Last year, I deactivated my Facebook account for a few months.
I lived to tell about it. The first week was rough, especially because I live in a rural area and work from home. I am blessed by beautiful, bountiful nature, but not so blessed with the possibility of social interaction.
During this time of gradual weaning, I became more mindful about my social media consumption. I was forced to become better friends with myself. I embraced loneliness as a spiritual practice.
Well, kind of. I tried.
I did explore the concept of Facebook as a salve for what ailed me. What triggered my visits to the site? Was I feeling bored? Lonely? Did I have an ego-driven desire to get on my soapbox? Was I expecting others to entertain me? Was I trying to resurrect friendships from the past, rather than living, honestly and lovingly, in the present? Did I want to see how many people ‘liked’ the pasta dish I made for dinner?
The panic? It came and went in waves.
Oh no, I was cut off from the status updates of the day!
Who was advancing to the next level in Candy Crush Saga? Who just dropped off the boys at baseball practice? Who was having a leg day at the gym? What was everybody having for dinner? After a few weeks, these feelings diminished. I felt my brain becoming larger, more expansive—if such a thing were possible. The foliage seemed greener. My dreams seemed more vivid. I was slowing down, enjoying social interactions of the IRL variety.
So, why did I return to the surly bonds of earth?
First, I started to miss my Facebook ‘friends’ during my absence.
Eventually, I would start to wonder. Were my ‘friends’ really my friends if making a few electronic clicks could remove us from one another’s lives forever? Was I their friend?
Friend. This mysterious and metaphysical appellation, which once took years to earn, could now be conferred and revoked on a whim. Friend. What was it? Friend. What was a friend? What did it mean? Does Facebook urge us to define ‘friend’ too cheaply anyways? Had my hiatus exposed cracks in the foundation?
Second, as freelance writer, I rely on social media to disseminate my work. It has been estimated that print media will be dead in five years. (Many major newspapers obtain much of their material from content farms.) I wish I could stay true to what I preach. I fantasized about sending copies out via snail mail or maybe carrier pigeon, but I realize many Americans would be way too busy with our iPhones and Xboxes to amble down to the mailbox and pick them up. It would be a waste of postage (and pigeons). Maybe I could plaster this article, like an edict, to various doors around town, like Martin Luther’s Wittenberg Theses. Maybe I could beam it into people’s minds from some remote control device far in the distance.
(And, I fully realize the irony of publicizing, via Facebook, an article about the evils of Facebook. Thanks for pointing that out. This is life in the crazy, 21st century.)
In addition to pondering the definition of ‘friend’, I decided to look at the issue from a ‘scientific’/ anthropological perspective. Here goes:
1.) We Are Only Meant To Have 150 People In Our ‘Social Circle’:
A recent article in Forbes introduces something called the ‘Dunbar number.’ According to Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar, most human beings are capable of having around 150 active people in our ‘social’ circle.’
This means we are able to be fully present to about 150 people.
2.) You Don’t Have As Many ‘Friends’ As You Think You Do:
I know you think you don’t qualify, right? You have thousands of people in your network because you’re a loving, social, friendly person?
Well, um, yes. Maybe you are.
Your BFFs and close family constitute a small percentage of your followers.
But, how many of those other 1,731 ‘friends’ are friends at all?
Facebook now permits a level of intimacy between complete strangers which would have been available only to close confidantes as little as five years ago: vacation pictures and home renovation pictures and kids playing in the yard pictures are all fair game.
We all accumulate a lot of acquaintances: the guy or girl with whom you endured a painfully awkward date; the guy who used to sit behind you in biology class who was always trying to steal your notes; a man you spoke to once at a professional conference.
More disturbingly, we all have friends or colleagues with whom we once had much in common, but no longer do. We may hold closely to the ghosts of these relationships, and vice versa. Facebook sometimes drags out these friendships well past their expiration date, allowing tantalizing glimpses, but nothing substantial, into our ex-friends’ lives.
According to the Forbes article, Wired writer Rick Lax contacted his 1,000 Facebook friends and came up with an illuminating and heart-wrenching conclusion: “many of his supposed friends either said they had no idea who he was, or had undergone such major changes in their lives that he was left with the realization that he didn’t really know them well at all.”
Ouch. It can be hard to let go, but what a way to keep the ego in check.
3.) Facebook Rots Your Brain:
All that clicking around can disrupt the parts of the brain responsible for cognitive reasoning. It’s like our grandmothers used to tell us: ‘TV rots your brain’. (If only we could wrestle the clicker from grandpa.) It is the opposite of Tratak, the millennia-old yoga practice of directing one’s gaze into a candle flame to steady one’s mind. In terms of social interaction, Face-booking is like eating M&Ms when we need a hearty bowl of lentil soup and a fresh tomato and basil salad.
Scientific studies have proven that, after spending several minutes on Facebook, participants have experienced a measurable decline in cognitive functioning and reasoning. Enough said.
4.) Facebook Makes Us Smug and Self-Satisfied. This Is Dangerous For Our World:
Facebook encourages us to present a carefully-constructed, saccharine-sweet version of ourselves to the world. Unflattering photos are edited out. Inspirational quotations are heaped on. Everybody ‘has the best friends and family ever!’ Everybody goes to vacation in Florida with a hot dude or dudette. (Nobody stays home by him or herself because he or she doesn’t have the time or the funds or a travel companion and cleans the closets and refinishes the deck.)
While there’s nothing wrong with putting one’s best foot forward, there is something wrong with avoiding the real world because one believes one has reached the apex of virtual world.
This is especially true among the mindful community. Seriously, I do have a soft spot for Rumi, but we’re all not enlightened everyday. We’re not all posing in Dancer, in a bikini, on a windswept beach somewhere. We don’t all have a soulmate or a job we adore. But we’re trying. Bit by bit, we’re trying. Some days are hard, and we grow more from the hard stuff than from the easy stuff. I do love the honest FB posters. “Well, today seriously sucked, but maybe tomorrow will be better!”
5.) Facebook Is Making Us More Depressed:
It is believed that those who spend a lot of time online (for whatever reason—live in a remote area, have a boring desk job, just really love FB) tend to perceive others’ lives as being more fulfilling than their own lives, which leads to depression. (Maybe, also, because—pardon my French—there is a lot of bragging on FB.)
This is especially pertinent in the area of friendships, romantic relationships, family and work/career. Has your boyfriend disappeared to Brazil, while all your friends keep getting flowers from their fiancees/husbands and posting incessantly? Were you just laid off and have friends who boast about their high-power careers? Is your teen driving you bat-shit crazy and everybody else’s son/daughter has been shortlisted for the Nobel Prize? It makes sense.
These are but a few scientific perspectives on Facebook. It can be a good tool, but I would advocate using caution. Any other interesting observations about getting off Facebook? I’d love to hear them!
1. Dunbar Number.
Like The Mindful Life on Facebook.
Ed: Sara Crolick
(Flickr: The Field Museum Library)