As we get older, we realize we only have so much time. And so much energy. Our vital life force, if you will, is finite. We can try really hard to keep our fires stoked by a myriad of sustaining endeavors; exercise, diet, meditation, close friends, a loving spouse, children, and family. Athletic, professional, or artistic pursuits. Reading, painting, writing poetry. Travel. Adventure. In the age of the Internet and social media, it’s very easy to lose this vital life force in frivolous activities. In activities that we think might matter now, but that we may realize, over time, aren’t so important after all.
I’ve made a vow to abstain from Facebook for a year, starting today. No, my friends, it’s not an April Fool’s joke. I cancelled my Instagram and Twitter accounts long ago, and don’t miss them one bit, but Facebook I know will be harder. I realize that most people have a perfectly healthy relationship with Facebook. I applaud them. It’s something they check occasionally while they go about their daily, real lives. For me, over the past five years, it went from a way to find and connect with friends and family, old and new, to a repository of snarky, self-indulgent odes to myself. Just a few days ago, as my Facebook deadline approached, I was sitting on the bleachers of my local YMCA, watching my kids play basketball. I attempted to take what I wanted to be my last Facebook selfie. I snapped a photo of myself, with the front-facing cameras that all our phones now come with, and tried to crop and filter it so it would present yet one more idealized version of myself to my digital neighborhood. I snapped pic after pic, cropped and filtered, and cropped some more, but after about twenty tries, I gave up. No amount of cropping or filtering could eliminate the bags under my eyes, my stubbly double chin, the blemishes, stray nose hairs, or general grayish, flabby pallor of the post-workout middle-aged man who I obviously was. How silly, I thought, that I had just spent the last twenty minutes trying to take a picture of myself. My grandparents, had they been alive and standing next to me, would not have recognized their own blood.
Even this morning, my first morning free from the ability to post (I had deactivated my account the night before), my brain wouldn’t shut off. Almost every stray thought that popped into my head sounded Facebook-worthy. My brain, I realized, had changed over the years to think almost exclusively in terms of what was sharable, what was postable, what would make me sound smart, what would make people laugh. These aren’t all bad things. When I told my friends I was taking a year-long break from Facebook, many told me how sad they would be, how my witty posts had entertained them and brought joy to some of their days. I thank them for this. The ability to make others laugh is a great privilege. But still, I know that at least for now, it’s time to look inward. To retrain my thought patterns so that I can focus on life right in front of me. So that I can be one-hundred-percent present to the people who stand before me, who share the same air as me. I realize that by quitting Facebook I’m forcing people, if they choose, to communicate with me in a pretty limited way: email, text, or in person. But this was how we all interacted just five or six years ago. And before email and cell phones, we called each other on the phone, wrote letters, dropped in for a cup of coffee, and enjoyed random meetings with friends on the street. We’re not talking about antiquity here; we are talking about less than a decade ago.
We can go back to this simpler, less connected, yet deeper way of living if we want. Most of us may not. One of my daughter’s twelve-year-old friends has over 1,000 followers on Instagram. She’s twelve. I’m forty-seven. I don’t think I’ve met a thousand people in my lifetime. Do we know what the repercussions of the always-on, sharing society will be for our selves and our children? I don’t think we do. We’re told not to fear the Internet. In my mind, however, the Internet is guilty until proven innocent.
So again, for me, I choose to direct the life force I have left to the things that are most meaningful to me now: my wife, my children, my friends, my art, my health. This is a short list, but it takes almost everything I have just to be mindful and to give myself fully to these few vital things. I hope my Facebook friends will follow me, at least once in a while, into this pre-2007 world lit only by fire.
Sit down and warm your hands. The coffee’s almost done.
So…let’s imagine a pre-facebook world, shall we? Post-boomers, I ask you: What would it look like?
I’ll tell you: Like our thirties.
It’s always confused me, the etiquette for letting people know that I’m taking a break from facebook. How does one do this without sounding like a self-important jerk? There are no good answers. Whatever you do, you’re screwed. If you post a windy diatribe against social media, tell all your facebook friends that you need to be more “present” in your “real” life, and say something flippant like, “See you on the other side…” you will be viewed as 1. The above-mentioned self-important jerk (since you assume that people actually care enough to want to know why you’re leaving) and/or 2. A social media snob who just gave a big digital bird to all the people you just left in your binary wake. Of course, if you say nothing and just disappear like a Web 2.0 D.B. Cooper, folks will think you’ve de-friended them and you’ll get angry and/or hurt messages asking if they’ve done something to offend you or what’s going on or why did you leave or do you still like them?
