The time was late, my eyes were bleary, and after a long day of study I was sitting at my desk staring at Facebook. It was the middle of finals period, so apart from a few quick dinners, social interaction over the past week had been basically nonexistent. As I scrolled through various statuses (most of which were humble-bragging or expressing some form of cliché political outrage), something snapped. What snapped? I don’t know. What I do know is that my mouse clicked the “deactivate” button, and for a moment I thought I’d finally mustered up the courage to delete my pixelated existence forever.
For a second I felt awed. I felt vindicated. I felt … well … free.
What happened next is depressing because it reveals my cowardice. After clicking “deactivate,” Facebook asked whether I truly wanted to delete my account. “Your 1,260 friends will no longer be able to keep in touch with you,” it said. This is Zuckerbergish for: “You’ll become a huge loser if you quit.”
My instinct was that this was absolute nonsense. I don’t have 1,260 friends in real life; I interact with a core group of 10 to 15 people, and in reality I can see all those people whenever I want.
But then I realized that I can’t talk to most of my Facebook friends in real life, often because of physical or even national boundaries, so deleting Facebook would mean losing touch with some people. What’s more, it would mean deleting myself from the social consciousness of hundreds of friends (or “friends”). The final nail in the coffin of my brief foray from Zuckerbergia was the anxiety-provoking thought: “If I delete myself, won’t people assume I blocked them?” That did it. I decided to remain on Facebook.
Since then, I’ve been trying to determine what snapped that day. Honestly, I don’t really know. I suspect I was growing tired of the endless stream of humble-bragging and faux political outrage.
But the larger reason is more complicated. I think I’d realized that rather than my “friends” being friends first and Facebook friends second, this dynamic had flipped; the majority of my 1,260 “friends” were Facebook friends first and friends second. Most of our interactions took place on Facebook, and seeing each other in real life could, quite honestly, be pretty awkward. While on Facebook we could maintain the comfortable illusion that we knew each other, in real life we understood the truth: We may have been messaging and so on — certainly we liked each other, judging by all the “likes” we threw about — but did we know each other? Not even a little bit.
“Of course you did!” some people might protest. “What’s more, you had the purest form of communication one can have — mind to mind.”
This is not true. We did not know each other for what we truly were, with all our quirks and passions and flaws and manners of speech. No, we knew our idealized selves — our Facebook-selves. That was what made interacting in real life so incredibly awkward. Although we were supposed to know each other, we really didn’t know the least bit about each other. What we did know was filtered, watered down, and presented in a neat little package — not unlike a political candidate at a national convention.
This isn’t to say that Facebook has no benefits, but a part of me does yearn for a (dimly remembered) time when we were more than the sum of our Facebook profiles’ parts, when there was more of an element of mystery to other people. A part of me still believes that Facebook friends should be friends first and Facebook friends second — and that if they are Facebook friends first then they really aren’t friends at all.