Why I don’t do Facebook (or, the state of my social media, early 2013)

facebook-momAs far as I can remember, the first time anyone tried to get me to sign up for Facebook was February 2006. I’m pretty certain about the date because it coincided with events documented in this very early TGW post, which I’ve bookmarked for years in order repeatedly to retrieve the recipe for Mikelle’s Mexican cole slaw. Over the course of that weekend, she and a couple other friends tried to get the rest of us to sign up for Facebook accounts to make party planning more efficient. That’s also the first weekend I remember having to negotiate the issue of people posting bar photos on Facebook without permission. Etiquette was loose and I was uptight. If memory serves, I didn’t sign up at the time because it seemed too easy for people to find me that way, mostly students, or people I went to high school or college with and didn’t really want to think about and whose political opinions I certainly didn’t care to entertain on a regular basis. Although I’ve always been easy enough to track down online for anyone who had reason to look, I didn’t want to make it that easy.

I don’t think we realized at the time that Facebook would so quickly become the province of parents and grandparents, a giant virtual family reunion. What did old people do before they had each other’s and everyone else’s Facebooks to talk about? I should at least acknowledge that I feel a little guilty about not connecting regularly with my siblings on Facebook, but I still find that email — which I generally loathe — works okay for family updates, and besides, other people in my house use Facebook and someone can generally get me to look over a shoulder if I really, really need to. I have a friend — a fairly hip guy who’s pretty well known as a writer — who lives to see pictures of his nephews and nieces on Facebook, which plays a very important role in his life. Why wouldn’t he want family updates as often as possible? he’s asked me before.

My working theory, in response, is that people divide themselves, consciously or not, into two big categories when it comes to social media: those who are comfortable with their inherited identity (relations of descent), who are more or less at home on Facebook, and those self-fashioning scrappers who prefer voluntary association (relationships of consent), and who are more likely, probably, to be found on Twitter. My friend, incidentally, thinks of Twitter as something he has to do for work, to maintain his network as a professional writer; Facebook, for him, is about pleasure. For me, though, the big dividing line between the two platforms is that the first operates on a principle of building virtual social networks based on IRL relationships, whereas the other has no expectation of reciprocity and therefore makes it not only possible, but desirable, for people to have more followers than they are expected to follow back. I don’t expect my favorite writers or musicians to follow me back on Twitter. It’s a treat when they do, of course, and then I sometimes obsess about losing them if I tweet too much about this or that particular obsession. And it’s even more of a treat when a Twitter relationship turns into a chance to meet neat people in the flesh, whether it’s your local booksellers or a favorite artist or just someone who likes the same shit you do.

Now, I realize that Facebook has all sorts of mechanisms in place that allow you to screen friends, refuse or ignore friend requests, mute the friends whose updates hit you like nails through your eyeballs but who you can’t simply unfriend for whatever reason. And of course you can just not open or update unless the mood hits you and then you can see what everyone’s cats are doing and who ate what at brunch. And so Facebook should be a form of voluntary association. But the grief I get about not being on Facebook, over the years, has transferred from friends — who once thought that it would be the key to simplifying our social lives or staying in touch — to family and high school acquaintances. People, in other words, trying to organize reunions, real or virtual. People who take it personally that you don’t have a Facebook account. People who tend to imagine you as cryogenically preserved at age 18. Turns out I don’t respond well to obligation. And anyway, I get the impression that most of my IRL friends — people I met after the age of 21 — have quit using Facebook regularly. Or at least I tell myself that so I don’t feel too left out.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t feel the need to sign up for Facebook in 2006 because I had another form of social media taking up my time: this blog, which started in January 2006 as a way for our friendship diaspora to stay in touch, and maybe even a way for us to use each other as an audience for little essays, often longer than a typical blog post. It quickly took on a dual role in bringing together a set of east coast friends with a bunch of people in LA — two friendship circles with a couple common links that made a really spectacular fusion possible. And that was the basic work this site performed for the first couple years. It was my primary social medium. Maybe yours too. It was what we talked about when we happened to get together in person.

