THIS PAST OCTOBER, I did something completely out of character: I had a life-changing experience, and I didn’t put it on Facebook. Not once did I post photos of the event, or update my status regarding it, or even “vague book” by waxing philosophical with a “Whoa! Dreams DO come true!” type of post.
For me, this was nothing short of miraculous.
You see, I’m a Facebook user or—more precisely—abuser. I’ve posted photos of overcooked spaghetti and meatballs, grammatically incorrect signs, flesh wounds in need of stitches, condom wrappers in parking lots, my oldest son meeting my youngest in the maternity ward, and retro eleven-year-old me, crossed-eyed and slouching in wide wale corduroys, at Mount Rushmore circa 1983. I’ve even featured a pic of men’s underwear that Hurricane Sandy’s remnants blew into my yard (Instagram filter: Toaster) complete with snide caption. Not to mention, those who know me in the Facebook way have been privy to several videos of my now-deceased and fabled hamster, Hank, doing the Harlem Shake, winning the local rodent derby, and exercising to Foreigner’s “Dirty White Boy” before he prepared to lose his virginity. (Don’t ask.)
I’ve used Facebook as a testing ground for jokes and one-liners (I occasionally get on stage at awkward open mics), and as a snarky public diary that chronicles the sometimes-comedic ins and outs of my days, and occasionally as a means to express what I believe in, including, but not limited to: Bigfoot, marriage equality, Chipotle, Mickey Rourke, Pope Francis, Finland, Miley Cyrus’s right to slut it up, and—bring it on home—Led Zeppelin.
I’ve used Facebook to locate toddler beds and to survive malodorous Amtrak journeys and to unabashedly promote my writing. But, most importantly, I’ve used it as a vehicle for reconnecting with old friends, new friends, friends of friends, and, delightfully, people I have never met and probably never will but have come to love like siblings. In brief, as long as you and I share a mutual acquaintance, I will accept your request to know me, and, in return, I will show you pictures of my aspic.
Long story short: My name is Whitney Collins, and I am Facebook junkie.
Soon after my October feat of suppression, I did a second unthinkable thing and logged off Facebook for twenty-eight days. This was not unlike Kathie Lee throwing a magnum of Chardonnay against the wall of the TODAY show studio and demanding a month’s supply of wheatgrass. I braced myself for an ugly withdrawal. I was certain I’d spend most of the four weeks in the fetal position, wondering what sloth video I’d gone and missed, or fretting over who might have tagged me in a college-era photo, or by covering my home office in frantic Post-Its with could-have-been status updates.
But instead, upon logging out, I felt immediate peace.
It was as though I’d walked out the back door of the rowdiest pool hall and straight into a silent, snowy night. At first I could still hear the tempting clink of beer bottles and distant laughter, but, by the end of Day 2, with my iPhone Facebook app deleted and my email Notifications turned off—it was just me, alone at my desk, using my computer for work and not whimsy, where I could barely make out the metaphorical bass of the Facebook jukebox (or the buzz of Buzzfeed).
By Day 3, I’d also removed Pinterest and Twitter and Instagram and LinkedIn. My Astrology Zone app conveniently expired during that time. I continued the purge by doing away with Angry Birds Seasons and Plants vs. Zombies and Albert (You haven’t heard of it? You really should download it!) and YouTube and Pandora. Pretty soon, the only things left on my phone were “Weather” and “Flashlight” and “Calculator.” And believe me when I tell you this: the ten-day forecast and looking at your lit-up tonsils in the hall mirror and typing “BOOBIES” with upside-down numbers quickly gets old.
By the end of the first week, I was fairly confident I was the reincarnation of Henry David Thoreau. The breeze now whispered my name. The smell of pine needles on my morning run was newly intoxicating. I considered building a chicken coop. I weighed the pros and cons of homeschooling. I was superior and saintly and fresh as the daisies I was now noticing. I was eating a boatload of kale. Was that a beard I saw coming in?
And then, Day 11 hit.
On Day 11, I woke with three wisecracking status updates in my head. One about the Kardashians. One about Cialis. One about chemical warfare and diapers. Not being able to post these witticisms soon rendered me unable to think about anything but Facebook. It won’t hurt just to check my Notifications, I told myself. I can just peek at the News Feed. Maybe someone important has gotten engaged! Maybe someone has had a baby, and it would be rude for me not to congratulate them! Maybe…maybe someone HAS DIED!!!
With that rationalization, I broke down and logged in. I scrolled the News Feed—but fast, with an eye peeled for obituaries. I checked my Notifications—but quickly, because it’s not like I really cared. And then I looked at my own profile page. More than eighty friends had “liked” my post about taking a Facebook sabbatical. (I’m still not sure what to make of that.) And then I logged off, shamed and dirty. A failure.
I’d gone and done it. I’d driven past the ex’s house. I’d gone into the bar on my lunch break. I’d traveled way out of my way, to a gas station across town, to buy a pack of Camel Lights only to smoke one and throw the other nineteen in a dumpster.
I HAD FALLEN OFF THE WAGON.
