Life After Facebook

Two years ago this week I left Facebook. I was quite a heavy user, especially while living in Australia. I found myself looking over my shoulder back to London, which was one of several factors which made settling down in beautiful Sydney far more difficult than I had anticipated.

Here are some thoughts about why I came off, and what happened next. If this sounds like a familiar story, that will be because it is. After all, there are over two billion active Facebook users, and if you’re one of them, I daresay you may recognise some of this from your own experience.

My use of Facebook made me seek approval. I would post a photo, a witticism, a minor news update, and wait until it was liked by someone, and then breathe in until it reached double figures or attracted some comments or whatever. This is me, a man in middle age, not a 12 year old. To put it into analogue, when I used to have a camera with a film in it, I would get the prints processed, look through them, maybe stick one or two in an album, and then put them away. So, what changed? Why the need for approval?

I joined Facebook in 2007 or 2008. In those early days everyone seemed to be rushing to get as many ‘friends’ as possible – even with people they’d never met. I remember sending off requests to minor acquaintances, making instant Facebook ‘friends’ with people I’d met in a bar only that evening, checking my friends’ friends for names I recognised. It was some time until it dawned on me that I should not seek nor accept requests from people I didn’t really know. That was a small, if obvious, step forward.

I did manage to re-connect with old friends with whom I’d lost touch. In this respect, Facebook acted like a more user-friendly version of Friends Reunited. However, I am scratching my head now as to whether I subsequently met any of these long-lost friends for a catch up. Maybe one, maybe two. Not a lot, is it, for all those hours of typing chit-chat and OMGs.

Then, of course, there are the keyboard wars breaking out all around. As a Marc Bolan fan, I was on the giving and (mostly) receiving end of quite a few of these. Was it any more edifying than having a scrap in the playground? No, and it was no more constructive either. FB allowed me to be dragged back to my nine-year-old self, but in print, in public, there for all to see what a complete knob I can be. Helpful? Probably not.

Later on, I became more aware of privacy settings and started to limit access to my photos, my thoughts, my half-arsed jokes, my rants and raves. And then I limited them a bit more, and then I limited my profile to only my actual friends, having cleared out anyone who wasn’t really a friend at all, or having been cleared out (un-befriended, or unfriended in FB speak) by several others. So what did that tell me? If this space is so unsafe, why am I here? What am I doing?

This then led me to realise, at last, why FB was not for me anymore. I am a private person. I have very loving, long-standing and cherished friends with whom I may share more intimate moments, thoughts and details – face-to-face or perhaps by phone – or not, depending on how I feel, what it is, who actually needs to know. What was I doing banging away at a keyboard, revealing stuff about my old soul with no filter, no chance to stop and think more clearly? No, this is not right. This is not me. This is not what I do. So I have to stop.

I moved back from Sydney in mid-2015 and re-established myself in London. A dear friend died and I organised a wake in his memory to be held in mid-January 2016. This I organised primarily via Facebook. And when it was over, when we all walked out into the chilly Fitzrovian winter night, I picked up the laptop, stabbed at a few keys, posted a final note to say ta-ra, and it was done.

So, what happened next? Nothing. Nothing really happened at all. The world continued to turn. I used the phone a bit more, and certainly used Twitter more – but mostly to rant about stuff that pisses me off (particularly about environmental issues in Australia) or to share information about Marc Bolan, or to recommend cultural things to do in London.

Did I see more of my friends? Perhaps a bit, but what was immediately different is that we would talk far more when we met, and with more depth – because we didn’t already know, or think we knew, what each other had been up to. The experience is richer as our memories recall only the more interesting bits, and we can animate them, interrupt each other, discuss, laugh, have another drink, be alive, you know, like in the olden days.

What do I do with my non-FB time? I read more books, take more time to think, get on with my work with a more clear mind, listen to music; normal things. But I no longer needed to check in every time I went to the pub, cinema, theatre, restaurant, airport, or post pictures of whatever it was I was up to, an endless stream of nothing particularly interesting. Nor was I reading the details of all my friends doing those same everyday things, every day.

Do I miss it? No. Do I miss out on some things? Yes, there are events which I never hear about, or maybe the odd birthday party or what have you, but if someone really wants me to know, I’m still here. I have a phone, am on email, I even have a letter box.

Will I go back? I cannot imagine that I ever would.

Never, as a boss of mine once said, is a long time, but that’s OK. Never can wait. We’ll all be dead soon enough, and maybe not spending time on FB makes my life just that little bit more worthwhile.

I suppose the obvious conclusion is that heavy use of Facebook risks changing the nature of friendship from something real to something virtual. If that works for you, great. If it doesn’t, maybe have a go at putting your iPhone down awhile and remembering how life used to be. It may just have been a little richer, a little better, a little more life-like.

(Minor disclaimer – I recently downloaded FB messenger so as to be able to have group conversations with my siblings about a family matter. I would prefer to use WhatsApp but there you go. Guess what? All my old messages are still on there. Have I read any of them? Well, that would be telling…)

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