. Also, rather than quitting cold turkey, I’ve set a shutdown date: April 5, 2014 – nine years to the day that I created my Facebook account. In the meantime, I am working hard to wean myself from the site.
And, finally, I’ve written this article. The irony that this blog post will be promoted on my Facebook account is not lost on me. But maybe that’s fitting. Consider this my confession as well as my vow.
We had a good run, Facebook. But I think it’s time we parted ways. It’s not you, it’s me. Chin up, though. There’s plenty more fish in the sea.