On any given day, several of my friends are taking a "Facecation," a little vacation from Facebook. Most of them report that it was refreshing to spend some days without the constant pull of checking their Facebook page. I've taken a few of these shorts breaks myself, citing the usual downsides of Facebook participation: like many online activities, Facebook is a "time suck" -- one click leads to another, and before I know it, I've wasted an hour -- or more -- doing basically nothing. Even worse than wasting time, personal interactions on Facebook are often stressful and frustrating, especially in the current political climate. A Facebook discussion can quickly devolve into the equivalent of an in-person group of people talking over one other, growing louder and angrier until someone snaps. And seeing descriptions and photos of happy families and seemingly perfect lives delivers an emotional blow at times when I'm feeling down. The list of negatives goes on, but where are the positives?
In these busy, over-scheduled times, Facebook is a fun and efficient way to keep in touch. Unlike other social media platforms, that only provide content-limited snapshots, Facebook actually promotes meaningful connection and conversation. Or so I’d convinced myself.
Recently, I received a message from a friend who commented, "I've enjoyed seeing your Facebook posts and being able to keep up with what's been going on in your life over the past few years. Your friendship means so much to me." But had she really kept up? Were we even really still friends? We hadn’t spoken on the phone or seen in other in person in many years. We occasionally commented on each other’s Facebook posts, posts about safe topics that we could share confidently with a large group. I recalled what I knew about her current life – her son played some type of sport and went to a school dance (many photos of teens in fancy attire). One of her kids was in college now . . . maybe? I think she’d had the same job for a while. Her dad had been very sick, but I realized -- to my complete dismay -- that I didn’t even know if he had recovered.
This led me to question whether I was actually maintaining – let alone building and deepening -- friendships on Facebook. Was I having substantive conversations with people I liked and cared about? Was I offering important details of my life and hearing about my friends' successes and struggles? Was I genuinely supporting friends who were suffering instead of just replying with a crying emoji? The answer to all these questions was sadly, but clearly, “no.”
When it came right down to it, I realized that Facebook was allowing me to fake my way through friendships. I was using my limited time for superficial interactions with dozens of people rather than spending that time listening, sharing, supporting, and enjoying my real-life friends, the friends I valued beyond a social media link. I was using Facebook to keep myself at a distance, to avoid the hard work of truly relating to people. When I was on my Facebook page, I didn't feel connected; I usually felt lonely, and that was my own doing. I realized that I didn’t need hundreds of virtual friends; I needed authentic relationships with my small group of actual friends, and that meant that I needed to stop clicking on emojis and start concentrating my efforts on sharing actual emotions.
I don't know if I used to get more out of Facebook or if I'm just more aware of its shortcomings now. Maybe Facebook has changed, or maybe I have, or both. But rather than trying to analyze how I got here, I'm focusing on where I am and where I want to be. I've been spending time on a social media platform that provides me with the illusion of having friends and being a good friend, when I'm doing neither. This might not be true for everyone, but I'm pretty sure it's true for me. I'm nervous that walking away will leave me with a hole where my Facebook friends used to be, but I'm hopeful that it will be filled quickly by visits and phone calls that served as the foundation of my friendships long before Facebook came along.