Back in my home country, one of the rites of passage for any kid going thru grade school is to get a chance to read and write on the year’s “gossip book”. In Mexico, the chismógrafo is a notebook that is passed around and that contains a list of anywhere from fifty to a hundred questions ranging from “What is your favorite food?” to “Who would you like to make out with?”. The idea is that you must answer all questions and that you get to read what others have answered. I would not be surprised if kids in different countries have different versions of this “gossip book”. It is after all in our very nature to want to leave a mark in our world—whether our “world” is our classroom, our neighborhood or our hometown.
Or as it happens with Facebook, the whole real world.
It is this very need to leave a mark on the world that pushes us to want to leave a good mark. I believe that this leads us to overthink how we manage our image as well as to overanalyze the image of others. Having this “gossip book” in your hands creates two different vicious circles: On one hand, we can’t get enough of this gossip; and on the other we can’t get enough of polishing our own image to make us seem more like those who we are fascinated with. I was back in college when I signed up for The Facebook in 2004 and I quickly got addicted to it. Three years later the iPhone made matters worse—Now I could be obsessing about the women I am attracted to everywhere I went!
Realizing the amount of time I was spending on Facebook, I decided to face my problem by uninstalling the mobile app and limiting my Facebook time on the desktop. However, things did not improve and I soon discovered that I was wasting my time away from Facebook by thinking about Facebook. Managing your “social network” can be emotionally draining. Thinking about whether or not I should add someone as a friend and thinking about why has someone else not answered my friend request occupied my mind.
Maciej Cegłowski, creator of Pinboard, describes this problem well when discussing social network vocabulary (emphais mine):
Is accepting someone’s invitation on LinkedIn the same kind of connection as mutually following them on Twitter? Can we define some generic connections like ‘fan of’ or ‘follower‘[...]? [...] One way to solve this comparison problem is with [...] a common vocabulary. But these common relationships turn out to be kind of slippery. [...] [How] do I decide if my cubicle mate is a friend, acquaintance or just a contact? And if I call him my friend, should I interpret that in the northern California sense, or in in some kind of universal sense of friendship?
And of course sex complicates things even more. Will it get me in hot water to have a crush on someone but have a different person as my muse? Does spouse imply sweetheart, or do I have to explicitly declare that (perhaps on our 20th anniversary)? And should restraining order be [...] in this data model? There’s no nemesis or rival[...] The gender-dependent second e on fiancé(e) panicked the spec writers, so they left that relationship out. Neither will they allow you to declare an ex-spouse or an ex-colleague.
And then there’s the question of how to describe the more complicated relationships that human beings have. Maybe my friend Bill is a little abrasive if he starts drinking, but wonderful with kids – how do I mark that? Dawn and I go out sometimes to kvetch over coffee, but I can’t really tell if she and I would stay friends if we didn’t work together. I’d like to be better friends with Pat. [...] Why are the only genders male and female? Have the people who designed this protocol really never made the twenty mile drive to San Francisco?
What happens to dead people in the social graph? [...] You can call this nitpicking, but this stuff matters! This is supposed to be a canonical representation of human relationships. But it only takes five minutes of reading the existing standards to see that they’re completely inadequate.
Cegłowski’s article is in part about how to effectively represent these human relationships in the computing world. While that is beyond the main point of this post, I do believe that the examples above illustrate just how challenging it is to deal with these connections and just how time consuming it can become. To me, Facebook almost felt like a full-time job.
And this is before Facebook released their API, well before the advent of Zynga and their games. Ian Bogost, professor at Georgia Tech, writes on the compulsive nature of social games:
Many of today’s console games exert a time crush. They demand tens or even hundreds of hours of attention to complete, some or most of which often feels empty. In that respect, one could argue that many games seem to destroy time. But social games do something even more violent—they also destroy the time we spend away from them.
Compulsion explains the feeling of struggling to return to something in spite of ourselves. Its flipside involves the disrespect of time that we might otherwise spend doing more valuable things—or even just pondering the thoughtful and unexpected ideas that an asynchronous game might raise. Social games so covet our time that they abuse us while we are away from them, through obligation, worry, and dread over missed opportunities.
Mr. Bogost’s satirical take on social games took the form of a social game itself, Cow Clicker. I highly recommend you to read the profile featured on Wired on the game and its author. I do not want to spoil this story if you have not heard of it. Really, you should read that story. That a game like Cow Clicker actually became a hit shows just how Zynga and Facebook themselves cater to our compulsve side. I never installed or played a single Facebook game. However, I feared that I would too sucumb to the endless farming, mining and colonizing. I soon realized that I did not want to be like a rat on a Skinner Box.
All of this is to say one thing: On December 12th, 2010 I quit Facebook cold turkey. I did it to reclaim my time and to try and spend it wisely. For me, this took the form of a religious offering, like we Catholics do during lent—only I did it in perpetuity. The time I have reclaimed for myself has allowed me to read more, exercise, grow up spiritually and overall it has helped me concentrate on what I am doing at any given time. I no longer experience the anxiety of friend requests, the embarassment and regret of posting something on my wall that I should not have, or the overall sense of obligation that I must take care of something in Facebook.
People ask me what this is like. It is liberating. And everyone should try it. I have been Facebook sober for well over a year (fifteen months as of this writing) and I do not regret the decision.
There are additional perks that come with this lifestyle. I do not have to worry about privacy exploits as much as I once did. The most effective privacy setting is to not be on Facebook. Which brings me to one last question. Facebook keeps your data even after you leave since it is on their best interest (as well as their advertisers). Remeber that regardless of what they say, Facebook’s product is not Facebook itself; it is you. That is why I would lik to know: When will a real delete account option exist in Facebook? To this day, I have tried to delete my account several times only to find that the best option available is what they call a deactivation.
When you live without Facebook, there are a few changes that take some time to get used to, but they are worth it. Rather than contacting someone directly on Facebook, I find them the old-fashioned way. Get someone’s phone number and call them. Set up a Skype video call with your far-away relatives. Visit your parents. Talk to your significant other while curling up on the couch. Go out and spend some time with a good friend, not a Facebook friend. Your reward for all your trouble will be that in the end, you will have a really-social network, in the truest sense of the word.