Face-Off: Facebook vs. Reality

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I signed off from Facebook at the beginning of October 2013. The feeling was that this would be temporary: a self-imposed, month-long break from the crowning time-suck network of the virtual world. But then a funny thing happened during that month. I didn’t miss it. Instead, I am now having a more intimate experience with reality.

At first, I would take a photograph and think, where does this go? I still had Instagram, so I’d post it there. But that, too, started feeling hollow. False. Like, who cares? So I’d witness something—a tree in full, fiery autumn bloom; “found art” on the street—and I’d snap it and send it via old-fashioned text message to a friend or two. This sparked conversations that normally wouldn’t have happened online. Sure, these friends might’ve “liked” the uploaded photograph, but, because the picture wouldn’t have been directly addressed to them, they probably wouldn’t have engaged further. Who has the time?

And, honestly, Facebook posting carries a stigma. Post too often and it looks like you have too much time on your hands. Post too infrequently and you never show up in anybody’s News Feed, thus rendering you irrelevant, in an online sense. And don’t get me started on people who constantly post on other people’s status updates and photos. Do these people have no lives? Facebook encourages merciless thoughts like this about other people. It is, if nothing else, a virtual system of comparison.

A lot has happened in the void, the now nine-plus months since I downloaded all of my content (over ten years generated countless albums, messages, notes, and the like) and deactivated my account. My fiancé of six years and I called it quits. I moved across the country, from seven years in Santa Fe back to my native New York. I am done with graduate school. My hair is blond.

Facebook doesn’t know about any of this. Some of it—the move, the hair—I would have shared with glee, taking shameless selfies of my newly golden locks and gratuitous shots of my backyard in Brooklyn, the shimmering city from my friend’s roof, with captions like, “I’m back, bitches!” and “New York, we out here!” This is just my truth.

Instead, I’ve shared the intimate details of my life with the people it makes most sense to do so: my close friends and family. My thousand-ish Facebook friends don’t need to know. This includes: my high school English teacher, who propositioned me on Facebook on my birthday last year. Or that woman from whom I almost rented a room in Brooklyn for the summer a few years ago. Oh, and my recent ex, who is one of the more active Facebookers I’ve come across.

A funny aside about that woman who had a room for rent: one night, late, I was on Facebook and she started posting photographs of herself. Naked. They were obviously intended for a lover—I was in Santa Fe, and in New York it was close to 3 a.m.—but, somehow, I suspect drunkenly, her phone was betraying her and she was posting to Facebook instead. They were not flattering photographs. By morning, they were gone.

I used to live in fear that, when I stalked people, I’d mistakenly type their name in the “What’s on your mind?” box and press enter. In fact, I think Facebook puts the status update box dangerously close to the search box on purpose. I think Facebook honchos get a kick out of how often people accidentally post “John Smith” as their status update, instead of covertly searching for him under the cover of anonymity. I was also terrified of posting nude photographs of myself. Yes, there were a handful of such in my phone from time to time, and, while I was overly careful with them, I had a not-so-irrational fear that, somehow, they would wind up on Facebook. This sounds paranoid until you consider that, while I was in Europe, I’d check certain photos from iPhoto to upload to Facebook and, instead, iPhoto and/or Facebook would decide to upload different photos from the ones I’d checked. They were taken in the same time period, but instead of my friend and I in front of the luscious green hills of San Sebastián, it would be the one of my friend and I having a topless stroll in the jungle later that day.

This type of psychic anxiety takes up space in my head. Space that is now blissfully free. I just don’t think about stuff like this anymore.

I was at a rooftop party the other day and Facebook came up in conversation, as it often does. (I’ve only noticed this regularity since I officially logged off. If you think you don’t talk about Facebook, it’s probably because you’ve never noticed how obsessed people are with talking about it because you are, too.) I mentioned that I’m not on the network anymore, and I got the usual mixed response: some said they were envious, that they’d love to do that, too; others said they couldn’t imagine it. And some people were downright suspicious. This guy I’d just met summed it up well: “Someone who’s not on Facebook is sketchy. It’s like people who don’t drink. You can’t trust them.”

I won’t even touch the ill logic behind that one.

He went on to say that people search for each other when they first meet—a date, a job interview, a potential roommate—and, if the person is unfindable, it’s a red flag. It’s true, actually. I recently subletted a room in Carroll Gardens from my friend’s sister; apparently she tried to find me as soon as I sent her an email expressing my interest, and told her sister, “I couldn’t find this girl on Facebook!” She was both shocked and concerned. My friend vouched for me, but I can’t help but wonder: would that have been an actual problem for this girl, had we not had a mutual acquaintance? Might she have picked another, perhaps shittier, roommate, just because that the other person had a Timeline?

This kind of concern is valid, but I’d say it makes an even stronger argument for not having Facebook: it’s mysterious. It’s against the grain.

I logged off and found that my real connections have only been strengthened. The people I’ve lost touch with? I was never in touch with them to begin with. That guy I went to college with who posted something complimentary on one of my profile pics? He lives in Portland. I barely remember him. We’re never going to see each other again. The woman I barely knew who obsessively liked all of my status updates and photographs? Well, she got blocked anyway, because it was getting to be too much. These types of people fall by the wayside, to be sure, but this is not a bad thing.

I don’t miss the emptiness of Facebook’s seemingly real connections. A month or so before I logged off, a man I knew in Santa Fe professed that he had a massive crush on me via a private message. I thanked him and let him know that I had a fiancé. The next time I saw him in person, he acted like he’d never said anything; without Facebook, he wouldn’t have said anything. I think people are emboldened to say and do things they wouldn’t actually do in real life (IRL, if you will) on Facebook, and this renders their actions and emoticons plastic when held up to the light of real life.

