It all began innocently enough, in the fall of 2007, when Jason and I were faculty in residence on campus. In our orientation the year before to our duties as wholesome adults providing non-alcohol-based programming options to undergraduates in university housing, an outgoing professor – a well-known college dean – had said he had joined Facebook for a while, but had deleted his account a few months after, when social boundaries began to blur and hierarchies of common sense became morally ambiguous.
“I deleted my account because I felt really weird when students poked me, and I did not want to poke them back.”
Hmm, interesting, I thought; what is this Facebook?
But I paid it no heed until the following year when it became clear that Facebook had become our main marketing strategy for events with the students. These were amusing Facebook days, when everyone and their dog was not tapping away on Facebook. I could toss off a post without thinking. It was very stream of consciousness. It was an amusing scrapbook, a sketch pad, a old-school bulletin board. I actually formed groups based on one of the many elementary schools I attended, I friended my best friend from the fifth grade, I talked with a random person about a second-grade teacher whose bizarre affect had made a major impact.
More and more people joined Facebook. As more people got on the platform who fit into categories of “people who did not need to know my every thought,” such as my parents and manager and conservative cousins, I chafed at feeling so reserved, and I missed my social sketch pad. These were the days when I took quizzes and gave posts thumbs-up and shared posts to my timeline and other people’s timelines. These were also the days when random personages such as “ex-husband of high school friend” showed up with an itch to argue. I tried to ignore such online skirmishes, but congenitally do not have the stomach for much conflict. I snooped people who had exited my daily life, gracefully or not, to see what they were doing now, but it never made me feel any better. It just fed the curiosity, and seemed to make every year and every phase of my life concomitantly present in a space that seemed more and more like a chaotic emotional warehouse.
I understand that some higher spirits may view as a drawback the human need to live within a linear time frame, but our brains are wired that way for a reason. For about ten years, everyone and everything and every relationship was all alive at once on Facebook, in high relief. As a social person, I found this exhausting.
However, as our years in Oklahoma continued to accumulate, Facebook provided a glimpse into what life I might be living elsewhere, an important remedy for me at that time. It offered endless escapist imaginings, but it offered no roots in exchange.
I did not have FOMO. I was deeply afflicted with WIWSE (wishing I were somewhere else.)
I “Facebooked” (by now, and ridiculously, its own verb) far less when we were busy with tasks that finally led to the arrival of Victor, being depressed and burying myself in work, and plenty sick of living on campus by that time, in our fourth year. I did not make a single post about being pregnant, fearful I would jinx the delicate chemistry. I did post a picture of the newborn Victor, and someone commented that they had not even known I was pregnant.
Once he was in the world, though, all bets were off, and hundreds of baby and kid pictures were posted. I regret this now as an invasion of his privacy, regardless of the good intention behind it to let grandparents see how he was growing.
In Arezzo five years ago, I was on social media frequently, keeping in touch. As a gentle social medium, Facebook is ideal. I remember the years in the nineties when I used to write paper letters, then 2000-word emails, to friends in other cities, and in other countries as I continued to return to Oklahoma from Europe. A small broadcast seemed the ideal antidote to the draining exercise of recounting afresh events along a segment of the timeline for a single person. As a person who travels frequently, and has lived abroad often, something like Facebook became necessary to knit together the disparate episodes of my life. Maybe I did not want everything clamoring at once for attention, but the ability to successfully find and ping person x from place y was useful to me.
I should have become more suspicious the day I saw the blue Facebook f on the label of a Heinz bottle of ketchup. Hmm, I was using Facebook for my purpose, but what was their purpose? Zuck didn’t care about me, a dumb f***.
I continued to post pictures, stories, poems. Of myself and friends. Of Victor, and then Eleanor, when she came along. Gradually I noticed the newsfeed changing, how it would throttle the scroll until I read the ad. Ads in Messenger. Ads that matched my recent searches. Ads that bordered on offensive when I realized the extent to which my Messenger conversations were being datamined. Ads that were offensive when Facebook made assumptions about how I viewed myself and my world. I started reporting offensive ads. I dropped off my Outlander fan groups.
