"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." — Hunter S. Thompson
Writer Hunter S. Thompson was a pro at weird. But he would find Facebook beyond weird. Even as tiny green tree frogs scampered around the edge of his tequila and there seemed to be an aardvark climbing up his leg, he would consider it surreal that contact with dozens of "friends" can morph into two at the click of Delete. That's the rate of attrition in the five days since I left Facebook — and that's just the people I shared messages and comments with. Yeah, I knew. Yeah, I'm not surprised. The more time goes by since I last logged into Facebook, the even weirder the few months I spent on it seem.
"Imagine the problem is that we cannot imagine a future where we possess less but are more. Imagine the problem is a future that terrifies us because we lose our machines but gain our feet and our pounding hearts." – Chuck Bowden, in Blood Orchid.
Imagine that you are a woman in your forties (one of the biggest demographics on FB). You have followed the rules. You are a great worker, lover/wife, mother, friend, and daughter. You hit the gym every day. Your abs are tight and your legs honed. You know how to please your partner, your boss, your kids, and your parents — with whom, nonetheless, you never seem to get it right. You drive the family taxi to the kids' lessons, recitals, and play dates. The oldest is turning 15 and with her, too, you seem unable to get it right. You wish you had a few close women friends to talk with like you used to have — even one. But who has time? When your older daughter turns you on to Facebook, you believe you've found the answer.
For a few months, maybe longer, you love your growing sense that you aren't so alone. Your teenage kids and you actually goof around with each other, comment on each others' posts, comment on each others' comments. You find old friends. With a click, you can be flooded with news and photos and events. Okay, so maybe the news is that Janet woke up tired or Rick wants you to check out his photos of his late-for-it bachelor party or Jennifer loves Christopher and Christopher loves her right back, dude. And maybe you worry a little because there's a photo of your 15-year-old in a diva pose at a party. And you sometimes wish there was something a little more personal, a little deeper on your Wall. But you feel connected and that seems better than the loneliness you'd felt when one of your siblings hadn't called for a year or you realized that it had been months since you'd heard from your best friend Lindy.
Slowly something changes. You're sneaking time at work to check for FB messages — more than you ever did with email. When you come home — after dropping your youngest son off for a playdate, picking up your 15-year-old from track to take her to her piano lesson, texting your 13-year-old to make sure she remembers to go to the orthodontist — you do not change out of your workclothes into sweats and sit in the silence of your home for a while. Instead, you check into FB.
There's something there. There's nothing there. You hunt through your posts for new comments. You visit a few friends' pages. There's nothing new. You check out a few of the YouTube videos, follow a few links to articles on the racial profiling law in Arizona, the oil bleeding out of the earth in the Gulf, the American casualty rate in Afghanistan. You remember when you would have been standing with friends protesting something — or at least writing letters. You wonder what happened to that young woman. You remember the gorgeous guy from your sophomore college year and when you hunt him down, there he is. Do you send a friend request? Don't you?
The front door opens. You feel irritated. "Mom?!" The voice of your 15-year-old echoes up the stairs. You wonder why she's home. Her piano lesson takes an hour and the bus ride another half-hour. When you check the time on your computer, you see that three hours has gone by. Your daughter stands in the door. "God, Mom," she says, "you're worse than me on that."
It takes another month or so for you to begin to realize that there is something truly wrong. Maybe it's the emptiness you feel when you log off after a few hours of chasing "friends"; or waking at 2 a.m., feeling restless and lonely as your husband — who is both lover and best friend — sleeps peacefully next to you. Maybe it's bumping into a former buddy at the grocery and not wanting to take time to really talk — because you want to race home and check Facebook to see what's new. Maybe it's feeling not-quite-real unless you are cruising around Facebook — and yet having the sense that you and your "friends" are just throwing electrons at each other. Maybe it's finding — irony of ironies — a stranger's post of an article on Facebook's privacy violations.
You read the piece, post the link on your page, feel virtuous, realize what you've just done and log off. It comes to you that your time on Facebook has begun to feel more real than your analog life — as though clicking "Like" on a political cause page changes something, as though 20 thumbs up on one of your posts means you're cared about. There's more. The privacy violation expose said something about Community pages, about information being fed into sites open to the public. You remember the silly photo of your teenager, her hair teased into a wild mane, her pouting lips, her hand on her out-thrust hip. You decide to go back to Facebook and re-read the article. This time when you log in, you feel uneasy.
It's Family Dinner night, the one weeknight everybody can be together to eat. You tell your family what has happened to you and what you've found. Your husband shakes his head. "I wondered what was going on. You've been somewhere else for months. I never guessed it was Planet Facebook."
"I'm deleting my account right after we finish," you say. "And you..." (the kids look up) "are too." Your teenagers stare at you as though you've gone crazy. "No! Way! Mom!" You realize you feel calmer than you have in months. "Way," you say firmly. Your oldest daughter slams down her fork and shoves away from the table. She knows better than to leave the house. She stomps off to her room. The 13-year-old glares at you. "That's no fair," she says. You look at her stubborn face and feel a wave of love wash through you. "Go get your sister," you say, "we're all going to have a long long talk."
Your husband takes your hand. "Welcome back," he says. "We've missed you."
"It's going to be a little weird for a while," you say. "I'm not really sure how I got so hooked so fast. But I'm already looking back and knowing how numb I got." Your teenagers slouch back to the table. You take a deep breath. "Okay," you say, "I want to tell you what happened to me and what I learned."
Your analog life resumes. Your dozens of Facebook friends disappear. And then, slowly you are able to feel how lonely you've allowed your busy busy busy life to become. You call your best friend. You write a real letter to your brothers and sister. You and your husband decide that two weeknights out of five will be times for the family — and for each other. For a while, the changes feel like too much work. And then you realize that being in real connection takes work — and it's worth it.