Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The importance of friends

It was in the car a few Sundays ago that I announced to Matt that I was leaving. His first question, the obvious one, was "Why?" My reply: "It's just so boring, and such a big waste of time." I think I caught him off guard, and he did seem to try to get me to change my mind. But I'd made my decision: it was time to end the relationship.

Of course I'm not talking here about our marriage, but about my participation in the social networking site Facebook. His next question, also an obvious one, was "Well, why don't you just go on to it less?"

Stronger people than I might be able to do this - simply log on less - and I did try. For a few days, whenever I turned on the laptop, I went first to look at my email, then to see the headlines on the BBC, and then usually after that I shut down the computer. But as the days went on, I did wander back on to Facebook, and it was all the aimless time, the pointless wanderings, that have sent me to the account deletion stage.

If you're not a part of Facebook, you will still probably know about it. My summary version is this: you have an online profile, where you can post information about yourself, provide updates on your thoughts and activities, display photos and videos, and make associations with friends, family, colleagues, not to mention old acquaintances, strangers, and people you either don't know or don't care about. All of these people are called your "friends" on Facebook. There are currently over 500 million people with a Facebook account. 500 million.

I have never been one for moderation, preferring instead an "all or nothing" type approach to most things I undertake. So while the idea of "just going on to Facebook less" is certainly a good one, it's just not for me. Because even when I didn't log on for a few days, when I finally did log on to peruse others' recent status updates, look at people's vacation snapshots, read an article posted by someone, it was that time - what I felt was lost time - when I finally closed out that pained me. I would have spent at least half an hour - if not much more - and what could I show for it? Had I been entertained, enlightened? Perhaps, mildly. Was I smarter, more informed, a better person? Definitely not. The point was, would I miss it if I weren't a part of it?

I think the answer is no, so this morning I logged on to extract myself from the system. I took a rather round-about approach to doing this, by starting with my list of "friends". I had 293 of them, a respectable number I figured, but really, who were they all? First off I removed connections with those people who I really wouldn't be bothered if I never saw or heard from again. I then went through and removed all the people with whom I email - or even better, talk to! - regularly. Our friendships would last regardless of whether I was a Facebook member or not. After this I removed the connections with people who I knew I would still be in touch with - lots of current colleagues, mainly. I had culled about half of my nearly 300 associations by this point. The next set was harder - people with whom I was glad to be back in touch, mostly classmates from either Hickory High School or Dartmouth, and former colleagues. Some connections were easily removed, and for the remainder I was able to go in and get their email addresses. I'll follow up with an email to say I'm gone from Facebook, but would like to keep in touch (and while we're on this category, has anyone explored how the dynamic of high school and college reunions will change, if you already know everything about all your old classmates?).

After doing all this "deconnecting", I discovered in the FAQ that there were two options if you wanted to delete your account - the first being a mild, "it's not over til it's over" approach called "account deactivation". With this your entire Facebook existence is preserved, but you're not visible, presumably in case you change your mind. I did this at first, but then realized that I could still log on and do the surfing that caused me to want to leave in the first place. I then went ahead and requested an "account deletion" which will take place in 14 days, provided I don't log on in the meantime. They must have these policies in place knowing that people do change their minds. Not me, though, not this time.

I can't remember when I joined Facebook, but I am amazed at its lasting power. When I joined - probably sometime in 2008 - I thought it was definitely a passing fad, soon to die out and be replaced by something else. But in fact, if anything it seems to have become more popular, more ubiquitous, more ingrained in the fabric of our lives, more welcoming of members of different age brackets (the oldest member of Facebook died recently, aged 104; she had nearly 5,000 "friends" and over 50,000 followers on Twitter). For that it is amazing, and I don't want to disparage the benefits of connecting and reconnecting with people, being able to share good news, insights, precious memories and photos with a virtual community of your friends and people you care about. But for me, I'm going back to email (I made the analogy that this felt a bit like saying I was going back to using a rotary dial phone...), and of course I hope this will give me more of my computer time for writing. For those of you reading who were my friends on Facebook, I hope you didn't take it personally when I "de-friended" you. I'm glad you're reading here and look forward to staying in touch the old fashioned way.

And so, over 500 million users minus one. I hope I don't regret the disappearance, but I don't think I will. If all else fails, Matt still has an account; maybe he'd let me have a peek.

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