I wasn’t the first TGW founder to take a break from my regular writing schedule. There were others before me and some to follow. I thought I was going to break for six months or so and ended up staying away for almost five years. The other work I did in the meantime — carrying on other blogs, mostly for work; starting up Twitter and Tumblr (at first for work, and then for pleasure); editing and writing a bunch of stuff, some of it for other websites, much of it for print — wasn’t quite cutting it for me and I missed the old networks/audiences this site, alone, had provided. I had a severe bout of blogging fatigue when it came to things too closely related to work. Twitter, after I started following more than 600 feeds, became a little overwhelming, and while I’ve been living in Abu Dhabi the time difference with New York has left things a little offkilter for me there. I still really enjoy it, but as one Twitter friend recently pointed out, all social media seem to turn into reruns eventually. Plus, most of my IRL friends, including the majority of writers for this site, never signed up for Twitter or Tumblr, or else did but didn’t stick around. Instagram put me back in touch with most of my LA crew, but not everyone, and I still had no interest in turning to Facebook. And so last fall I came back to TGW, which I’d always read faithfully in the meantime, but which I’d watched run its course, as most of the rest of its contributors succumbed to the same forms of fatigue that had drained me elsewhere. But here I am, and I kind of like it, even though it’s a much quieter site than the one I left. Blogging feels quaint, now, a little old-fashioned. Intimate. Like Instagram but with more words.

By the time I was ready to return and commit to my old weekly schedule, TGW’s contributors had been through several rounds of deliberations on whether or not to pull the plug. I, for one, am glad that someone left the lights on, which makes it possible for me to post these thoughts here. Over the last six months or so my favorite weeks have been the ones where someone else writes something — even a biscuit — between my posts. Or comments. (Thanks, Tim!) I love that the site’s still here for anyone who needs an outlet that doesn’t quite exist elsewhere. And for mixtapes. And vacation logs. But I’m also content just to pretend that you’re still out there, my imagined community. Maybe in a couple weeks you’ll click over and happen to read this and tell me about the state of social media in your little corner of the world.

16 responses to “Why I don’t do Facebook (or, the state of my social media, early 2013)”

  1. Smearcase, Mr. says:

    I don’t think I fit into the two big categories vis-a-vis fb/twitter. Facebook, though it is oppressive in certain ways, feels like some approximation of human interaction, often with people I would miss if I didn’t interact with them there. Twitter, though I think this has changed with more threading, always feels to me like an infinite number of people talking at the same time.

    The downside I do experience with fb is that people seem to think we’re in touch when they know what’s going on with me because I post a lot. I have one old friend who seems to think we’re still friends in some real sense though we have seen each other for ten minutes in the last year because he clicks like when I attempt a witticism. One loves to be liked but friendship does not live by like alone.

    Well and the other downside is that, as John Guare has a character say about the “six degrees” theory, “I find that A) tremendously comforting that we’re so close and B) like Chinese water torture that we’re so close. ” I don’t want to know everyone forever, and I do want the rush of getting back in touch with someone ten years later, not having known what they’ve been up to. I mean, ok, there are a lot of downsides.

    But Twitter is just torture.

    I wish blogs didn’t feel so over. I liked blogs.

  2. Bryan says:

    I guess another way to put it would be that (to me) fb feels like a small town (or at least I imagine it that way, since I have no first-hand experience): everybody up in your grill, too much info too visible all the time, people knowing things about other people without talking about it directly. Twitter to me feels like an urban cafe. You meet the friends you want to meet and while you’re carrying on a conversation you eavesdrop on a bunch more stuff going on at the same time — some conversations, some monologs. I like the everyone-talking-at-once part of it. I had a student once describe it as an ambient stream she could dip into or ignore as needed. And for the last three years it’s been my basic source of headlines & links to news, so it serves some very basic functions.

    I didn’t “get” Twitter, though, until I was following about 200 feeds. Fewer than that and any one feed can dominate in an unpleasant way, or you get lulls. But more than 600 and it seems like I’m missing stuff from people I’d rather not miss. I either need to clean house or create a core list I can use to tune out the stuff that’s sometimes useful but sometimes just noise.

    Thanks for the comment, btw.

