I met an Irishman named Peter once. It was in a village called Nkhotakota, on the shore of Lake Malawi, where he was volunteering as part of a youth development program. My brother and I had arrived late in the day and, it turned out, had the better part of a night to pass until the 64-year-old motor ship that still serves as the lone transporter of goods and souls between lake towns arrived the next morning. We were on time, but it, of course, was late.
We located the local watering hole / guest lodge / grocer and bargained a discount rate for dinner and a half night’s stay. I found Peter at the bar that evening. He was reading a book about what was effectively the German army’s warm-up for the Holocaust: the mass enslavement of and use of concentration camps on indigenous Namibians.
You can imagine the substance of that conversation but, despite it, we quickly became friendly. I am convinced that this is because Peter was wonderfully Irish – genial, garrulous, big-hearted – and had nothing whatsoever to do with my road-weary condition. At the end of the night, as we parted ways, I felt that familiar twinge of remorse that anyone who has traveled or simply shared a warm conversation with a stranger knows. I didn’t want to say goodbye.
As we stood to go, he told me he was going to tell me something another volunteer had said to him once and that he liked to pass along to fellow travelers. We shook hands, he looked me in the eye, and then he said warmly, “Enjoy the rest of your life.”
That was it. It was not a warning, or even a command; there was no malice in his voice. He simply wanted to wish me well and, with such plain words, soothe the hurt of an impossible friendship briefly known. He wanted me to know it was okay that our paths would never cross again, that that’s how it’s supposed to be. And though he would never learn its ultimate outcome, he hoped that mine was a good life.
The power of modern social media networks to shape, spread, and often simply reach the important news stories of our time is quite literally revolutionary. After the Boston Marathon bombing last April, during the firefight in Watertown, residents recorded footage on their smart phones, uploaded it to YouTube, and then used the #Watertown hash tag to broadcast it on Twitter. It began trending almost instantaneously, and suddenly it was watchable online before CNN was on the scene.
Throughout the investigation, you could follow the latest developments on Twitter; that network often beat out even the largest (or most local) news stations in sharing breaking news. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Google created a searchable database for folks concerned about their loved ones. The bombing demonstrated the ability of social media to meaningfully impact our lives.
And this is the fascinating thing about Facebook. Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Vimeo all possess a function. Their existence meets a need and, in select instances, contributes substantially to the greater human conversation. (See the incredibly smart – and pre-planned – use of Twitter by Texas State Senator Wendy Davis.) Facebook is the exception. For many, certainly for me, its only utility is as a forum for passive correspondence between acquaintances. I still call and visit good friends; I see family at the holidays.
Of course, not everything important must be useful; but it must be relevant. And I’m not sure Facebook holds any relevancy for me anymore. More importantly, I think it detracts from my quality of life and social interactions. We’ve all read about how much of a time suck the site is; how the avatars we present are disingenuous and frivolous; how it’s only a place to noncommittally confirm plans and receive reminders about random birthdays that weren’t important enough to write down.
There are, like any good rule, exceptions. During my Peace Corps service, Facebook allowed me to keep up with family back home in one, fell, data-lite swoop. I imagine it’s much the same for expats, the armed forces, and those whose normal interactions with loved ones are similarly stymied. I’ve also discovered that, for some, it allows a kind of casual networking that is ultimately vital to their careers. And as this study out of UCSD shows, it does have the capacity to massage public opinion.
But Facebook, I think most importantly, makes us lazy – not only in the typical sense of those who lament our increasing inability to write complex sentences and focus on longer selections of text – but rather in how we conduct ourselves in relationships. It circumscribes our own efforts, encouraging a passive, superficial knowledge of other human beings, at the same time insisting that they’re not worthwhile enough to know more about.
It is wrongheaded to believe otherwise, that somehow our lives are fuller or richer because of the meretricious connections we maintain on Facebook. We know less about people, not more, by being Facebook friends. This is not how friendships are kept. It’s how they’re lost. It’s the small erosion over time that crumbles the foundation. We maintain these casual and unedifying relationships through Facebook, absorbing but never contributing substantially. Like a lot of modern life, we consume it, but don’t shape it ourselves, not directly. And that is no way to live.
Leaving Facebook is an opportunity to vote with my behavior. We choose what clothes to buy based on a number of factors besides style and price, like if the process with which they’re made is environmentally friendly and whether the workers who make them labor under good and fair conditions. We consider whether the food we buy is healthy and where and how it’s grown. We rank cities on their overall quality of life and access to natural resources to help us decide if we want to live there. Why should we not also choose the manner and method with which we manage our relationships online?
The truth is, we don’t need Facebook. We don’t need much of social media, but most of it contributes to the conversation in some manner. Unlike its younger siblings, Facebook comes from a time when our understanding of our relationship to the Internet was only just forming, and sites that enticed our innate human inclination to schadenfreude (hello, Myspace!) flourished. Talking to an old friend recently about Facebook friends, he put it more succinctly. “At best, I don’t really know most of these people,” he said, “and, at worst, I actually dislike them.”
I’m not sure how much I agree with that sentiment, but I do know that in general I’m tired of reading about life online. I want to be in the messy midst of it, alive and engaged. I crave authenticity, the kind that comes from lived experience, rich with human interaction, and I am exhausted from this ashcan of terrible emptiness into which we all pour our lives.
It will be challenging, and I’m bound to lose many acquaintances – but no real friendships. Hopefully, if anything, I’ll save a few of those. So, at the end of the summer, after I’ve confirmed email addresses and collated my network, it’s happening: I’m saying goodbye. If we’re not already in touch on email, let’s fix that now. Seriously: drop me a two-line note to say hi. It’ll be invigorating, like going commando on a hot day. I hope you will email, call, and keep in touch, and I will strive to do the same with you.
I’m not the first to do this and something tells me I won’t be the last. MG Siegler, a partner in Google Ventures, wrote earlier this year, “One day we’ll all be laying on our death beds wishing we hadn’t wasted all that time reading a million ‘K’ email responses in our lives.” Friends of mine who have been married for a few years and also recently left Facebook told me, “Now, instead of checking our friends’ updates at night, we read to each other. One night, she reads, and the next I do. Doesn’t really matter what, though she prefers old crime novels.” I smiled, loving that he knew that.
My brother and I boarded the ferry early the next morning, as the red sun was just beginning to crest the lake’s waters. I never saw Peter again, though I’m sure I could track him down now if I wanted to. But I don’t. I don’t know what happened to Peter, and that’s bittersweet. But it’s also okay. That’s a part of how human relationships work in real life.
As another Volunteer put it, “The joy of being in another place is intoxicating. Everyone should have the chance to live outside of their comfort zones.” Facebook is the comfort zone.
See you out there.