A fellow blogger posted recently about that which takes us away from the present moment: how future planning — even something as innocent as thinking about how one will post a photo being taken in a moment — can take away the full experience of living. Read more from her blog here.
Now seems the appropriate moment to reflect on what has changed since I took a vacation from Facebook beginning in May.
Several things I notice right away are missing (for the better): I haven’t had an online argument or debate. I haven’t been caught off guard by someone’s slightly (or very) negative comment. I haven’t had to wade through photos of people’s dinner to get to something interesting in my news feed. I haven’t spent periodic 10-minute snippets throughout the week in an attempt to feel connected in a virtual community.
Other things I notice are missing: my birthday passed without the dozens of well-wishes I usually get on Facebook. I haven’t seen photos or heard news of one of my nieces in months. I have no idea what some of my regular FB-posting friends or relatives are doing. I’m guessing that I am not seeing petitions, gig announcements for bands I like, and fascinating articles that I don’t come across in my regular news cycle. I’m sure I’ve missed a giggle or two.
Most importantly, I notice things I have gained (which was my goal): I have spent more time writing emails to people I really care about, or picking up the phone, or making a date to get together. I have found that Instagram satisfies my photographer’s urge to share images and is in many ways more satisfying for me. I have played the guitar, read the news, taken a walk, written in my journal, and contributed to this blog, among other activities that feel more real.
Living alone half the time can be very isolating, and Facebook helped me feel less alone. Until I started feeling more alone. Let me explain: I joined Facebook at the suggestion of my family, and found it a great way to stay connected to them. We do not live near enough to see each other regularly, but we could share day-to-day events and images, which made me feel closer to them. My octogenarian father is among the more frequent posters. Like many, I found long-lost friends on Facebook, and reconnected with people I hadn’t seen in years. I discovered some childhood friends that I would have never thought to look up, but whom I realize I would love to see again if I’m ever in their town, and now I will. Facebook emboldened me to reach out, which I now do through other avenues as well. It helped me find common threads with others. And it made me feel less isolated when I am without my daughter for days on end.
But eventually I started to feel more withdrawn from the world, relying on 26 letters and several emoticons to express myself and respond to others. I could go days without actually speaking to another person. And yet I could still feel connected through a tenuous thread of conversation that could be obliterated with one click on the delete button. If I erased a comment that fell short of its intended meaning, does it mean it didn’t affect someone? Who knows who saw it before I thought better and removed its trace? I had several misunderstandings that started on FB, moved to email, and in every instance ended in hurt feelings. In one case, a relationship may have been irreparably damaged because of miscommunication in cyberspace.
My fellow blogger’s post is about how we take ourselves away from the present moment by thinking about the future: I’m taking this photo to post on FB, for example. This has never been my problem. I don’t think much about the future. But I do think about the recent past, and what has been sacrificed in the choices I’ve made. I decided to take a break from Facebook because I had sacrificed real dialogue in favor of low-stakes conversation. Yet those low stakes are a mirage: if I give a witty reply to a post, I don’t have to see the result of my words on a person’s face. This gives me unwarranted liberty to be more hasty, less compassionate perhaps.
I stopped reading my student feedback forms this spring after the one in which a student attacked me with stinging criticisms about every aspect of my class and teaching. I had no idea that this student (whoever he/she is) hated me and my class so much. I felt flayed and betrayed: how could I not have seen this student’s suffering? Why hadn’t someone said something when I could actually do something about it, make it better for him/her? Then I realized that this critique may have been colored by what I’ll call “Facebook Frame of Mind”: if I’m not looking you in the face, if my only trace is a thumbnail photo that may not even represent my image, then I can hide behind relative anonymity to be snarky, callous, or scathing. What people say on Facebook — or in anonymous feedback forms — may not be a fair representation of what they would say in person, or even in an email. To me, this makes these comments feel less valid: they are not filtered through social norms.
In real human interaction, the socially adept among us will not utter every thought that flies through our brain. My friend may stand at my door in a frumpy blouse, but unless she asks, I’m not going to say anything. Even if she asks my opinion, I will likely couch my critique so as to be honest yet not hurt her feelings. Not so with Facebook, where people’s rapidly-thought responses might fly off their fingertips with less consideration.
I’m not saying I’ll never go back, but I’ve been happily absent from my cyber-community and enjoying the connections I’m making in real time and space. I still have a landline, a mailbox, and a front door (though the doorbell has never worked). Or email me, text me, or call me on my cellphone — I’m not a dinosaur, after all. But I may take an hour or a day (or several) to respond: I’m joyfully living in the moment.