As many of you know, I've had a tempestuous relationship with Facebook. I originally signed onto it with an account that my roommate created for me; in fact, my password has remained the one she made up, the name of the cat we shared. Since then, I've gone back and forth deleting and reactivating my account a few times, always lured back in by the thought that I was missing out by not being on it, that my friends and family were interacting as a group without me, that I was not privy to the information and pictures and jokes and whatever else that they were creating with the help of this massive online social network.
But what matters isn't my history with Facebook. What matters--and what I'm not exaggerating when I say is hugely, earth-shatteringly important--is why I'm done with it now. For real. Forever.
There are two big reasons I got rid of my account. First of all, there's the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine. This is a site that until recently allowed users to commit Facebook (and other social network) "suicide." You could type in your username and password, and the machine would go in and systematically delete all your friends, account setting, and other data, effectively removing you from the Facebook system. I'm not super technological or anything, but as far as I can tell they used their own "worm" Facebook account to do this--kind of like having a spy behind enemy lines that could help you self-destruct.
Even without the second reason which I'll get to shortly, that was enough to get me off of Facebook. I have a very deep mistrust of any institution (if we can call Facebook an institution) that is so threatened by people disengaging from it that they threaten legal action. Really, Facebook? In retrospect, I guess it shouldn't surprise me: the wealth of marketable personal data that Facebook retains about its users is of course supremely valuable to them, and they wouldn't want anyone helping others delete themselves from it. But that alone is enough for me to want to get the hell out of there. I'd like to keep information about myself to myself, or to the people I personally choose to share it with--not the whole internet world and whoever else Facebook can sell it off to.
But enough of social conspiracy. The second reason I'm off of Facebook has to do with the idea of friendship itself. I recently read a fantastic article by William Deresiewicz that was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education in December 2009. (You can read it here. Yes, it's long, but I sincerely hope that enough of you still have an attention span that you'll read it, because, like I said, it's absolutely fantastic. Print it if you need to; I know that--Luddite that I am, perhaps--I always do better reading from a paper than I do from a computer screen.)
Anyway, Deresiewicz argues, in a nutshell, that online "friends" have devalued the nature of real friendship, which itself, in modern times, was a replacement for the disappearing communities that used to give us a sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves. Social networking sites like Friendster, Myspace, and later, Facebook, took the notion of a circle of friends and expanded it to the whole of the world, "and in so doing, destroyed both its own nature and that of the individual friendship itself. Facebook's very premise," he continues, "and promise, is that it makes our friendship circles visible. They there are, my friends, all in the same place." The problem, of course, is that seeing your friends all on the same screen doesn't actually make them close, not really. Facebook is "inviting us to believe that by assembling a list, we have conjured a group. Visual juxtaposition creates the mirage of emotional proximity."
Basically, what he argues and what I've come to realize is that though it seems like I'm interacting with my friends or family on Facebook, I'm actually doing a very public dance of self-affirmation. Every time I post on someone else's wall, put up a status about myself, or comment on someone's picture, I'm not interacting with a friend. I'm cultivating a public persona, an image of myself that's shared not with a select individual but with an unknown and indeterminate audience. Deresiewicz said it well when he says that "we haven't just stopped talking to our friends as individuals, we have stopped thinking of them as individuals. We have turned them into an indiscriminate mass, a kind of audience or faceless public. We address ourselves not to a circle [of friends], but to a cloud."
Though it seems like I'm talking to my friends on Facbeook--and in some sense I am--there's also the other sense where I'm performing a very public act, totally at odds with the intimacy of friendship. It's like the students I have who say something in class and then immediately look around to see how everyone else is reacting. Facebook doesn't promote the probing-sharing-challenging-bettering of friendship. It promotes information-sharing and reaction to information-sharing, which is a whole different animal. Hopefully, I'm not your friend because you know a lot of facts about me; I'm your friend because there's something about me that you've come to value in the way I act, think, am--the things you can't really tell about me from a carefully-groomed profile. That's something that social networking "friendship" absolutely overlooks.
And that's why I said way up there at the beginning (are you still with me here?:) that this was hugely, earth-shatteringly important. You guys--my friends--matter to me. You matter to me because of who you are, who you help me to be, who we are together. You matter to me because of the meaning we've created together, the things we've done, and the ideas we've shared. We've done these for ourselves, not for an audience--and I don't want the whole of the online world audience mitigating our relationship anymore. Is it hypocritical of me to post this on a blog, that other method of public broadcasting? Perhaps. But this is something I want people in general to think about, and then something I want to engage with further with my friends. There are some things, like this massive treatise about Facebook, that I want to say to the whole world--but I don't want to confuse that with actually working on individual friendships. That happens in real life, away from the eyes of the world.