Saturday, December 29, 2012

quitting time

I've quit Facebook.

I've laughed at witty things my friends have said or shared, but it's time to stop. I've enjoyed sharing things of my own that people have liked, and I've enjoyed seeing the odd thing or two that I write go viral. But at the end of the day, I've had to add up the time I've spent on Facebook and other web sites, and ask myself if there aren't better ways to spend my time.

And so I quit. At the moment, my account is only deactivated, but if I don't change my mind by Jan. 5, I'm probably going to take the nuclear option and close my account entirely.

The day after I deactivated my Facebook account was Christmas. That morning I got up, I ate breakfast with my family and we unwrapped presents. My children and I played with their new toys together, we talked about what they had been reading lately, and at the end of the day I shredded some old financial documents before going to bed.

It was a refreshing day, filled with family and with real-world experiences. In the days since, I've watched “Doctor Who” with my children, played with the youngest, and read a book. I've even written a blog entry, in what I hope is the first break in a long and painful logjam.

It's not a change I expect everyone will want to make. My friend Jeff, for instance, is always quick to stress the value he perceives in social networking for building and maintaining relationships.

I confess, I've never seen this value, no matter how much Jeff has stressed it.

Relationships just don't happen over an Internet medium, except in the most bare-bones, utilitarian sense. Which of us, in talking about the great times we've had with friends, ever stops to recount a meaningful status update? We may share, away from Facebook, things that we saw or read there, but those are always sidebars to the main events of our lives.

I've always enjoyed the pictures my friend Ruth shares of her children, but the memories I treasure are from the visits I've had with her and her family. I recall with great clarity the Saturday afternoon we went to lunch in Port-au-Prince then caught up with one another in their living room.

Facebook lets me know when my brother has gone for a ride on his horse. Seeing him in person or hearing him on the phone, I get a fuller measure of his experience. His shoulders will slump with that so-good fatigue, and his voice will carry his excitement as he shares where he's ridden and what he's seen. You don't get that on social media. Conversation isn't just a two-way exchange of words; it's a dynamic system, where one person's enthusiasm and interest feeds the other's.

Break it up and remove that direct interaction, and you're left to interact with the cold text another person has left, often hours earlier.

In the end Facebook, like most of the rest of the Internet, involves sitting alone by the computer or with your phone, interacting with what you imagine the other person to be. It is the shell of a conversation, an echo of a relationship trying to emulate the real thing.

God knows we want the real thing. Relationships these days are so impermanent. Children move hundreds of miles from their parents when they move out on their own, and then move regularly with the demands of work. Even marriage isn't what it once was. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average marriage will last seven years.

Facebook gives us the illusion of permanency and connection. Thinking about your college roommate? Look him up. Want your parents to know what their grandchildren are up to? No problem! It's a piece of cake to share the contents of your digital camera in an album they can look through at their leisure. Feeling nostalgic for that guy in high school who used to look down his nose at you? Hey, no problem – he'll be sending you a friends request any day now.

Facebook has kept us networked with one another, but it hasn't brought us any closer together, and that's the difficulty I have with it. Too often, in fact, it tears us apart where we expect it to pull us together.

If you're my friend on Facebook, after the events of Sandy Hook, you probably saw me voice some thoughts on the subject of gun control. If you agree with me, you might even have clicked Like. But if you didn't, it's just as possible you got annoyed at what you saw as an attack on your Second Amendment rights.

Being the polite sort, you didn't say anything then, but it stuck under your craw. You've heard the gun control rhetoric before, and it's never impressed you. But when you came back to the site, my comment was still there, still obtrusive, and still annoying to you.

If we'd been in the same room, we might have had a conversation on the subject. We would have known when each other wanted to speak, and we would have paused and allowed for the back-and-forth of a proper discussion. In the process, we would have moved beyond the surface arguments to some of the deeper issues.

But since this exchange would have happened on Facebook, each of us would have said all that we wanted to, with no modulation for interruption or discussion, after the initial comment was made without having you specifically in mind. And so, though neither of us intended to, we've driven a little wedge between us.

It gets even worse when our friends get involved, because often they have no relationship to provide context at all. Disagree with someone's post, and you may be called delusional, or worse. Like the rest of the Internet, the Facebook platform just doesn't support actual dialogue and understanding as much as it does strong language and hard feelings.

As my friend Indigo once observe, “Social networking just brings people together. It doesn't guarantee what happens next.”

Facebook goes on, but it will go on without me. As much as I have loved George Takei's page, as much as I have loved the ecards I have seen, as much as I have enjoyed the clever fan pages and all the witty graphics that get passed around, and as much as I love hearing about Jeff's trip to the supermarket to buy some mustard, it isn't worth it.

If I take everything Facebook delivers, and I weight it on a balance against the other things that could be done with the time, particularly the value of the relationships that we sacrifice to use the service, Facebook cannot measure up. Most things in life are better in moderation, but Facebook? I have found that for me, at least, it is like the proverbial obese man at an all-you-can-eat buffet. There's nothing wrong with the buffet, but perhaps it would be better to go home and have a salad.

I'm setting down my tray and I'm walking away from the building, with no plan for the foreseeable future of going back.

This entry is a blog response to "So Long and Thanks for All the Fish."

Copyright © 2012 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Brucker said...

No more bad form than me coming back to add another post (stay tuned, or tune out as you wish), and wondering why I didn't get an e-mail telling me you had commented, since I didn't think I turned off those notifications. Really planning to go nuclear rather than just turning off all notifications, as I did? Sure, Facebook makes doing that process a Herculean labor, but your friends can still look at your funny pictures and whatnot after you've gone.

Brucker said...

Oh, and I meant to say: I wasn't aware there was a proverb about an "obese man at an all-you-can-eat buffet". Google gives 70 results? Fascinating. This is why we can't have nice Internets.

David Learn said...

I've heard the expression many times before I read your post. There might not be an actual aphorism specifically on the subject of obese individuals at all-you-can-eat buffets, but it's a common enough metaphor.

And yeah, I really am thinking of using the nuclear option. It's hard to find the option for that, which is why I put a link in my post to that page specifically, in case anyone feels inspired.