This is a slight tonal change from what I normally write; given that it’s now topping a hundred degrees in the shade, this post is much more casually reflexive and much less overtly theoretical than usual.
People keep trying to add me on Facebook. This raises some interesting issues. Most of them have to do with the fact that I’m not on Facebook.
Technically I do have a Facebook account. It’s just not in my legal name (the name I write under here) — it’s in the name of my writerly pseudonym, and I got it primarily so I could maintain a Facebook fan page, which I read in some blog or other was a good thing for an aspiring up-and-coming writerly person to have.
When I got my writerly Facebook account, I also did have an account under my legal name, and I was pretty active there. As with many users, I used it as a means to keep up with a lot of distant friends and family, as well as to engage in conversation and link-aggregation with people I know more locally. It was fun. I liked it. I got a lot out of it.
Then, about a year ago, I left.
The reasons behind that decision were myriad and complex; some of them had to do with changes to Facebook’s interface with which I had aesthetic issues (yeah, it did mean that much to me) while some of them had to do with other gut-level issues. But after having spent this long away from something that almost everyone else I know uses on a daily basis, I think there’s an additional, more identity-based reason why I left: The name I used Facebook under just didn’t really feel like mine. Not here. Which I realize might sound suspiciously digital-dualist, but bear with me.
I’ve been puttering around the internet since puberty. Like a lot of weird, misfit kids, the internet presented itself to me as a kind of social sanctuary: an odd appearance or obvious discomfort in physically co-present settings were suddenly no longer obstacles to meeting people and making friends, and I felt free to experiment with an incredibly liberating kind of identity-play. Gender, sexuality, my ideas of what was important and valuable to me — all of these things felt up for grabs in a way that they never had before. Moreover, for the first time I was talking to people as weird and misfitting as me, and we were getting along swimmingly.
I’m guessing that there’s a better than even chance that whoever is reading this right now has experienced something like that moment, where you felt like some people online who had never “met” in the traditional sense got you better than pretty much everyone at school. Then you know what I’m talking about, and you know how formative that moment can be. (Maybe I just had an unusually pathetic high school experience, but I really don’t think so.)
So this was — and is — profoundly empowering. I know these people. They know me. We get each other. They accept me for who I really am. And that last, that who I really am — that was and is my most powerful experience of the internet to date: building myself. Deciding who and what I’m going to be. This self isn’t divorced from my non-digital self; they have each profoundly influenced the construction of each other. So please understand that I’m not suggesting that I broke up with Facebook because I found these two identities somehow mutually exclusive — or even meaningfully separate. Because that’s not what I’m saying at all.
What I’m saying — among other things — is that the idea of using my legal name online was and remains very strange to me. It feels like a kind of denial of identity.
Even with the fact that it now allows pseudonyms, Facebook has always been a “real name” kind of place, a digital space where the physical is profoundly present, and where people create and maintain social connections that are also created or maintained in physically co-present space. Work, school, family: these are all deeply interwoven into the very fabric of what Facebook is and was constructed to be. Facebook and other forms of social media like it are built to be extensions and augmentations of the physical world, not imaginative escapes from it.
And for me it was like a collision of worlds. It felt very subtly out of my control. Things weren’t compartmentalized in the way I was used to. The truth is that on a purely instinctive level I never really felt safe on Facebook.
Another caveat: I’m not saying that identity play and management isn’t possible in a setting like Facebook. I think a huge percentage of its users would disagree with that pretty strongly, and again, there is the fact that they allow pseudonyms. What I’m saying is that Facebook felt fundamentally different to me in how identity was treated and transacted, and I never did get used to it.
So, for that and many other reasons, I left.
At first it was almost an experiment: let’s see if this is really possible. Then it became more of an experiment in seeing what it was really like. I remembered a life without Facebook, but it had been a while and my memory of it was sort of hazy. And then it became something that I wanted to try to maintain as long as I could — again, to see what would happen. I kept my writer account, but although I’m still accepting friend requests, I pretty much never use it for anything. It feels like cheating at this point. It still also feels extremely odd.
So what’s it been like, living (mostly) without Facebook? Am I more connected? Less lonely? Are my relationships more meaningful? Are my experiences more significant when not reduced to a status update?
Okay, for starters, kind of not at all because even if I’m not on Facebook I’m pretty much everywhere else. Twitter, Tumblr… yeah.
But no. To all of those questions. If anything, living (mostly) without Facebook has left me feeling more profoundly disconnected, from both distant friends and family and from people I see all the time in my PhD program. I don’t get to talk to my aunt in Texas with such ease and lack of effort; I don’t see her posting about my cousins or my other aunts and uncles. I don’t see what my sister posts about from college. I miss my spouse’s exchanges with many of his family members. I don’t see what my friends in Maryland and DC post about; I’ve missed some fairly big developments because of this, and only found out about them long after the fact. Sure, we meet face-to-face in the halls or for dinner or drinks, but there is still a second ongoing stream of discussion and interaction among them to which I’m simply not privy.
And given that I’m missing it, often I’m not even aware of exactly what I’m missing.
The idea that “opting out” has a cost isn’t a new one on this blog and has been better written-about and better theorized than this piece can or intends to do. My point is that yeah, there is indeed a cost, and it does indeed come into play within one’s own social group. And it’s not necessarily a small one. It’s larger than I expected when I first suspended my account, because I did not understand then what a significant part Facebook played in all aspects of my social world, distant and local alike. Perhaps on some level I assumed that my relationships could just continue independently of Facebook exactly as I imagined they had before — that, to draw on Jenny Davis’s connections made in the post linked above, I could continue my interaction rituals without suffering the damage caused by exits from them and without the repair and maintenance that Facebook allows for.
And that isn’t so.
Why don’t my other social media presences allow for this same kind of repair and maintenance? Because I don’t use them the same way I used Facebook. I use them very much like I used the internet from my earliest days on it: as half expression and half escape, slipperier and more fraught with fiction and roleplay than Facebook was. As I continue with what looks like it might actually become a career as a fiction writer, this is changing somewhat, but it’s still more true than not. My use of social media in particular and the internet in general is now more removed from the rest of my social life than it was before. It is still augmented, but it’s now more severely compartmentalized.
Do I miss Facebook? Yes and no; I miss what it allowed me to do, the ways in which it made me feel so connected. Someday I’ll probably go back, or on to whatever replaces it. I’ve been online for the better part of two decades now, and yet I still feel like I’m navigating practicality and comfort in the context of an augmented identity. The sad truth is that I’m still not really sure how any of this works.
I’m working on it. We all are, to some degree. You, me, and Sherry Turkle.
And if you send me a friend request, I’ll still probably accept. Just don’t look for me to like anything.