I have three dead friends on Facebook.
Statistically, this is not unusual. I’m middle-aged and have over 300 friends. A 1% death rate is pretty low.
My dead friend’s widows have maintained their Facebook pages as memorials. For one friend who died in a cycling accident, his page has become a site to promote driver awareness. For another friend who was a pastor, issues of faith are promoted. Another friend’s page is simply a collection of “miss you, man” posts.
At birthdays and anniversaries, I see updates. That’s six times a year, at a minimum, that I’m reminded of these three guys. This is more often than I’m reminded of my own father, who died before Facebook existed. I make a point to memorialize him on his birthday, in some way. When I lived in New York, I went to a Catholic church and lit a candle for him. When I was in California, I’d take a moment and say prayer of thanks. When I was in East Texas, I’d visit his grave and catch him up on what had been going on in my life.
We owe the people who love us a debt. I know that is not a popular thing to say. It runs counter to every notion of love and freedom that’s been promoted in America since the 1970s. I still believe it’s true. I’m also pickier about the notion of “love” than most people are, today. People who’ve loved you have sacrificed something for you. They have been there for you in your dark times, have forgiven you your mistakes, and have made an effort to remain part of your life. Mostly, they appreciate you for who you are, without expectations. This does not apply to over 300 people on Facebook. In my case, it applies to maybe 20 people outside my family — and some of them don’t use social media.
So why have I remained on Facebook?
I believe it’s because I’ve been applying the loyalty I owe true friends to everyone I know.
This is not a clever trick of Facebook. It’s human nature. Facebook just capitalizes on it.
On an emotional level, it can be hard for me to categorize people, even when Facebook allows me to do exactly that. You’re either a friend or you’re not. I don’t have a series of filters in my head that instantly sorts people into Family, Close Friends, Acquaintances, Dallas-area Friends, Co-workers, Book Club Members, and Fans of ELO. I either like you or I don’t. It’s a very simple list. But that way of thinking doesn’t work for 300 people. We’re not designed to manage that many relationships. Computers are, but not people.
On Facebook, if you have more than 20 friends, you have three options:
First option, sort people out. Otherwise your feed will be a mile long, and your conservative/liberal/religious/atheist friends will flame each other on your posts. (Maybe all your friends line up politically and religiously, but mine don’t.) The only other event I know of in life, where everyone who knows you can show up, is your funeral. There are two advantages to that situation: Everyone will try to be polite, and you don’t have to be there.
Second option, don’t sort people. Then, you either post nothing controversial (kid pics, pet pics, food porn), or say whatever you like and get unfollowed or unfriended by a lot of people. This option is fine for the confident and insensitive.
This is what leads me to the third option: Quit.
It’s not the solution for everyone. I don’t think Facebook is evil, or that people who use it are stupid. I think it’s bad for me. Those two words — for me — are important when talking about personal values.
What’s bad about Facebook, for me?
It leads to me comparing my life to my friends, and feeling bad when it comes up short.
It encourages me to promote a sanitized and idealized version of my life to earn other’s approval. That in itself isn’t bad — it’s good to have social skills, and part of that is keeping some things private — but in my case, it makes me want to be something I’m not.
I feel anxious when I post something which I think is sweet or funny or cool, and there aren’t as many Likes as I expected. That’s fine for a professional writer trying to get feedback on his work, but for a human being sharing himself, it’s awful.
There’s probably more to it than that. I’m not a perfectly self-aware person. What I can say is that I’ve been happier, less anxious, and less distracted since deactivating my account a week ago.
What I’ve been doing instead is uploading my photos to a Shutterfly account. Once a month, I plan to order some prints. I’ll share them with the people who are in them, and build traditional photo albums at home. That’s as close to the old-school film development experience as I can get today — a little cheaper, since I can choose which images to order, rather than paying $20 to develop an entire roll and having only two or three good photos in the stack.
Each month, I’ll add to a photo diary of my karate class, shooting pool with my family, and finding interesting things on long walks. I hope I can look over that in a few months and say, “Hey, that’s a pretty good life.”
Isn’t that the thumbs-up that matters most?