That night as punishment, I made myself stand in front of the bathroom mirror and say, five times out loud, what would have been my Kardashian update. If you want to know the depths of humiliation, I recommend this approach. Because, if you have to stand in front of a mirror and hold up your turkey sandwich and say “NOM NOM! MY LUNCHY!” a half dozen times before posting a picture of it with that caption, you will probably spare everyone from wanting to block not just you, but humanity as a whole. Think of it as a public service in the vein of Candyman.
The shame from this transgression was enough to get me through the next seventeen days without incident. In that time, I did a lot of work. I did a lot of reading. A few times, I even went to bed at a decent hour. One night, I actually finished—totally finished—ALL the laundry in the house. (That day will go down as one of the worst days EVER.) And, much to my children’s delight, I only took three photos that month: photos of insurance numbers my husband needed me to text him at work.
Turns out, without Facebook and its various insidious and inbred cousins, I’m still busy, but not crushingly swamped. It also turns out, I don’t miss seeing pictures of abused dogs that I can’t adopt. Or poor, sick children that I have little way of helping. Or watching this Republican hate that Democrat to the backdrop of twenty kitties in teacups. Or reading about how “blessed” so many people ecstatically are, alongside so many who currently aren’t; I will never get used to that jarring juxtaposition.
But here’s the biggest thing I learned: when you’re oversaturated with TMI, and you always know what everyone is doing and thinking and feeling and ailing from and eating—at all hours of the day, every day of the year, ad infinitum—there are no secrets. There is no mystique or mystery. There is no withholding or withdrawing. We (okay… especially ME) have forgotten how to leave a tender moment—or a godforsaken BLT—alone. The world of social media tells us EVERYTHING. There is no need to wonder. Facebook is where wonder goes to die.
Until my big log-off, I’d forgotten how much I like to wonder. I used to daydream in classes, and people-watch in malls, and space-out on car rides. I spent years looking out plane windows, terrified we were going to crash, without Bejeweled to distract me from my imminent death. Sometimes, I even spent days trying to remember the name of that guy who was in that movie; that’s what happens when you don’t have an IMDB app. As I child, I lived out in the country. We had to drive long distances into town and to activities, and because of that, I spent a good portion of my childhood drooling and staring and marveling; wondering things like Where are all these people going? and What is the meaning of all this? and Hey! Crows! and I sure as shit hope my mom will let us go to Pizza Hut for dinner! I had the smallest details of my route to elementary school memorized: the kite string that dangled in that tree for ten years, that old dented guardrail, that house with the hot pink shutters where I safely assumed blind people lived.
I also used to be better at eye contact, and I was good (okay, average) at keeping my opinions to myself. Not to mention—and this is important, I think—I was less connected. I had to suffer the human feeling of disconnect, which ultimately sensitizes us and drives us toward one another, unlike Facebook, which may ultimately desensitize us and drive us away. Basically, prior to getting all up in everybody’s business, and encouraging everybody to get all up in mine, I was a different sort of “wonder woman.” But that was before Steve Jobs came along with his iPhone—that damn beguiling Apple, offered in an outstretched hand like a replay of Eden’s fruit—that I finally succumbed to six years ago, followed by Mark Zuckerberg sealing my fall with Facebook.
I don’t have many vivid dreams. As a mother to two young kids who apparently have an amphetamine source, I pretty much collapse face-down into an R.E.M.-less sleep most nights. But on the night before I logged back onto Facebook, I had a lucid dream—the kind that you can’t shake for a few days. I was in the Chicago airport, trudging past gate after gate. At every one, there was a different show of sorts. Gate A23 had a bunch of ferrets on tricycles. Gate B15 had a meteorologist booming the forecast. C65, lost cats. D4, a chili cook-off. A9, a slew of deathly ill people on gurneys. It was excruciatingly loud. It was an 83-ring circus. There was debris all over the terminal floor: confetti, French fries, babies crawling, Old Navy coupons, vomit. And there panhandlers—hundreds of panhandlers—holding out their caps for coins. Some were singing, some were dancing, some were just slouched over in resignation.
I woke up horrified. Because I knew it wasn’t really a dream about O’Hare or air travel; it was a dream about Facebook. It was Mark Zuckerberg’s Frankenstein, the dreaded News Feed, right there in nightmare form and loosely disguised—featuring everything you might happen to scroll past in twenty minutes. And all those panhandlers were Facebook users, holding out their caps for “likes.”
After that, did I log back on? Eventually, yes. There were updates from my kids’ schools I was missing. I needed to promote my published Internet articles as a promise to the websites I’d written them for. I wanted to chat with my friends who weren’t in coffee-shop radius. Not to mention, there sure as hell had to be some new videos of NEWBORN SLOTHS GETTING PUT INTO FOOTIE PAJAMAS. So, yes. I got back on Facebook. I’m still back on Facebook. But it’s not the same. The thrill is (mostly) gone.
