I'm on Facebook, Therefore I am?

By: Rebecca Hia  |  April 13, 2015

If you had told me a month ago to deactivate my Facebook account, I would have scoffed and told you that I knew what was best for me. I’ve been a member of the site since 2007, shortly after they made it open to non-college students. I remember joining incredulously in eighth grade, merely from peer pressure as my classmates had started to join the site. I didn’t understand what the point of it was, but once my middle school had banned us from using it, my interest in the site had been piqued.

I did comply, however, and deactivated the account until the end of the school year. Once the year ended, I “friended” my classmates and posted my pictures from my eighth grade graduation. I remember digitally modifying the pictures, making sure I had clear skin and white teeth, and electing against posting certain pictures with male classmates to prevent snide “comments” from other classmates, despite the fact that I wouldn’t see or hear from most of them again.

Shortly after joining my high school’s “network” on Facebook, I started receiving “friend requests” from other incoming students. I remember feeling reticent to add these people to my Facebook, which in 2008, was basically a glorified address book. I consulted the one friend I had going to high school with me, asking her if she accepted these requests. She told me she did. “It’s not a big deal,” she said, “We’ll meet them soon enough.” I thought her logic held at the time.

In the first week of school, I remember discussing with her which of these “friends” we had actually met. Like Pokemon, we tried to “catch them all” in real life, a scavenger hunt consisting solely of our classmates. For the most part, though, my network (“network?”) consisted mostly of middle school and camp friends.

When I joined my youth group, the rules changed. People “friended” everyone they met on retreats. To remember who out of these hundreds of people you had met before, you “added” them on Facebook. Facebook “groups” started popping up, which is how I found out about school events. “Events” started popping up which is how I found out about retreat details. Facebook was primarily a way to see friends’ pictures, and post “statuses” about events in my life I was excited about. Conversations with school friends primarily happened in school, or over AOL instant messenger where both parties sat and “chatted” in real time, a way to still be connected after school hours.

When I got to Israel for the year, Facebook became my way to connect to what was going on in the lives of my contacts in America, and became a quasi-source of news for happenings here in general. Though, admittedly, I missed the memorandum for most notable political and literary innovations (and musical, but as my sister suggests, I was out of the loop way before I left for Israel).

That year, I started my first of many “Facebook cleanses” deleting people from my “friend’s list” I no longer cared to keep in touch with. I didn’t have a desire to see people pop up on my “news feed” (still lacking any real news) in their first years of college. For good or bad, my feed was a little less replete of statuses reading how much classmates “loved college” or photos of them partying.

But Facebook was still a window into my home life, what I had left behind, and hopefully one that was two-way, for those I left behind to see the trips I was going on, and that I was still more or less the same person, and not a zealous rabbinical student (what my non-Jewish friends thought when I said “seminary”) or trapped in a convent (what my mother thought).

When I started college though, two things had drastically changed the way I used Facebook. The first was my decision to purchase a “smart phone,” having convinced my parents that I would need access to the Internet at all times to keep up with school work and any internships I would partake in. The second is that Facebook created a messenger app, making sending messages even faster, phasing out the old messaging system, and forcing all smart phone users to convert to the new system.

This new Facebook was now more than photos and statuses, but the main way to chat virtually for me as it made most other messenger apps obsolete. At the same time, Facebook became a news source for me as most news sources I checked regularly now shared their articles on Facebook. As a burgeoning writer myself, I in turn started sharing my writing on Facebook as well as my opinions on a variety of issues.

I began spending hours on Facebook, reading the articles “shared” by the news sources I followed. Articles shared more often had more cache, regardless of how well they were written, sheerly because they were read more. I was becoming the sieve of Facebook, separating the weak posts from the strong. I couldn’t be an authority in the realm of religion, a decisor of Jewish law, but I had the power to influence what my “network” was reading, and in turn, perhaps what they would be thinking about. To know what was going on, what was worth reading about, what is thought about current events, people turned to my Facebook profile page. These conversations didn’t need to happen offline. My Facebook net worth exponentially increased when the articles posted were my own. I was not only an aggregator of good articles, but a producer of good ideas.

Last summer, I was in Israel during Operation Protective Edge. My Facebook “wall (timeline?)” became a collage of photographs, captured feelings, and in-person updates. The personal was political. At the welcome back to school barbecue, I ran into an acquaintance. He asked me how my summer was, and then before allowing me a chance to answer, said, “You don’t need to tell me. I already know how your summer was.” Should I have been flattered that he was keeping tabs on me, or insulted that my commentary in the flesh wasn’t necessary?

As school started again, I noticed a peculiar phenomenon. When introducing myself to someone, they would respond that they already “knew” me from Facebook. This celebrity status felt unwarranted. I hadn’t thought I wrote that much, and I certainly felt uncomfortable at their insistence that they knew me. So I was now both unworth hearing from and knowing. Was I becoming a caricature of myself?

These thoughts escalated one particularly lonely night. I reached out to a few friends over Facebook to hang out, and upon not successfully creating plans with them that night I, in a rash decision, deactivated my Facebook account. I was done with the dancing shadows of puppets on the “wall.” Friends were confused, found alternate means to contact me, and asked how I was doing. Detached from the “wall,” I walked down Lexington Avenue looking for myself, trying to retrace myself to where I last visited before I stared into my Facebook reflection and fell, first in love with my own image, and then drowned in the pool of self-absorption.

Now, almost two months since the deactivation, I’ve realized several things.

One: The amount of time I spent on screens, including when face to face time was available, was obscene. I am now more present, trying to seldom use my phone while in the presence of others.

Two: I don’t have all of my friend’s phone numbers. Easily remedied, but there are still people with whom my relationship was almost exclusively over Facebook. I still haven’t figured out what those meant, or how to maintain/revive them.

Three: I know very few birthdays. That one might take some time.

Four: I no longer am the first to hear about parties, news, life happenings. I even found out after others that I was quoted in an article because a friend had reached out to me. I hope that I will eventually find out about important stories, but when in doubt, Facebook users can be aware of this and still update me/those without Facebook.

Five: Getting quick answers, specifically about school, isn’t possible without human connection. What was once a Facebook post in the Stern College: In the Know group, now requires me to call, text, or knock on the door of one of my classmates. Just as looking words up in actual dictionaries teaches you the words surrounding your entry, you benefit from the learning outside your original inquiry by asking of the welfare of your peers.

Six: The voyeurism has been stripped from sharing articles and anecdotes with friends. I am no longer learning things through the curtain of others’ Facebook timelines, and when people do notify me of happenings or share media with me, they are personally thinking of me and my appreciation of what they want to share. We’re no longer shooting aimlessly into the sky hoping to catch a random bird. There are bones and flesh waiting to listen if you ask.

My fixation and then abstinence from the other blue and white, the flag of our generation, has been a thought experiment. I haven’t made any decisions about how long my Facebook profile will lay fallow, but I have come to realize that like other areas of my life, my digital footprint needed evaluation. I see my shadow as I walk down Lexington Avenue and process my existence.