As a chronic short-timing facebook quitter, I’ve had many chances to think about this dilemma. My friends know the story. I’ve quit, with all kinds of quasi-Luddite pronouncements, only to come back the very next day, or in most cases, before lunch. In fact, my friends are laughing at me right now. I can hear their chuckles coming down the ethernet highway. Yes, I may change my mind. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe a month from now. Maybe you’ll never see me again (Take that, suckers!) Human beings can change their minds, right? I mean, who here is the same person they were five or ten years ago. Hell, we’re not the same people we were this morning, or even five minutes ago. I don’t know if my abstinence will stick, just like I don’t know if my sobriety will stick, or if I’ll ever learn to surf, or find The Hissing of Summer Lawns on vinyl. Doesn’t matter. We are allowed to change our minds. If you say you’ll be the same person in ten years as you are right now, that you’ve got it all worked out, then you’re a liar.
Let’s face it: facebook changes you. And not for the better. It changes the way your brain works. It alters your cerebral chemistry. It makes you snarkier, ruder, less sensitive, more eager to please, more easily hurt. Lonelier. I could show you studies. Trust me.
All your life events, the things you used to hold onto and only share with people you could physically touch or who were breathing the air in the same room or in the same stand of trees as you are now in the cloud. You had adventures, not events. You took photographs that had to be developed. You couldn’t record and/or store anything, except in your own neurons. Unlike the replicants in Blade Runner, you had real memories. Not the implanted kind.
When everything becomes sharable, then our brains start making calculations. This would be a great tweet, we say. I can really make myself look sexy at the beach if I upload this photo, we think. Just tonight, I made crab cakes and sautéed baby kale for dinner. I plated it on a dish my wife and I received as a wedding gift; the “Water Music” pattern from Crate and Barrel. It looked beautiful; the dark green of the kale juxtaposed against white china and the dark brown of the crusty cakes. The first thing I thought, and I’m not joking here, is, “If I took a picture, this would make a great facebook update.” Not, “Wow. This is going to taste really great.” My brain had already jumped ahead to the Big Share. And that’s just one of a hundred calculations I make throughout the day. And I bet you do too. Facebook isn’t real, but the emotions we invest in our posts, pictures, and comments are.
Of course, there are some people who have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude towards facebook. Or the real rebels, the facebook resisters. To both these groups, I say, “Bully for you.” Seriously, I commend you. I wish I had your strength. I wish I didn’t feel so insecure to need the thumbs-ups and the likes and the comments. I wish I didn’t work in a lonely, windowless basement where most days facebook is my only connection to the outside world. I’m reminded of the Zen master who, speaking to his students, pointed to the window and said, “There are people walking around out there who don’t need this thing called Zen.” Why? Because they are already enlightened. I really think the hard-core facebook resisters are the most enlightened people on the planet right now. Facebook? Ain’t nobody got time for that.
I write all this with my biggest, Whitmanesque heart. No one has the answers. I’m making up the rules as I go along, just like all the rest of the world’s digital citizens. No one can foretell if all this facebooking will turn us into flesh batteries for the Matrix, or will usher in a future era of worldwide peace and eternal life. Or maybe a time halfway between these extremes where you can get an MFA in Advanced Snark, every movie is a sequel to The Hangover, and all the restaurants are Taco Bells.
I haven’t had a drop of booze in over a month, I’ve dedicated myself to learning how to surf, I’ve started collecting vinyl records, I always have a book going, I love spending time with my wife and children and my friends, far and near. I want to talk to people not about what they do, but who they are, what makes them happy, who they want to become. I will meet love with love. If there is a god, then he definitely don’t make no junk, but he isn’t finished with me either. Nor with any of you. I always advise folks to get out there and live life without looking in the digital mirror. Yeah, I should talk. But most of you are living your lives, without worrying about what facebook will think. Again I say; kudos.