I still update, but more often than not, it leaves me feeling like an exhibitionist. I still scroll the News Feed, but it usually leaves me feeling misanthropic. I still post photos of my kids, but doing so leaves me feeling like a pageant mother. I don’t like this new perspective. I’d prefer to go back to thinking of Facebook as harmless folly. But, by deleting Pandora, I opened Pandora’s box. Now I know the naked truth, and he needs to put some pants on. This is exactly how I felt when I found out that Jell-O is made from horse hooves. And that professional wrestling is staged. And that Marky Mark is 5’7″. My God, folks. These are the things you can’t un-know.
Facebook has brought me many new friends, but at the end of the day, is it really bringing people together in a meaningful way? Five years from now, will I say: “Remember that awesome day in 2014 when we all met up online?” With that one very difficult decision this past fall—to not “SHARE” the monumental—something shifted inside. A sense of solitude returned. Something sacred remained sacred. And I now see that social media, Facebook especially, requires the public persona to sacrifice the private person. I mean, honestly. How can I be up in arms about the NSA when I’m posting pictures of my children in the bathtub?
After my hiatus, I now fight to straddle the World Wide Web and the whole wide world. I guess you could say I’m on the razor’s (or Razr’s) edge: between perpetual updating and deactivating my account. Between navel gazing and stargazing. Between looking down at my phone instead of out, up, and in. Something more simple calls me; not necessarily a Walden, but maybe a flip phone? Maybe introversion over extroversion? Let’s hope whatever it is takes hold soon; because I fear at some point I’ll become like Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed and Confused—still showing up to this party long after it’s considered acceptable. And to make it even worse, I look nothing like Matthew McConaughey.
I suspect Facebook’s addictive nature lies in her many lures; she’s a hooker with a huge bag of tricks. She’s got a little something for everybody. Seeking pity? Praise? Voyeurism? Validation? Clients? Clicks? Old Navy coupons? She’s got it all and she’s always there. Like a casino pumped full of oxygen. COME. ON. IN.
Well, everything’s okay in moderation, you say. You just need to moderate your social media usage.
To which I say: Really? Everything’s okay in moderation? Even heroin?
To which you say: Facebook’s not heroin.
And I say: Okay, then. Quit.
And then you do, and I say: Oh Jesus, Gwyneth. You’ve made your point.
I like the story that mythologist Joseph Campbell tells about the last temptation of Buddha. That after the Lord of Lust and the Lord of Death had visited Buddha with the lures of desire and fear, the Lord of Social Duty shows up to say: “Young man, haven’t you read the morning papers? Don’t you know what there is to be done today?” To which Buddha simply touched the earth with his hand.
This temptation to know “the scoop” goes back a long time, then. This “social duty” to not miss out on all the buzz that repeats on loop is an age-old yen—one that’s apparently more powerful than sex and the terror of dying. I bring this up so we don’t feel like the News Feed is just some modern occurrence. It’s not. But I also bring it up because it’s obviously a big problem, a big hindrance to ever feeling slightly enlightened. I fear that for us to evolve, we’ve got to quit desiring baby goats in hammocks. Yes. I predict that giving up incessant videos of little tortoises on skateboards will be humanity’s ultimate test.
And that is gonna be brutal.
Or maybe not. See, I’m not a Facebook addict anymore. I used to be, but like I said earlier, ever since my twenty-eight-day fast, I’m now the one in control. Instead of updating multiple times daily, I’m down to about one status a day. These days, I’m not mainlining Facebook, I’m just taking a puff here and there. Basically, I’ve gone from habitual to recreational. I’m just here for practical reasons. I’m the one in the driver’s seat. I have complete willpower about what I click on and what I “like” and what I share. I’m not lured in by 25 Things You Need To Be Telling Your Son For Him To Even Have A Chance At Success. I don’t feel obligated to wish my dentist a happy birthday or tempted to gain your applause or, especially, to watch that adorable video that will make my day. Pajamas or not, those baby sloths are not that cute. No, really. They’re not. Those baby sloths are pretty much dead to me.
I can quit whenever I want.
This was excellent, Whitney. I battle with this constantly. Shared this to Facebook right away.
Thank you. I do realize the horrible irony of writing this and then Facebook liking and sharing.
A thoughtful, personal, non-judgy essay that covers all the angles. I hate Facebook. But I love it. And I long for a flip phone, but I don’t miss not getting lost or panicking when I realize I’ve forgotten my printed Google driving directions. My kids struggle with screen time related self control, and I always feel like a hypocrite when I come down on them about it. Thanks for these reminders, I suppose. Nice writing.
Ummm… I don’t miss **getting** lost. I can’t even navigate my way through a whole sentence apparently. I’ll bet there’s an app for that.
My most recenr post said something quite similar. It’s called ‘The Cure for Social Media Misery: Communicating in Person’. So simple, yet virtually impossible, isn’t it?
these are the things you can’t un-know. and you have allowed us all to unabashedly revisit irony in its newest form and for this I thank you from the bottom of my laptop’s heart
I just deactivated my account after not logging in for three months. I don’t miss it at all. My insistence that people know me and be part of my real life instead of a fake life has had positive effects on my happiness. I still have email, I have a phone (a real cord phone, not a mobile) and a front door with a doorbell.