  3. jeremy says:

    Bry, I’m still waiting for you to send me a list of accounts that I’m supposed to follow, that are going to change my opinion of Twitter, which I generally find baffling.

    I love this line: “My working theory, in response, is that people divide themselves, consciously or not, into two big categories when it comes to social media: those who are comfortable with their inherited identity (relations of descent), who are more or less at home on Facebook, and those self-fashioning scrappers who prefer voluntary association (relationships of consent), and who are more likely, probably, to be found on Twitter.” But as someone who definitely has cultivated “relationships of consent,’ I still find Facebook too overwhelming, Twitter too impenetrable. And Facebook is not a place where my family congregates; it’s a place where everyone I’ve ever known in the history of my life congregates. It’s too much, people. Too much.

  4. Mister Smearcase says:

    I think maybe I’m using Twitter wrong. Or haven’t added the right people/the right kind of people. Or hate Twitter.

  5. Ivy says:

    I don’t do twitter or face book and I have no urge to do so, despite the fact that my abject and frankly rude refusal irritates some of my friends (actual cf. virtual friends) intensely. I have a linked in account, for all the good it does me. (I can’t even take this seriously, my profile pic has a geyser erupting behind me, for heaven’s sake.) But I just cannot bring myself to care. I don’t want to look at 500 pictures of someone else’s kids, no matter how attractive. I do not think anyone else wants to look at pictures of my step-kids (I know I don’t! :)) or of my dopey dogs, which I DO want to look at. Why would they? Who has the time? But yet I keep calling into this place, where the only person I have ever met in person is Lisa P, and awesome though she is, it can’t just be her that brings me back. So go figure. TGW has something going for it! IMH.

  6. Bryan says:

    I’ll write a Twitter primer for my post next week and include the recommendations I’ve promised Jeremy for too long. It’s not for everyone — I’ll have to dig up Lisa P’s post about why it didn’t work for her — but it brings me a lot of pleasure and has brought some new friends into my life.

    I think Jeremy really gets at part of the reason FB doesn’t appeal to me: “it’s a place where everyone I’ve ever known in the history of my life congregates.” Yeah. And the problem there is that people from various stages all know and expect a different version of me. Too many audiences trying to occupy the same space.

    Ivy! Glad you’re still reading after all these years.

  7. Rachel says:

    I am one of the true believers on TGW, because I really treasure the community we have created. However much time and geography strain it, TGW remains a great place to touch base with that community. For some (me included, lately), the pressure to come up with a more sustained, considered set of ideas can hold us back from posting, but I also love being the audience for (& sometime author of) those efforts. To me, it feels much more meaningful than the running commentary of Facebook or Twitter, where it can be difficult to separate the content from the noise.

    The way Facebook behaves so cavalierly with all the personal information of millions of people sickens me a bit. And you guys are right that it’s difficult to maintain a unified online persona for anyone who might be looking. I am not the same with family members, students, old acquaintances, current-day friends, and professional contacts, nor do I wish to be. It sounds exhausting.

    That said, I recently hosted a friend from high school for the weekend, and she and I spent hours on HER Facebook account looking up all our our old gang. I learned who is wildly successful, who is sick, who is divorced, who is dead, who recently renovated her kitchen. I saw photos from the 20th reunion (which both of us skipped). It was a lot to take in all at once, and a daily feed of that stuff would probably overwhelm my present sense of self. Does that make any sense? All the life events just seemed flattened out. Twitter offers useful information from time to time, but I prefer to listen rather than talk. I would love it if someone could explain to me how Facebook replaces (or even supplements) real-life contact in any meaningful way.

    Mostly this post reminded me that I want to stay in better touch with my beloved TGW crew, whom I think of all the time.

  8. Smearcase, Mr. says:

    I feel almost like a defender of facebook here. The following is going to seem to contradict what I said above, but doesn’t, I promise, in ways that would be a long story!