But I’m not that strong. And facebook doesn’t have an out-of-office message. So, I wrote one myself. Please see below. Feel free to fill in the blanks and/or cut and paste for your own needs. Like human beings, it’s DRM-free…
(YOUR NAME) is taking a break from Facebook, beginning (DATE) . (HE/SHE) will be back some time in the future, but (HE/SHE) is not sure when. (HE/SHE) can be reached by email at (YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS HERE). (HE/SHE) (WILL/WILL NOT) be receiving facebook IMs and or text messages during (HIS/HER) hiatus. (HE/SHE) will continue blogging at (ENTER APPLICABLE BLOG ADDRESS HERE). (HE/SHE) also accepts phone calls, letters by post, old vinyl LPs and pie. (HE/SHE) wishes you well, until (HE/SHE) meets you again on the internets. Or on the street. Aloha!
I’ve been off facebook now for about a week and I feel great. In, fact, I’m more social than ever. I actually call people on the phone and pick up when it rings. I take my kids on all kinds of fun adventures and buy them ice cream before dinner. I take other friends’ kids to summer camp. I don’t spend endless hours writing and reading people’s posts, or waiting for someone to comment on mine. In short, now I’m actually living. Whenever I find myself in interesting situations, I still think of a witty one-liners that I could have posted on facebook that would describe my predicament, but then I realize that I’m not on facebook anymore and the urge passes. I also realize I don’t have a forum anymore to promote my blog, but I’ve never had more than a few readers a day anyway, so that’s OK. I remember that it was too easy to be snarky on facebook. Snarky at a safe virtual distance. I still worry, though, that most of my 95 facebook friends, except for my wife and immediate family, don’t know I left and might be thinking that I defriended them. I have to admit that I don’t know the proper etiquette for leaving facebook. I tried to send a message to all my friends at once but facebook wouldn’t let me . There’s a website called seppukoo.com which boasts that they assist you in your virtual identity suicide. There, you can commit virtual self-disemboweling a la Yukio Mishima. Maybe I should have done it that way? But that would have freaked out my mom. So in the end I updated my status to say that I was leaving, provided my email and blog addresses, left it up for 24 hours and the shut ‘er down. Now I’m thinking…Why did I use to facebook someone when they lived right across the street from me and I saw their car in the driveway as I sat at my computer? I could have just walked across the street and talked to them. I mean, there they were, mowing their lawn. We seem to live in a culture now where we are in a constant struggle between living life and recording life. If you record most of your actions via facebook, Twitter, blogs, digital photos and videos, when are you really living? It’s as if we are all on screen all the time. When you take a walk in the woods or swim in a creek, do you tweet about it afterward? There was an interesting article in the NY Times about virtual memories and how now everything can be recorded and stored on the web forever, rendering that oh-so-human quality known as forgetting all but obsolete. In the not-so-recent past, we used to slowly forget some things over time and remember others. But now, we can remember everything all the time and for all time. This doesn’t leave a lot of room for mistakes or youthful indiscretions. Or bad puns or compromising photos. Used to be, we’d just remember the important stuff. Now it’s all right there. Without the self-imposed pressure to record myself, I feel like I can be myself again. And pretty soon I might just do something really crazy like write a letter.
Maybe it’s a bad sign that the day I deactivated my facebook account, I started listening to Pet Sounds nonstop. Was Mark Zuckerberg sending me a telepathic message to grow a beard, wear a bathrobe all day, and spend a few years in bed like Brian Wilson, excommunicated from the human race for giving the ‘book the finger? Not sure. I do know that I was spending way too much time on the thing, compulsively checking to see if anyone had commented on my witty posts or requests for flash mobs and such, and taking their silence as a personal affront. This was silly, very silly. Jean Renoir famously said that “the real hell of life is that everyone has his reasons. ” Now everyone is just too busy. So facebook was supposed to give us an easy way to “keep in touch” in the midst of our complicated, overscheduled modern lives. But where exactly was the majority of my life being lived? It felt like more and more it was spent staring at a screen, something I don’t think human beings evolved to do. (Check out Chris Van Allsberg’s book The Wretched Stone for more on this.) Now it’s summertime in Maine, and I can’t say that in the depths of the dark frozen January that is sure to come I won’t swallow my electronic pride and re-up, but right now I’m going for a walk or a swim, or maybe I’ll make some art, or read to my kids, or go on a date with my wife, finish Grapes of Wrath or do some yoga. At least right now, I can’t live online and off at the same time. Me and Brian will see you in the woods.