I work in the field of IT, as do both my brothers. The software devs in my company were horrified that I used Facebook at all.
“Why??!!” they yelled. “Why!”
“I don’t know,” I responded lamely. “Grandparents want to see pictures of our kids.”
“That is NOT a reason!” the grumpy one shouted. “We are trying to help you.”
When we moved back to Italy almost two years ago, I was still very active. But social media for me has always felt like a verbal junk food. Like a binge night out, I never felt better after a session scrolling around and liking and posting on Facebook, no matter what their corporate marking department claimed. I gave up on Twitter long ago, and have never really cottoned to any other platform, except Instagram lately, which vexes me all the more for its acquisition by Facebook.
I began to write and write and write in Italy, the cloud of Oklahoma slowness and sadness having lifted, and I began to focus my creative energy on my writing, which has always been a refuge for me: blogging, fiction, poetry, journalling. Reading good fiction. Picking up my New Yorker subscription again. The more I wrote for myself, the calmer and happier I became, in ways that social media has never provided me with its Proustian buffets of regret and vexed spirits.
The 2016 election in the U.S. was a turning point for me. I confess I was one of those people who had become wrapped in the echo chamber of Facebook, obtaining far too great a percentage of my news from behind the login, as a member of Pantsuit Nation, the “secret” group with something like 3 million members. I had believed my newsfeed. I had been lulled into complacency.
I was shocked the morning after the election, in the dark hours when Jason came to wake me and tell me the awful news. I posted a remark about my anger and disappointment, and the spec
ter of a conservative Christian cousin materialized with plenty to say to me in this public space, and she did. That was the first time I deactivated my account. I cried for a week after that, the conservative cousin adding insult to the injury of an election gone terribly awry. I collected myself and saw with fresh eyes the Facebook madness I had come to accept as normal, on both macro and micro levels. Their greed for profit with no foresight as to consequences led directly to this ugly and painful chapter in American history. And we all took that ride with them because we liked to know what our friends were doing.
I have deactivated my Facebook account a half dozen times since then, but my next action is deletion. I am tired of reading about Facebook’s massive profits, founded on data that we have all given away because we valued community, even though we were quite capable of finding a bottle of ketchup in the grocery store without the endorsement. (Seriously, a Facebook group for ketchup?!)
I’ll download my file; I will make sure I get all those baby pictures. But the cons outweigh the pros for me. Facebook is no longer the innocent distraction it once was. We need to accept the fact that it is distorting and destroying democracies in the name of relentless marketing and capitalism. As a social and extroverted expat blogger, I will be looking for better options to create and sustain my communities and to let my audience, however small it becomes, know when I have posted new pieces, be they creative or narrative, and to find my fellow writers and true travelers. I have seen my numbers plummet on this blog when I am deactivated on Facebook.
I like Instagram, but feel similarly marketed to death by the endless friending/unfriending by businesses I will never patronize, and personalities that seem to border on porn stars. There are many good reasons, some seductive reasons, to stay active on Facebook. But I think I am done. I deleted the app from both my phones, Italian and American, a year ago.
Perhaps I am grumpy GenX. I do not mind being labeled; my cohorts and I form the most cynical generation. We expect to be screwed. We will not be manipulated so easily. But we can show ourselves out. I am going to go deeper into my writing and my art with the minutes and the hours that I formerly dedicated to Facebook, often without conscious intent. And I know I will be more content for it. I have proven this to myself.
To my friends against whom I have leveled accusation of being a Luddite for refusing to participate, I apologize. You were right, and smarter than I was.
If anyone is reading this, thanks for stopping by, even though it is not getting posted to the big blue. Drop me a comment; I am not going off-grid, although I will be deleting my Twitter account soon enough.
You can still find me on Google+, Gmail, Gchat. I am on LinkedIn. I hope that is not a decision I will come to regret in ten years, but I may. It just seems the better, less egregious option for now.
The writing will continue. The writing is just beginning.