• Paul D. Wilke

Breaking Up Wasn't Hard

I deleted my Facebook account a year ago now. In the back of my mind was the thought that I'd probably come slinking back after a few months, like so many others before who had loudly proclaimed independence from FB only to return a few weeks later, like junkies needing that fix after trying to quit cold turkey. Yet a strange thing happened. I didn't miss it, not much anyway.

Right after I deleted the account, I went through a phase that resembled something like phantom limb syndrome, where a person who has lost a limb will sometimes feel the sensation as if that limb is still there. The same went for my lost FB social "limb." A couple of times a week, even though I was no longer on FB, I'd come across something I wanted to share. Two thoughts would then pass one after the other through my mind. First, a bit of excitement about the thing I wanted to share, followed a second later by the disappointing realization that I didn't have anyone online to share with anymore.

This happened a lot when traveling, which is the perfect opportunity to accumulate social capital by performing the role of an awesome life. Photos of me in exotic locales nonchalant, no big deal, just something I do all the time, don't you know, were all part of the show. Not too often, but often enough to remind everyone that I was traveling and they weren't. Sadly, in retrospect, I realize that vacations during my FB era (2007-2019, RIP) were not only about relaxation but also about getting just the right photo to post online to impress everyone. See how perfect my life is? Jealous?

This phantom limb also twitched restlessly in much more banal situations, like when I wanted to share an article or comment on something in the news. Or when I wanted to be a comedian. Or a smarty-pants. Or a smart-ass. Or whatever. In the months after deleting, however, this phantom urge faded away, and I began to enjoy life without an eye for how it would play online. This was a revelation and a realization over just how much my daily life had come to revolve around social media.

I can't overstate the importance of understanding that our intentions dictate how we engage with the world around us. What I mean is this: Every experience can be turned into a performance. These performances have the potential to amplify our social standing. Do I want to hike alone in a forest to enjoy the solitary beauty of nature, an experience only I will ever know? Or am I doing so in part to convert the experience into online social capital? If our intent on social media is to put on a reality show of a perfect life so as to build up our social capital, then we'll be tempted to perform that role all of the time, even when it's a lie. The lying, the posturing, the prancing and preening for the crowd, all end up taking on a life of their own, consuming ever-greater parts of our time in frantic efforts for applause.

Humans are social creatures who crave the approval of others. Not only do we want approval, but we desperately need it to thrive. Social media hijacks this natural tendency and then dilutes it onto a digital platform where actual human contact is little more than emojis, memes, and cliches. Real intimacy is alien to a technology like FB, and depth is lacking. FB is like a vast ocean that is six inches deep. Still, the urge to dance and put on a show for an invisible screen audience is compelling to many of us.

What we get in return is a shabby substitute for real social interaction, for real human contact among real human beings in real-time in the real world. Intimacy dies on a screen. Social media converts relationships into transactions between a performer and an audience. After a while, one can develop an online persona that is utterly divorced from the offline one, becoming increasingly unable to tell between the real self and the phony showman. Always performing, Always on the stage. Never real. The show never ends.

We've all run across the person whose online (aggressive, trollish, boorish) and offline personas (awkward, shy, inarticulate) are so jarringly different that we wonder which is real. We've also seen the person whom we know well enough to see through the performance. We understand that what we're seeing is mostly curated bullshit to project a certain image. Witnessing this dissonance in real-time can be jarring, like watching a ventriloquist who moves his mouth too much when speaking as the dummy. Seeing through the charade ruins the effect.

No, I'm better off without it. Moving on.

Next, I thought getting off social media would translate to less time spent online. That didn't turn out to be the case as much as I thought it would, though I'd argue that the quality of my time spent in front of a screen is somewhat better than before. What happened is my online hours simply shifted to different digital pastimes. Gaming was the big winner in the battle to fill the void left by FB. I've probably spent an hour or so gaming every day for the last year, not to mention those mindless hours wasted riding the wave of Youtube's algorithms. How did I end up watching an hour of MMA's best knockout videos when I started with the Tower of Joy fight scene from Game of Thrones? Where did that time go? Even worse are the Youtube videos I watch about the computer games I play.

All that said, I was able to devote more time to reading and writing. Deleting FB brought about a renaissance of deep reading, a pastime that had been slowly dying over the last few years. By deep reading, I mean sitting down and focusing on reading a book from start to finish, rather than the short, blurby crap you find online. If I waste an hour gaming every day, I'm spending even more time deep reading.

