I am the generation that invented Facebook.
In the (British) spring of 2007, I was 25 years old. My best friend suggested I join Facebook to stay in touch with her and my mates back home in autumnal Melbourne. Although I missed Melbourne and I loved its autumn, my first reaction was, “no thanks, I don’t want to Internet-date my own friends.” I warmed to the idea when she reported how much fun she was having “Internet-dating” her own friends - friends who lived in the same city, no less - and how much sense it made for me, on the other side of the world, to do the same.
She was my first Friend on Facebook.
My second friend followed very quickly and was a complete surprise. A girl I hadn’t seen since I graduated high school, and who wasn’t even in my peer year, added me and I accepted. What followed was an expansive, exuberant, sometimes bizarre period of friending. There were my friends at work, and our regular Monday morning upload of photos from the weekend-that-was; what a sweet social relic of the pre-Smartphone age that seems now. There were the people from my life before Facebook; from that year I lived in Oxford, that Summer in Scotland, that Winter in Europe. There was the staff from that pub in Port Melbourne, the cast from that show I did once. Old school friends from the many schools I have attended over the years. Some, not all, ex-boyfriends. People who had been relegated to memories - good ones, mostly - were promoted to friends.
I loved it.
I began each day by logging onto Facebook and updating my status to report the shoes I was wearing that day. Dear reader, it’s true. This was before the crippling intensity of likes and comments; when all of our posts were akin to the thought paradox of Schrödinger cat; until such time as their feelings could be proven, there was no way of knowing if my friends loved, hated or even saw my shoe updates so they existed in perpetual limbo as all of these things, all at once. The optimist I am, if they were seen at all, they were loved. All my relationships were like this poor cat; trapped in a box that may or may not poison them, but alive and well to my mind.
I didn’t heed the first sign of unrest. An old school friend began ranting about Facebook, taking aim at his friends for their banal or insensitive posts or for unfriending him. His passive-aggressive tirades against the injustice of a system that compelled him to listen to other people’s interior lives while also feeling completely ignored was laughable to me at the time. I was yet to be unfriended by anyone, and I still delighted in what my friends posted. I never once considered he may have hated my shoe updates, I just thought he was unhinged.
Things got a little weird when our parents turned up. Did my dad really just join a hate group in vocal opposition to the word “Literally”? Why does my mum write in run-on sentences? Cooler kids than me (for by now I was in my late 20s and pregnant) called it Mummybook. It was where their mums, or their friends who were mums, hung out. Instagram was the new cool hangout and so I branched out there, too. Friends may be fun, but Followers are addictive. The mums were hot on their tails, and it soon became Mumstagram as well.
The inevitable trickle of unfriendings began. That girl I hadn’t seen since I graduated high school and wasn’t even in my peer year. That friend I had met in Florence and who I was so happy to have re-connected with, disappeared once again into the fog of the past. Friends who could have and should have been fond memories were now stinging reminders that I was of no use or interest to them anymore. By now, I wasn’t posting about my shoes, I was posting about my work, my kids and my politics. It was deep and the rejection felt personal. To unfriend is to un-remember and I wanted to remember.
It was through that eternally connected system that I discovered my first friend on Facebook was having an affair with the husband of a friend from the cast of that show I did once; a truly bizarre coincidence and one that would have otherwise remained unknown. After an unexpected disagreement about this, my very first friend on Facebook was no longer my friend on Facebook, and no longer my friend in real life.
But it was also through this eternally connected system that I was able to crowdfund an ambitious work project when a motley crew of Facebook friends from all my past lives came out in support. I should have felt grateful and heartened, but instead I felt unworthy and exposed. Their kindness meant I would be forever answering to a large audience of “friends”, by now practically strangers, who owned a tiny piece of me and could access and reject me whenever they wanted. I tried to make up for my inadequacy by reigning in my less palatable attributes and my political leanings. I tried being nothing but positive; liking, commenting, encouraging, sharing. I tried supporting others in their own crowdfunding campaigns, giving things away to friends and strangers. But nothing soothed me and I felt like there was Facebook me and the rest of the iceberg that was at continual risk of either exploding or imploding. I felt like my so-called unhinged friend probably felt 10 years earlier, and I was ashamed for not recognising his pain at the time.
More than 20 years ago, when Mark Zuckerberg and I were still in high school (different high schools), the first large-scale psychological study into the effects of the sensationalist news cycle linked negative news to limiting beliefs and pessimism in human beings. Many more studies of this nature have been conducted since, some focusing specifically on social media. The hypothesis was confirmed: we believe the world is bad and getting worse because most of the news we are presented with is bad and getting worse. This is not only a limiting but completely unreasonable belief; there are almost eight billion people on this blue planet and their days are overwhelmingly filled with the kinds of banal but benign activities that define daily human life. Acts of love and respect between humans are far more common than acts violence and disrespect. And while this is a nuanced topic that is geopolitcally weighted, and there is always work to do, it is unreasonable to believe that any meaningful percentage of that eight billion people is engaged in intentional wrongdoing at this moment. Bad things happen, of course; we can and must dismantle systems and beliefs that perpetuate them. But if the world is so deeply affected by bad people doing bad things, I would be unable to sit here and write this without violence or retribution knocking on my door. So why do I feel so afraid and inadequate where I never used to?
I tried time off, but the email notifications persisted. Messenger persisted: “Are you OK?” came the concerned messages from friends who had rarely, if ever, interacted with my posts but still noticed my absence. I tried boundaries, but Facebook isn’t designed that way. The unfriendings and unexpected disagreements continued, not to mention the sponsored posts aimed at me, by now comfortably settled into the middle-aged market who must want parenting tips and to lose weight. My belief that the world is good, that my friends are my friends, and that my life and pursuits are valued, was wavering. My self-worth was low and my screen time was high.
I am the generation that invented Facebook but I am quitting Facebook. I am doing it to preserve two things that I hold more dear than unbridled connectedness; the belief that humans are mostly good and that I am remembered fondly by most whom I have met along the way. I am putting all my old friends back in the box of the past - on a network that may or may not poison them - and I am going to believe that they are OK.