I once began an affair on Facebook. A few months into my six-year relationship that just ended, I dropped a casual line to an ex’s best friend, a guy I’d known in high school. I’d always had a bit of a crush on him. I asked if he’d like to have a coffee; his rejoinder asked if I wouldn’t rather a beer. A beer it was, along with several others, dinner, and a sleepover. Later, I found out that, as soon as my message came in, he’d gone straight to my profile photos and clicked through. He told me, “I came to that one of you in the white shirt and decided, yes, I wanted to see you, and I wanted us to meet not for coffee but beer.” He pulled out his laptop to show me the photograph he meant, but I already knew which one it would be.

We are good curators. We know which photographs to post publicly, which to keep private, and which to delete altogether. I’ve met a couple of women over the years who say, “I’m not afraid to post unflattering pictures of myself on Facebook” as though it is a badge of honor, something to be proud of. I just don’t see the point. If you’re on Facebook, you might as well play the game, and the game definitely involves pretending that everything is not just okay but peachy, ab-fab, at all times. This includes such delusions as: my hair is always perfect, I always love life, my job rules, my boyfriend rules, my life rules, I have amazing clothing, and the people I’m with are also beautiful.

Further, my flattering-photos-only stance extended to friends as well. I’m the friend who wouldn’t post a photo unless everyone in it looked good. (The other type of friend, though, is alive and well. While I haven’t gone to the length of asking a friend to take down a photo—okay, maybe once or twice—I’ve definitely untagged many photos over the years.)

I don’t have to constantly monitor things like this anymore. I don’t have to wonder, “Is a photo of me dancing my ass off at 2 a.m. a good or bad thing? Do I look carefree, or deranged? Should I untag, or hit ‘like’?”

This frees up room for my brain to do more important things. Over the course of writing an essay like this one, in the past, I would have likely checked Facebook at least once. For “a break.” To “clear my head.” And I heard these euphemisms at that rooftop party as well: people saying things like, “I go on Facebook at least once every hour at work to give my brain a chance to relax.” People! Facebook is not relaxing! If you want to give your mind a break, there are 90-second meditations that are incredibly effective. If you want to stress yourself out, go on Facebook.

The craziest argument I’ve ever heard made in favor of Facebook came from that guy who said he doesn’t trust people who don’t have a Timeline (and don’t drink). He said that Facebook is “Darwinistic.” When asked to elaborate, he made a few discursive loops around the block before settling upon this: survival of the fittest, these days, translates to she who avails herself of the most up-to-the-minute technological platforms, who really participates in this virtual reality. He referenced Google Glass. From my friend’s iPhone, Jamiroquai sang about virtual insanity. The timing could not have been better.

We have to create arguments like this in Facebook’s defense, because if you’re on it all of the time, it must be serving a productive purpose. I hate to break the news, but: it’s not. I get it, though. I created these same fantasies for myself. My own line was, “I use Facebook for good and not evil.” In other words, I said that I used it only for the things that were seemingly justifiable about the site: apartment-hunting, keeping up with my cousins, networking for jobs, looking for spare bedrooms in which to sleep while taking a cross-country trip.

I used it for other things, too, though. We all do. If my profile were still up, a quick look through the flipbook that was my photographs would underline this truth. I posted self-aggrandizing things about hikes I’d taken or books I’d read. Make no mistake: I was creating a very well-tailored perspective of my wonderful life.

It is a wonderful life. But it’s not without its setbacks. When was the last time you saw someone post, “I’m totally fucking insane! This guy won’t text me back and I need someone to talk me down from the ledge over here! Bring on the coconut milk ice cream, people! I’m off to pick at my cuticles from stress and obsess over photographs from last summer, when I was more tan and skinnier!”

There are a lot of problems with Facebook. I’ve outlined quite a few. But this problem is the most insidious of all: Facebook is not real. It thinks it’s real, and we often buy into that. But it’s not.

This is real: the rain on a spring afternoon. The text from my mother this morning that referred to me as “oh special one.” My friend and I wandering SoHo last weekend in the sun. Bracelets on my wrist, hot tea in the mug beside me.

My challenge to the world? Go deep. Go inside. Facebook is a fabulous distraction, but it can offer precious little to that inner world, to the light inside of all of us that is dying to get out, burst, be free. Take a month off. If, after a month, you miss it, go back.

You might be surprised, though. I thought I’d miss it horribly, and, at first, I did. But the tradeoff is unbelievably rewarding.

Paring down my daily connections has strengthened my actual connections with real human beings. I feel closer to my near-and-dears in a way that I didn’t when Facebook was a part of my life. Facebook creates a false sense of knowing how a person is doing, because you “just saw them” on the site. But you didn’t really just see them.

Even if you’re happy on Facebook, even if you feel as though it adds something to your life, I’d still suggest trying out a monthlong break. The worst that can happen is you’re miserable without it and you log back in the next day. Middle ground? Your month off is sexy and mysterious, and when you get back on, you can post daily selfies to make up for lost time without feeling weird about it. The best? You are filled with a sense of inner peace that just didn’t exist before.

This is not a hyperbolism. This has been my experience.

Facebook connects people every day. But it’s no longer how I personally want to connect. I trust that I’ll still wind up with valuable, lasting connections without it, and not waste so much energy in the process. If it’s working for you, that’s wonderful. In fact, feel free to “like” this article. Take a selfie of yourself reading this piece and post it. Share the shit out of it. If I were still signed in, I’d “like” that “share.”


Bibi Deitz has an MFA in fiction from Bennington College. Her work has appeared in places such as Paper, Bomb and Wisconsin Review. More at bibideitz.com. More from this author →