I love social networks. Too much. I love them so much that I have a problem. In fact, I wrote about them in graduate school way back in the 1990s before Friendster, Myspace, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook were even conceivable. However it was pretty clear, even back then, that people would spend a lot of their time on the Internet making connections. It’s what we do. We’re a social species. We seek connection. It’s no surprise, then, that people spend more time on Facebook than just about anywhere else, aside from Google and YouTube.
And that’s part of the problem. We all know someone who’s addicted to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — whatever it is they’re using to get their regular dose of social validation. They check for updates at the dinner table, they ignore the real world and they spend more time framing the perfect profile pic than they do their resumes. That’s probably you. It certainly was me.
Even worse, these social media obsessed individuals end up depressed and anxious. Maybe it’s because people typically only post the best — or worst — things happening to them on Facebook, so you walk away from reading your update feed feeling that either your life is worse than others or that your friend’s lives suck, and you then you start to pity them. Sure, there’s a chance you’ll walk away feeling good after watching that silly video they shared of cats, but how often does that happen? Not often enough to make it okay how much time you spend scrolling through that newsfeed, looking for either validation or some sort of weird satisfaction.
So people are quitting Facebook, or at least they’re saying they are. We’ve all seen this status update: “Hey guys, this will be my last FB post. If you need to get in touch with me, email me” only to see them posting just a few days later. They all come back, because Facebook is the number-one party on the Internet.
But I did it. I left the party. Quietly, mind you: I didn’t announce I was leaving. That’s like leaving a raging party and announcing to everyone you’re heading home from the door. No one cares. And yeah, I spent three months without Facebook.
I remember the first post-Facebook day clearly. My phone was clear of notifications alerting me to someone posting a picture of their upcoming engagement or pregnancy. I wasn’t watching nearly forgotten high-school friends argue about this election in endless, confusing threads that went nowhere fast. There were no cat videos. No memes. No red notification flags on my browser tab. There were no frame-by-frame accounts of what my cousin had for dinner.
I didn’t announce I was leaving. That’s like leaving a raging party and announcing to everyone you’re heading home from the door. No one cares.
There was nothing, and I loved it. I was free. I read books. I listened to records. I went to the movies. I had dinner with friends, phone in jacket. Those who missed me texted me and called me. I forgot about that girl I didn’t really know - the one who posted multiple updates per day. Why were we Facebook friends anyway? Science has even pointed to the fact that you are happier without it in your life. I was living out this very finding.
Sure, I could have done all of those things without dumping Facebook, but the difference, at least I found, was that I didn’t feel compelled to tell people these things. No more carefully arranged pictures of that Ramsey Lewis record I was spinning. Instead, I just spun it. I went to the movies and kept my opinion to myself, unless I was having a discussion about it with a friend at the local bar.
Life was good. I felt grounded. I felt real.
And just when I hit baseline sanity, I turned it back on.
I started slow, using only the web version as opposed to re-installing the app on my iPhone, like the true addict I was. I could pull it up on my web browser when I really needed to. This made things a bit more difficult (the web version isn’t nearly as fast or versatile as the app), but that turned out to be a good thing. By the time I’d open up Facebook on the browser, the urge to update something, reply, or post a picture had worn off, and I went about my day unfazed by the Facebook stimulation.
It was the perfect compromise for me: Facebook was only there when I wanted it. It wasn’t calling to me, and accessing it was just challenging enough to make it less satisfying in the moment. I imagine it’s like what alcoholics do when they hide the liquor in a cabinet in the garage: just far enough to not be convenient, and close enough just in case they’ve had a really bad day.
This reset allowed me to understand where Facebook fit into my life and isolate what I was feeling every time I’d take a hit. And then I went deep, deeper than I’d ever gone.
I joined Facebook groups. I messaged old grammar school friends. I got involved in every political discussion I could find. I liked each of my friend’s photos from St. Marten. I posted links to articles I’d written, fishing for likes and the validation we all unconsciously look for in social media. I argued with ex-coworkers about privacy issues in the consumer electronics space. I posted witty one-liner status updates. I wished every single person a happy birthday when the little red reminder reared its face, even if I had no idea who they were.
Facebook’s algorithms didn’t know what to do with me. I liked everything. I received multiple friend requests daily because I was showing up in everyone’s feeds as a friend of a friend. I accepted them all. I turned on Facebook share features on all of my computers. I re-downloaded the app. I was back in, deeper than before.
I experienced the blissful silence of a life without Facebook, and now I just see it as what it really is: a silly game.
This time around though, I felt not as affected, and it’s because I saw the other side. I experienced the blissful silence of a life without Facebook, and now I just see it as what it really is: a silly game. It’s a diversion in between focused hours of getting things done, like reading a book or talking to real friends. I can turn it off. Somehow I don’t care anymore, and it doesn’t get to me.
I now allow myself to read those political arguments in depth without it ruining my entire day. I love it. I ultimately learn about humanity as I read the opinions of people I will never meet in real life. It no longer triggers the anxiety, anger, or even jealousy that Facebook does for so many people. It’s not my echo chamber anymore. There was something about turning it off and knowing that I’d be fine if Facebook were to disappear tomorrow that filled the heaviness of the social networking bubble with helium, letting it float away.
I wrote in 2013 that social networking makes us feel alone. And since then, I can say I no longer feel this way. Being alone can actually be a really good thing. When we’re alone, we create things. We read things. We experience things first hand without any one else’s opinions or judgment. We’re even alone when we experience Facebook.
So go ahead: poke a friend (yes, you can still poke!), or post a picture of your dog. But do so with a deeper understanding, that I didn’t learn until I deleted Facebook all together, that those likes, and loves and crying emojis don’t actually mean anything.