Leaving The Social Network: What It Feels Like Not To Have A Facebook

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A lot has changed in the four years since I gave the social network a big blue thumbs down. Reuters

It was the second semester of my freshman year of college when I decided to delete my Facebook. April, I think. I was sitting a few rows from the blackboard in an introductory writing class designed to drum up some critical thinking skills. We were discussing Hard Times by Charles Dickens.

There were maybe 13 students in the class, 15 tops. The conversation had hit a low point — it was after lunch and people’s heads were starting to droop, their eyes glazing over at the book’s wooden themes and unrelatable plot. Inevitably, laptops opened. Note-taking, the professor must have thought. One after another, I saw cursors rush to the address bar, lone f's autofilling to facebook.com, and the prompt re-drooping and re-glazing that ensued for the next 58 minutes. I thought of my own laptop, napping on my dorm room desk.

I can’t say for sure why that specific April afternoon four years ago marked the tipping point in my swelling desire to leave Facebook. When I got home after class, I opened my page as I’d done nearly every day since joining, and without ceremony I ended it. My only commitment was outlasting a two-week purgatory, during which my account was merely deactivated.

Before I hit the final blue button, sealing my departure, Facebook showed me five of my friends. Bright, smiling, socially eager faces. They’d miss me, Facebook said — a final plea. I’ll see them soon enough, I thought.

Click.

It’s Complicated

The modern world doesn’t have a lot of great things to say about Facebook. To some, it is a time suck. To others, it is a reaffirmation everyone is having more fun than they are. Bigger, stronger, more intelligent and loving, fun. But in reality, all the networking is making us unhealthy. A 2012 survey conducted by the Center for Eating Disorders found more than half of Facebook users judged their own self-image based on the appearances of others. A similar number of people said seeing Facebook photos of themselves made them more self-conscious about their body and weight.

Research also suggests the mindless perusing Facebook users are apt to perform, often in marathon browsing sessions, is making people less happy. Last year, social psychologists from the University of Michigan published a study that found greater Facebook use predicted lower levels of happiness. Five times a day for two weeks, the team text messaged subjects. They asked about how they felt in the moment, their levels of anxiety and loneliness, and amount of Facebook use since the last round of questions. The results showed people didn’t just use Facebook more often if they were sad. Facebook was making them sad.

“Rather than enhancing well-being, as frequent interactions with supportive ‘offline’ social networks powerfully do, the current findings demonstrate that interacting with Facebook may predict the opposite result for young adults,” wrote the researchers. “It may undermine it.”

I was alone in my six-person suite the day I deleted my Facebook. I wasn’t lonely, but I was certainly alone. At least, that was how it felt. I told myself I would make active efforts to see friends who were out-of-state. I’d email them, call, Skype. If I didn’t, it must mean they weren’t all that vital in the first place, right? I was trimming the fat. There was no way I’d end up disconnected and friendless.

Logging Back In

The over-the-shoulder gaze we call hindsight is seldom out of focus. It may blur at the edges, but the subject is there, clearly rendered and perfectly lit. Deleting my Facebook was a quiet turn of the wheel, but it was a major one. And I did it with the kind of clear eyes you might expect a person to have when he gets down on one knee or greets the person holding his diploma. I don’t know whether that says more about Facebook or my dependence on it.

A number of positive things happened after my Facebook was kaput, and as time passed, what was true initially only got truer. Without the endless stream of status updates, likes, comments, birthday notifications, event invitations, and photos to flip through, my residual craving for social interaction needed a new outlet. I was, to borrow a term from the legalese, “accustomed” to a certain lifestyle, and I wasn’t going to let some blue thumbs up tell me how to keep friendships.

All at once, I felt my world expand and my personal experiences become unique. The collective consciousness of Facebook, where life is a big river of garbage we watch from the shore and pluck scraps of joy from, was dead. I played chess in the park and told two people about it, not 200. I went to parties I was invited to by people who’d heard about it on Facebook. I didn’t go to the parties I didn’t hear about, because I hadn’t heard about them. Instead, I used the time to catch up on reading or find other plans. I had singular moments I could call my own.

I came home that summer, between my freshman and sophomore year, to a group of friends I hadn’t learned an iota about since I’d last logged on. It was a span of no more than two months, but I realized the fine-toothed particulars of a status update actually made the broad strokes less exciting. I learned about concerts they attended, relationships they’d formed. Even if the details had lost their luster to the rest of the world, I saw them revived with the same enthusiasm as if they were mint. Old things were suddenly new again, to both of us. I grew to love, and appreciate, the art of catching up.

In the times I wasn’t filling my calendar with birthdays to remember or well-thought-out plans, I was building a life. I consider this the greatest reward of my Facebook-less life. Having everything available — every new haircut, every political dig lobbed from the cheap seats — meant nothing was special. I had everything, but so did everyone else. I was part of the world’s largest club. But if the world’s largest club grows large enough, its membership is meaningless.

Leaving Facebook meant starting my own club, and it started with population: one.

Less Request, More Friendship

Four years since the last time I logged on, and I’m finding my longing for more probably wasn’t anomalous. Facebook friendships rely on the bond forged by so-called “weak ties.” You’re able to have a thousand friends online because you don’t interact with each of them in wholly meaningful ways. You may be able to ask a fifth of them for a colleague’s email address, but you’d only get coffee with a handful, the “strong ties.” Weak ties are your acquaintances, strong ties your close friends. I wanted more strong ties.

At least, I wanted to reorganize my strong ties. Weak ties are important in professional matters, mostly. A year after I quit Facebook, I joined its abbreviated cousin Twitter — the global, information-based social network that cares less about who you are and more what you think. I fancied myself a man of ideas, big and small, silly and serious, and I knew I needed weak ties. Socialization wasn’t to be an accident. I didn’t have time to sort through the garbage.

I also wanted to ditch the screen. Me being the social animal I am, Facebook ate up large chunks of my time as I brushed up on what Alexis’s new tattoo looked like or who Mark just started dating. I was sabotaging myself. Just recently, a study found five days of no screen time improved a group of preteens’ ability to pick up on nonverbal emotional cues. As the world goes digital, science is finding we are becoming more like the robots we are creating: unfeeling, highly intelligent beings.  

Today, by virtue of necessity, just about everyone who knows me knows I don’t have a Facebook. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am surrounded by people who know how to contact me. I have no profile to interface with, no friend requests to accept or deny. I have a voice and a pair of thumbs and an email address, and much, much more. Let’s get coffee.

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