I’m preparing to withdraw from Facebook and other the like sites, not without a poignancy testifying to the effectiveness of social media marketing. How can something so trivial seem so momentous?
I used reflexively to dismiss social media as silly. Then, a few years ago, I succumbed to their blandishments. I was a monk at the time, wanted to feel more connected to my far-flung friends, and found that many of them relied on Facebook to keep in touch. (I signed up for Google+, Twitter, and Linkedin, too, but my experience of these was not very vivid and I’ll ignore it here.)
Dismissiveness gradually gave way almost to obsessiveness. Many of my friends live far away, and whereas before FB my relationships with them consisted in rare visits and occasional exchanges of e-mail, phone calls, or – yes, really! – letters, now my screen was vividly awash in the personally-branded, FB-version of their lives: photos galore, snippets of witty or snarky or pointless but in any case somehow touching text. Little exchanges could take place in real time, but I could also explore what they had been up to during the years when I had been resisting their urgings to sign up.
Acquaintances from the past, long out of touch, reappeared. I met, virtually, new people.
I felt like I had missed out. I also felt like I was all caught up, having with mixed feelings (“Is this creepy or is it just what one does?”) pored over the contents of my friends’ (and my “friends'”) timelines. Facebook as conservator of all uploaded values.
I built up my own little FB identity, too, of course. Past and present life events and their photographic evidence were evaluated for their personal-branding suitability, and selectively uploaded and commented on. Boxes were ticked, categories agonized over.
It began to feel as if things hadn’t fully happened until they had appeared on my Facebook timeline. I felt more or less satisfied that my life came across online as sufficiently interesting (being a monk was widely received in the social media monde as cool, perhaps simply for its oddity), but there were rolling comparisons and constant tweakings.
Envy, scarcely admitted even to myself, crept in. But I began to notice other changes in the dynamics of my relationships. Before social media I may rarely have seen many of my friends in person, our contact by e-mail or phone call or letter may have been sporadic and sometimes labored, but it was personal. It was from me alone to some one of them, with rare exceptions. In contrast, we all now seemed to content ourselves on the whole with following and sometimes commenting on each other’s status updates: relationship by overlapping broadcast rather than by personal communication.
This, mostly, is what I hope to counteract by abandoning social media (assuming I get up the nerve to do that). I intend to focus more attention on genuinely personal communication with my friends – including those who started out as “friends” in only the Facebook sense. Staying in touch by e-mail, the phone, and the post will be more effortful. It will probably be less frequent. It will certainly be less visually stimulating. But I hope it will be, in terms of what matters most in friendship, richer, too.