And against all expectations, I've continued writing on this blog, even after the incentive to perform for online audiences dried up, leaving me to write anonymously. I worried about how that would play out, wondering whether my real motivations for the blog were more social and performative than personal. It turns out that the latter was the case, as my continued output here demonstrates. That's something I'm proud of.

Not only that, but the tenor of the writing has shifted. I'm writing fewer articles about current events (like here, and more recently here) that I think will appeal to readers (i.e., performances), and am focusing more of my efforts experimenting in style (here, here, and here) and tone. This has been fun. My writing is now more personally reflective and unselfconscious than it was before because I don't feel the pressure or need to share it with anyone. This is a liberating feeling. Writing is now purely an exercise in thinking creatively and independently, rather than passively staring at a screen and snacking on the intellectual cotton candy that is so much online discourse these days.

Next, quitting social media has unexpectedly moderated my political views. My left-leaning opinions were for years more boilerplate than nuanced. I knew what a good lefty should believe to be a good lefty and so modified my beliefs accordingly. That's changing, though, and the shift should be apparent to anyone who has read this blog over the last year or so.

The change was unexpected. I've described myself as "pretty far to the left" for years now. But is that still true? Sort of, but disconnecting from FB detached me from the group thinking echo-chambers that thrive there and in which I found ideological sustenance. My mind has been able to wander a little more freely now, and it's interesting where that's led. Over the last few months, I've seen my political views drift away from the margin toward a more moderate middle.

I liked Elizabeth Warren for president. I enjoyed listening to a politician who was smart, knowledgable, and passionate, all traits that are utterly absent in our current regime of bombastic and proud stupidity. Yet, at the same time, I'm just fine with Biden, even though he's old, occasionally incoherent, and will not do much to advance left-leaning goals like universal health insurance, free college education, and fighting climate change. But like so many Americans, he's infinitely better than the alternative.

My views on religion have softened as well. I'm still an atheist, but a more humble and understanding one than before. As an identity, the font-size of my atheism has shrunk considerably, while an agnostic uncertainty and sense of mystery about existence loom ever larger. I've regained a sense of wonder and humility that FB's algorithms had atrophied.

Moreover, I now find myself more and more turned off by the antics of the social justice left which I used to defend so passionately online. I see now that its influence is overrated, more a product of conservative paranoia than anything real. The far-left ideologues who preach radical identity politics thrive only for a short growing season in the safe but artificial environment of the college campus. Social justice warriors find it's much harder to survive in the wild. How could they? Real-life is about compromises, and we all make them, or we get marginalized. Compromise, acceptance of real diversity (not just SJW definitions of diversity) are the lessons that are not taught at universities but in life itself.

At the same time, even off of social media, my contempt for the American right has only deepened. If my views of the social left have become more critical, conservatism hasn't stepped in as an alternative. For a movement that prided itself on sticking to first principles, it's been amazing to watch how malleable those principles turned out to be in practice. I don't need FB to take offense at the daily incoherence, incompetence, hypocrisy, and bad-faith behavior of today's Republican Party, and the craven displays of loyalty that sustain it. Shame! That said, my contempt and anger are no longer as pent up as they once were when I was on FB. Social media makes it seem that the left and right are engaged in a winner-take-all existential fight to the death for the survival of American values. Everything was at stake! Our lives! Our freedoms! Our future! Or so it seemed.

Once you turn off social media and keep the news cycle at bay, what you find is that the volume goes way down. I found politics and news on FB to be an information environment where arguments are in all caps and exclamation marks. I'm not trapped in that world anymore. I don't need my two minutes of hate each day to motivate me to care. I stay up on the news but do not get carried away by it anymore. This is good for me. Politics is still essential, and I give to parties and causes I support, but I've dialed back the intensity and sense of crisis significantly.

Finally, I'll end on a more somber note. In my original article describing my breakup with FB, I described our social circles as like a solar system, with our family and closest friends in the warm inner orbits, while acquaintances are a little further out, and so on until you get to the cold outer reaches of people you barely know. Here, I noted, you'll find your Kuiper Belt friends or those people you are friends with on FB, but about whom you know almost nothing. At the time, I suspected that the vast majority of my "friends" fell into this category. Well, that did in fact turn out to be the case. Only a few people outside my immediate family, fewer than five, have made any effort to stay in touch. I suppose those are the ones who really count.

So was getting off of Facebook worth it? It was for me. Every person is different, though. If you can keep FB at arm's length and not let it take over your life, then good for you. But if you find yourself glued to it (or Twitter) more than you are comfortable with, then maybe it's time to reconsider.