I’m not a big dweller (psych; I am a huge dweller), but last week was one of the worst weeks I have had professionally since I “took up” the profession of being a professional fuck-up. I won’t go into detail, but it was a very tough and lonely time — and what I realized, as I sat on my couch sobbing onto the shoulder of my perplexed husband one day (I had just proclaimed that I was out of cereal, which appeared to precipitate the sobs), I realized that my profound, gaping loneliness was not at all assuaged by my frenetic, near-constant presence on Facebook and Twitter. In fact, what I have come to realize for the past few weeks (months? years?) is that rather than making me feel connected to my nearest and dearest, social media — especially Facebook, and especially with its ever more aggressive algorithms — has made me feel like I live in a very ugly bubble, made up of thousands of unwanted “branding promotion opportunities” and my own egomania.
Especially during this past week, when my integrity as a writer was questioned twice (and contradictorily! Maybe they cancel each other out? That’s what I’m hoping), I felt as if there was a massive, pulsating target on my back. I felt like: Uh-oh, I am a person who has made her very, very short “career” punching up, and now people are punching me. Does this mean I am “up”? Oh, yes, yes, assured the hand-curated group of friends and friendly acquaintances on Facebook. Of course! agreed my Twitter followers, most of whom do not “hate-follow” me, but a few of whom do, which is always perplexing. I actually had a few “hatebook” friends this year too without knowing it — I naïvely assume that anyone who Friend-requests me actually wants to be my actual friend and wants me to be theirs! But I guess that’s not the case? Because I started noticing that I was being tagged in to all sorts of conversations that were at best intelligently critical of either the work I do or the causes I support, and at worst downright abusive.
So I started making some changes: I purged my Facebook rolls of anyone I didn’t actually know personally, with apologies to those who got bumped off for no reason in the dead of night (I take, or took, Unfriending pretty seriously, so I can only imagine others might as well, no matter who’s doing it). I created a professional Page, and directed all Schuman-related conversational activity, positive or negative, to that page. Because that was a rather specific and diva-ish request, many of my friends and Friends forgot about it (I can’t imagine they would willfully ignore it!), and so while I spent less of what was supposed to be my personal leisure time being tagged into conversations about academia and whatnot, there was still some, and I didn’t like it. Meanwhile, I started checking my Twitter notifications much less, and stopped responding to them entirely, unless they were from friends (or, in one case, a fairly prominent journalist who to this day remains mortally offended by an op-ed on peer review that was read exclusively by the academics it offended).
But none of that helped make me feel better, more present as a human being, or less heart-ripping-outingly lonely. So I realized that my problem with social networking wasn’t that I am now too famous to be easily accessible to strangers (I am not. Far, far more famous people than I interact far more with strangers — by which I mean actually famous people; I am not famous, I am not even approaching middling levels of Q-list fame among writers, that’s how non-famous I am). I realized that the problem was the social network model itself. It’s been such an omnipresent part of my life since I joined Facebook in 2007 that I hadn’t even noticed the extent to which spending time on there was making me feel like my veins were being pumped full of hydrochloric acid.
I used to chuckle at my friends who would use Facebook to post sanctimonious Facebook statuses about privacy, copyright or commodification. If you’re so worried about “being the product,” I thought, then go offline and be the social-networking equivalent of your own artisinal pickling company! Feh! But that doesn’t mean I didn’t notice what was going on, especially with Facebook’s notoriously manipulatable algorithm, which has sought to make people depressed on purpose for sport (sorry, “market research”) among other things. As far as I can tell, the way the algorithm works at present is to make sure that all anyone sees from their “friends” are the national brands those friends prefer, and the “viral content” those friends promote (and the other content “like” it, half of which is ads). Sometimes that “viral content” is by me. I don’t even care anymore.
Last week I screen-grabbed this from my feed and sent it to my husband via email with a set of anguished emoticons.
Do you see what is going on here? It’s made to look, to a semi-attentive skimmer such as myself (and, I’m sure Zuckerberg & Co have realized, the vast majority of Facebookers) as if one of my friends proclaimed this bit of “viral content” the “story of her life.” When, in reality, that “status update” is actually just a part of the ad, written by the advertiser. This is, at this point, all Facebook is. This shit is punctuated every once in awhile by a photo of someone’s kids (which I will miss) or a sincere status update from an actual friend (which I will also miss), but by and large it is all I see on Facebook now, no matter how I try to diddle with my settings. So between that and the fact that every time I have an article come out (either by me or about me) Facebook makes me feel as if that article is the center of the universe, I just kind of got fed up.
Meanwhile, the thing with the “real names” has been happening, and because I myself have had problems with being harassed and borderline-stalked on Facebook and I myself use a fake middle name to deter requests and searches from strangers, this infuriated me, not just on behalf of trans people, drag performers and anyone else who uses a different name on Facebook, but on behalf of myself as well.
So over the weekend, I embarked on what turned out to be a many-hours-long saga of downloading photos from seven years’ worth of albums (quite a walk down memory lane — and god I used to be pretty before I got old, shit). I then deleted the albums. I then deactivated my profile (notice I said “deactivated” — I didn’t delete it completely, because I don’t have the guts).
Before I deactivated it, several of my friends and Friends bemoaned that they would now have no way to know what was going on with me. This, I believe, depressed me most of all. First of all, the real tragedy is that I might now have no way knowing what’s going on with them — although, to be fair, the “promoted content” made that pretty impossible already. I mean I guess I know a lot of them like Tide. I guess I’ll miss knowing how much they like Tide? I don’t know. But anyway, that also depressed me because if you really think that the only way you can know what’s going on with someone is to go to the A #1 Time-Wasting Humble-Bragging Blatant Brand and Content Farm and just passively wait to see what appears, then social networking has changed the fundamental fabric of what we think it means to be human. And I want to change it back. And it is already changing back.
In the three days since I’ve deactivated my profile I have gotten countless texts from actual friends, several emails that actually went into personal, one-on-one detail, and even a few phone calls. I feel more connected in my disconnectedness than I have in years — because being “connected” on Facebook wasn’t actually connecting me to anything. It was giving me the illusion of connectedness and allowing me instead to be immensely self-absorbed, antisocial and lazy. Why do I need to go to brunch with anyone? I can just see what’s going on on Facebook. It was like The Matrix meets The Circle meets Idiocracy in my house.
I am not judging you for being on Facebook. Many of you really do use it to stay connected to people you care about and I 100% understand, respect and honor that. I am not asking anyone else to do what I did, nor do I mean to be sanctimonious in any way. If I had any self-discipline whatsoever I would have kept my account open and just barely used it, like my husband does.
And, of course, this hardly means I’m off the Internet. Hardly. First of all I’ve got this blog — which predates Facebook and I hope will outlive it. Before Facebook I used to put all sorts of stuff about my life up here — including more pics — and it was fun and funny, and my friends and family and I really enjoyed it. I plan to make this blog more of a repository of all things my-life-related and less of a one-note rail against academia (though fear not, Rate My JIL and its corresponding collection of novelty coffee mugs will continue for as long as the JIL does). Look, here’s a big fat belly pic, because I walk the walk (or, at any rate, waddle the waddle):
Second of all, my professional Facebook Page is still there (I connected it to a dummy personal account that is un-searchable), and I can even get messages on it (though I can’t follow anyone who isn’t him- or herself a business, because corporations are people but not the other way around).
So, here’s me hoping to see all of you on the less-alienating parts of the Internet. As you can tell, it doesn’t mean I’ll be keeping my mouth shut in any way, shape or form.