On January 17th, I clicked through multiple prompts meant to induce guilt and hesitation, and deactivated my Facebook account. I’d been thinking about it for a few months, but always talked myself out of it. How would I keep up with my friends and family halfway around the world? How would I know about events I’d been invited to? How would I manage business inquiries from potential clients? How would I share my work, both personal and professional? How would I share my life?
In the end, it was those very same questions that led me to pull the trigger at last.
How did I get to a place where I relied so heavily on a single social network for communication, invitation, and validation? The more I struggled to imagine a world without Facebook, the more I felt suffocated by it. I didn’t have reliable internet in my home until I was twenty-three years old, and didn’t sign up for a single social media account until the mid-00’s. I created my Facebook account in 2009. Somehow, in less than ten years, it had gone from a fun way to catch up with former classmates and coworkers to a full-on addiction that made my face burn with shame to contemplate. I don’t have a strong willpower game, and I knew that a more moderate approach wouldn’t work for me. I was also exhausted – emotionally, mentally, and intellectually, I was burned the fuck out, and had been for quite some time. I desperately needed a break from the daily outrage cycle, and felt like going cold turkey was probably the easiest way to achieve it.
So that’s what I did. I posted a quick note about my intentions to go dark for a while, left it up the better part of the day, then cut the cord before I could change my mind.
The first few hours and days without Facebook were the weirdest, and they were also when I discovered how insanely integrated into my life it was. Not ten minutes after I deactivated, I picked up my phone mindlessly and had a brief moment of confusion when I couldn’t find the button for the Facebook app on my homescreen. Five minutes later, I did it again. This happened over and over, though it thankfully lessened as time passed. As I gradually grew used to not checking in every time the thought crossed my mind (alarmingly often, to be honest) I began to experience the most incredible sensation of freedom. It felt as though the weight of the entire world had been lifted off not just my shoulders, but my heart and my mind as well. I wasn’t angry, I didn’t feel hopeless, my sadness was fleeting, because:
My emotions were wholly proportionate to only my own lived experiences
I’ve always been empathetic, almost to a fault, and I don’t think I ever fully understood how much social media was contributing to a general sense of despondency within myself that had been building for years. I am an emotional sponge and every day that I spent on Facebook saturated me with a toxic soup made up of the sorrow of strangers, the anger of friends, and the casual terrible-ism’s of family. I was stuck in a constant cycle of filling myself up and wringing myself out. Being off Facebook meant that for the first time in a long time, I was bone-dry, blissfully processing my own shit and no one else’s. As the hours stretched into days, and days into months, Facebook began to seem something like a fever dream, the reality of it blurred around the edges, the heart of it fleeting. I was finding my footing in the world around me again, rediscovering quiet, redefining the priority of privacy in my life. This was the giddy, skipping liberation of the newly recovered addict, and though it didn’t – couldn’t – last, it was good for my soul while it did.
In the almost five months I’ve been Facebook-free, I’ve had to adjust my expectations a number of times. The way I view relationships of all kinds has been deeply challenged by remaining only marginally active on any social media (I have an Instagram account I use fairly regularly.) Perhaps the hardest pill to swallow has been the realization that Facebook friends are, by and large, precisely that. I was surprised, and frankly a little saddened, by how few people reached out to me following my departure. The false sense of intimacy that social media breeds has never been more apparent to me, and even though I expected it, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t sting. Still, there is something to be said for letting go of the illusion that a thousand people or more are actually interested in maintaining any type of meaningful relationship with me, because:
I’m not as important as I’d imagined.
By which I mean, this idea that my every thought, memory, and opinion should immediately be broadcast to an audience is a weirdly misguided notion that I’m happy to find myself mostly cured of. It doesn’t mean I don’t have things to say – I do. I have a lot of things to say, about a lot of things. But it’s debatable if anyone needs to know how I feel about the slow ass driver in front of me or the rude customer I overheard in Kroger. I know no one really needs to hear another “this thing reminded me of that one Office episode today….” story. Even my opinions on the stuff that matters to me most isn’t much more than me adding noise to an already overwhelming amount of static.
Have my words ever changed someone’s mind about something important? Maybe. But it’s much more likely I’ve wasted untold hours shouting into the void, hours I can never reclaim. As I near my 40th birthday, I am loathe to devote even one more breath to insignificant online arguments. I have this space to put any work I want seen out into the world, and anyone who cares about it can easily follow me here. Though I may lack the same audience size and immediate response a platform like Facebook provides, I like to think it gives me the chance to write and connect more authentically, which has always been my goal anyway. I am simply no longer interested in performing for dopamine hits and oxytocin highs, because:
the internet is only one component of my reality, not the extent of it.
I don’t like to make a distinction between real life and life online, because they’re different parts of the same thing. But living too much online is about as healthy for me as living too much in my own head – it eventually becomes an echo chamber of all the worst things I think about myself, others, and the world around me. The best life, for me, is one in which I’m able to fully engage all my senses without feeling compelled to document each one for online consumption. I want to keep some things back for just me, because:
I am being forced to reexamine and redefine what privacy means to me
I’ll be honest. I am so tired of knowing everything about everybody, and having everybody know everything about me in return. I know that some of those horses are out of the gate and too far across the field to even see anymore, but as I get older, and my children get older, I find myself pulling the corners of our lives in on our family like the folding of a beloved quilt. Since joining Flickr after my oldest was born in 2005, I feel as though each successive year has seen me peeling back layer after layer of myself until there was little left but a person-shaped mass of quivering nerves and a bare naked heart. I shudder a little to think how much of myself I’ve given away for no other reason than a desperate desire to feel validated in my humanity.
Life is the weirdest, most wonderfully random piece of magic. It makes no sense that we’re here, and yet, here we are: breathing, loving, killing, creating, crying, birthing, dying. Social media spreads it all out so thinly that it’s almost transparent. I want to bring a little of that mystery back by closing a few windows and barring a few doors. I want to make myself opaque. I want my voice to be a votive made up of mercury glass. I don’t want to hoard the beauty and the grief in my life, but I no longer have the desire to toss it out on the breeze by the handful, either.
There is real value in the internet, and within social media. I don’t mean to downplay that, or wish for a time when we didn’t have it. Mostly, I want to find a way to navigate it that leaves room for far more hopefulness and joy and gritty realness, and dials the cynicism, outrage, and despondency way down. That doesn’t always come easily. I’m okay with what I am getting in return, though. I remember how quiet my life was before the internet, and think about how I’m reclaiming some of that now. It’s not a bad trade-off, not at all.
I don’t think I’ll ever go back to Facebook, though I know enough to never say never. For now, I am enjoying the silence and the solitude, the smallness of my world, the way it feels to have a thought and not immediately share it with a thousand people.