    How Facebook supplements real-life contact in any meaningful way, a story: M was a friend of my sister’s before she was a friend of mine. I said hello to her one day at a regional school orchestra thing where she was very far in front of me in the viola section and she started hanging out with my little crowd of bookish misfits. We were close-ish. My iconic memory with M is that, after college, when we were both estranged from our mutual friend, probably my best high school friend, I visited her in Bloomington where we got stoned and wrote a mean song about Mutual Friend while M played what we realized the next day was the chords from the Oreo commercial on her guitar. If you are ever really upset at someone, I recommend writing a cheerful, rhyming song with spiteful lyrics about them. M settled down in Louisville. We emailed every few years.

    Now we have this little simulacrum of a friendship again. It’s not like really being in each other’s lives, but it’s really much more satisfying than every third year saying “do you still live in Louisville?”

    Even beyond that, though, it supplements my interactions with people in ways that may not seem all that substantial. There’s something pleasant about finding an interesting link and instantly sharing it with anyone who cares to click through. And of course it’s gratifying when you think of something clever to say and a dozen people take a second to say, with an effortless click, “yeah, that’s totally funny.” It ain’t My Dinner with Andre but I don’t know, it can be lonely having friends spread across the country. A nudge from someone you think fondly of is sometimes important.

    The parts that are aggressively uninteresting are manageable. Someone I absolutely didn’t remember from elementary school added me and turned out to be on there to post pictures of her daughter’s dance recitals. I hid her from my feed.

    I get the thing about not being the same person with everyone. My first grade teacher added me on fb, for fuck’s sake. She is probably not that crazy about seeing me say things like “for fuck’s sake.” Mostly it doesn’t worry me, though I couldn’t say why exactly as I’m sometimes bothered by that stuff when crowds mix in real life. Sometimes lately I worry that I’m going to offend my few religious friends when I saw mean things about religion, but then if that happens, we’ll either have a conversation about it or they’ll hide me from their feed or something.

  9. Bryan says:

    @ 7: “Mostly this post reminded me that I want to stay in better touch with my beloved TGW crew, whom I think of all the time.” This was, I hope, discernible as the strong subtext of this post.

    I don’t know abt FB firsthand from anything. Everything I said is my fears about it, not experience. But I wonder how people who aren’t on Twitter experience things like what’s going on in Boston the last 24 hours. I can’t imagine not having Twitter in situations like that. Even when it turns out to have been some illusion of a participatory police procedural in which everyone was wrong for the first several attempts to name the suspect. If I were limited to CNN or the Times I would feel like I was getting the unfolding story through a wall from someone who was mumbling.

  10. Rachel says:

    That makes a lot of sense, Smearcase. Thanks for offering a cool example. I do sometimes get into a cycle of not contacting friends because we haven’t talked for so long. That sounds counterintuitive, but when there’s so MUCH to catch up on, that can be a deterrent, too. So Facebook could be a (mostly) effortless way of staying in conversation with people you want in your life? Is this possible without being too much to maintain, in terms of choosing privacy settings and being clever and whatnot? (I mean, people post photos of themselves skydiving or dining in Paris, not vacuuming, right?)

    There seems to be a growing consensus that phoning or even emailing is a huge imposition on people’s time. But is this because we are getting conditioned to reply (and expect replies) immediately? Has Facebook contributed to those expectations, or is it just the pace of technology more generally?

  11. Bryan says:

    I’d like to bring back old technologies of communication for intimate relationships. Letters, phone (or even Skype), maybe even email, but just with people I like. I hate it when I get random calls from people I didn’t give my number to personally, but I’d love a monthly phonecall from my best friends. I hate email because it’s such an onerous and invasive part of work, but I kind of miss the early days of email discussion lists among close friends. (They just got overdone and sometimes the wrong people were invited.) Facebook seems potentially out of control to me for reasons listed above, although I’m aware there are things I miss out on. If not Twitter, can I talk you guys into Tumblr? Or the comments section of TGW?

