How I Deleted My Facebook Account and Walked Away from 555 Friends
This is the story of how I became a social media misfit and deactivated my Facebook account last week.
Before it became an attractive nuisance, Facebook was fun -- really, really fun. At the start, I enjoyed reconnecting with old pals and coworkers I hadn't seen in years. A few had published books or become grandparents; others had moved to retirement homes in Tampa or Hilton Head.
In addition to cute family photos, I got an eyeful of political rants and viewpoints that took me by surprise. (An editor I'd pegged as liberal, for instance, turned out to be a closet conservative.) It was all so compelling that, instead of tackling a new project, I'd spend entire mornings reading Facebook updates from literally hundreds of folks, a few of whom I'd met only once.
How many friends do you (really) have?
By the time I deactivated my Facebook account last week, I had accumulated 555 friends. The list included former classmates, relatives, students from my writing workshops, readers of my columns, and background actors I'd met on film sets. My posse also included good neighbors who lived just a couple of blocks away, which seemed like overkill, but what the heck?
I wasn't exactly a friend whore (someone who collects random friends to appear popular) but I rarely turned down friendship requests, and I un-friended only one person whose political comments were ill-informed and cruel.
In any event, with so many people to look after, Facebook soon became another task on my ever-expanding to-do list. And I started feeling conflicted about using it.
In 2009, Sheryl Sandberg reported on The Facebook Blog that the average user had 120 friends. Today, Facebook reports that the average user now has 130 friends -- and we all know users who have upwards of 1,000. But in my admittedly old-fashioned view, even 130 friends are difficult to keep track of in a timely, courteous fashion -- unless you have nothing to do but twiddle with your computer all day.
Either way, I've always believed that real friendship is reciprocal, not promotional. And certainly more than virtual. Real friends do more than punch the "like" key on your status updates. Real friends call you directly on the phone, send cards, help you move furniture, meet you for breakfast, babysit your cats, or otherwise make three-dimensional efforts to be there for you.
Of course, you need lots of extra time for real friendship like that. My "networking" on Facebook was devouring some of that time, and I was starting to feel guilty about it.
Along the same lines, it also struck me that Facebook fosters laziness. Even in a crisis, I wasn't getting as many emails or phone calls from family members because, as one put it, "We already read your updates on Facebook."
Forget you. It's all about me.
Worse yet, I worried that Facebook was making an egomaniac out of me. (Isn't it enough to be writing a blog?) Along with photos of my latest art projects or links to my articles, I started posting attention-getting tidbits, which, before Facebook, I would have shared with a mere handful of trusted, longtime friends. Why in the world did I need to broadcast to 555 Facebook users that my cat suddenly decided to pee in the toilet in our master bathroom?
In short, Facebook was becoming a tool to promote myself, with a few family photos thrown in for good measure. I'd gotten so busy that I wasn't taking time to comment on my friends' updates and photos -- unless they left comments on mine. I've always tried to avoid one-sided relationships, but good lord, there I was, conducting one of my own.
So, here are the questions I asked myself when I considered pulling the plug on my Facebook account:
1. Am I giving up my family's privacy in exchange for building a platform or a following on Facebook?
2. Do new acquaintances on Facebook deserve the same attention as my oldest friends and relatives?
3. Do I care as much about other friends' status updates as I want them to care about mine? Am I using or exploiting my Facebook friends?
4. How much time do I have to reciprocate comments?
5. How much do I need to know about other people -- and why?
6. Do the "friends" I've met only once need up-to-the-minute details of my life? Who should be informed that my mother is ill? Or that I attended someone's 50th birthday party last night? And is it safe to broadcast when I leave town on vacation?
7. Am I becoming an "all about me" person?
French mystique, oui!
In her new memoir, Lessons from Madame Chic: The Top 20 Things I Learned While Living in Paris, Jennifer L. Scott chronicles the year she studied in Paris and learned a thing or two about the elusive French mystique. Scott, who now lives in Santa Monica, found that an abiding sense of privacy is decidedly French.
"French people, as a habit, do not reveal too much information about themselves. Not to people they know and certainly not to strangers," Scott writes. In other words, Je ne sais quoi isn't simply a matter of knowing how to tie a gorgeous scarf.
Scott also notes that most French people do not gab in public on their cell phones; it's considered boorish to allow others to eavesdrop on conversations. Furthermore, she says, the French are not likely to ask what you do for a living when they first meet you at a party. Out of courtesy and respect, personal details are shared only with intimate friends who've been nurtured over time.
Which got me thinking about how much we share on Facebook.
To be a person of mystery would be very un-American, wouldn't it? In a culture of celebrity, it stands to reason that so many of us fear we won't exist if we're not seen or heard from 24/7. Maintaining a Facebook profile is one way to keep your name "out there" while everyone else is squawking, yelping, chirping, and Tweeting for attention.
At the same time, I'm not opposed to social networking for the right reasons. If you've got a product to market -- or you are the product -- courting a big audience on Twitter or Facebook is undoubtedly good for your business. I won't argue with that.
What's for real and what isn't?
Yet, from a totally personal perspective, I'm secretly thrilled at the thought of wearing a cloak of privacy as I go about my daily routines. I'd like to make dinner or visit someone in the hospital without feeling compelled to announce it ASAP on Facebook. I'd like to spend more time reading the novels stacked next to my bed -- the novels I'm too tired to read because I've strained my eyes staring at a computer screen all day.
And I'd like to spend more time nurturing -- and deepening -- the three-dimensional friendships I've neglected while meeting the challenges life has thrown at me lately. If I cut back on the time I spend playing with social media, these deceptively simple goals would be easier to reach.
Of course, there's a lot I'll miss about Facebook. I'll miss the news from out-of-town friends, links to thought-provoking articles, and all those adorable cat videos. But until my life is back in balance, I have to bow out.
For now, blogging is a less intrusive way to share. And while it's as public as a newspaper, you can pick and choose which items you want to read. Or you can swim back into cyberspace and surf elsewhere. You're reading these last paragraphs right now because you found the topic interesting and wanted to dive a little deeper than a sentence or two. That matters a lot to me.
And hey, if you want to share photos of your kids or your cats, I'd still love to see them. Bring your photo albums when we meet in person at our favorite local restaurant.
Cindy La Ferle is a nationally published newspaper columnist and author, Cindy La Ferle blogs weekly at Cindy La Ferle's Home Office.