  12. ssw says:

    When I was recently traveling for a week and a half on my own, I sent out some postcards. Namely these were for my parents, my two grandma’s, etc. but it did feel important to keep up the letter writing/written communication method. And with certain friends, I’ve written letters back and forth for almost 20 years. It’s like a mutual appreciation we both share about the written word. There’s something immediate, and intimate about that. You have to make a big effort to keep it in your life. I think my friends MOSTLY forgive my inclination to also write a lot via email, and really mean it, and want to communicate even though it’s email. I’m not sure it’d be good or bad to ‘print those all out.’ I’m quite sure a lot of communication is lost in a way that all my letters are still in my possession. I haven’t recently taken any big interest in printing out all my electronic communication. I can’t even get to making one of those fancy picture books young friends of mine do that capture their most recent year in pictures. Shouldn’t capturing my life in pictures or via old computer files be someone else’s job? I just keep thinking my most important focus should be living my life, not just capturing it. I can commit to keeping old computer harddrives–kinda like a modern day initiative that will never happen in my lifetime, but would make a good project (yes mom and dad, I’m talking to you–putting your slides on DVD someday–ha! it ain’t gonna happen…till we make it happen!). Facebook is a bit trickier. I really like your ideas Smearcase about why you can keep some people marginally closer than in other ways, but still not have to work to hard, and I really think there’s something to whether or not you’ve generally felt good about your prior networks of identity and there’s some consistency there–or if you were trying to get out, change from your past, reinvent yourself, etc. I was a hopeless advocate for a definition of integrity that means your actions lined up with your behavior and that this would be consistent over time. Even Gandhi my hero wasn’t consistent about himself–no one can be. Facebook can be super weird. When I get way too much dumb information about some people, I definitely quiet their presence. My impression is that different generations use the technology differently. For my age, it was directly connected to my 20th class reunion-within weeks, I had a ridiculous number of friends from my hometown. Not to say that’s all bad–some people have been a light-hearted and welcome return to my sense of community and home (I like feeling connected, being part of something). The others I think I just kinda ignore? I would NEVER do Twitter. To me that sounds like torture. If in dire situations, I need a small check in about something in the Twitter world (rarely happens) I have good sources to turn to :)
    Wow. I could talk about communication tools and social media much more/longer than I thought. Great post Bryan!!

  13. Farrell Fawcett says:

    Bryan! This issue of how to be connected to friends and family in our new world is constantly on my mind. Thanks for tackling this. And for all the helpful commenters too. Like others here, I still feel an absurd fondness and gratitude for what TGW is for me. It’s weirdly grounding.

    I promise I will post something soon!

  14. Smearcase, Mr. says:

    I bought a typewriter at a flea market. And a ribbon. I think I posted on facebook “does anyone want letters?” but I can’t remember who said yeah and fb is not searchable that way.

  15. Dave says:

    So at first I disliked Facebook for the single-social-persona reason. I still dislike Facebook for many reasons, but I’ve gotten to be fine with having diverse “friends” on Facebook and only being able to present a single face. I’ve learned to think of facebook as a particular medium where I have a certain audience, and I craft my persona there accordingly. I think of it as kind of a “basic me” persona, one that anyone who got to know me outside a strictly professional context would learn about pretty quickly. That means I edit myself a lot, but I still say enjoyable things. I treat it as a mostly public place, I guess, and of course one that persists in time unlike a conversation in a park. And with that baseline, I’m happy to have relatives as friends, or long-lost friends I don’t have much in common with. If my conservative relatives get freaked out by my being out as gay on Facebook, or by the left-ish links I find myself sharing, I figure they’re adults and can learn to handle it. And anything I would be truly embarrassed by I just don’t put on Facebook, even if I wouldn’t care if some of my friends saw it.

    I like Twitter too, but I don’t get the community aspect of it. It’s kind of a firehose of stuff, and conversations are hard to follow. This is fine if you aren’t that committed to the discussion, but I find it hostile to long or nuanced interactions. It is kind of fun to respond to some more well known tweeter and get a response back, or get retweeted, but for me it’s mostly a feed of chatter that I can turn to when I want to.

    What I miss, and maybe I’ll write a post about this, is the golden days of RSS. I know most of you guys never used it, but it was much better than Facebook or Twitter for a lot of stuff. And it wasn’t owned or centralized, with very limited potential to be commercialized. (Which is why they killed Google Reader, I guess.) Very different, much more utopian and democratic than the current corporate-partitioned internet.