My Digital Hangover: On Deactivating Facebook

On Leaving Facebook

I’ve spent the past two months on a self-imposed ban from Facebook. I didn’t like the way it had crept into my daily routine or its corrosive effect on my time and family life. When I actually dreamed about a status update, I knew it was time to take a break.  I needed to compare my Facebook ‘withdrawal’ with something else, so I decided to forgo my evening glasses of red wine too. What would be harder to give up I wondered, the liquor or the likes?

For the first few days of leaving Facebook, it felt like I had left a party too soon, just before the main event when it was all going to get really good. I suffered from a kind of information-underload anxiety and I didn’t know what to do with the new found stillness in my life or with the silence. Very quickly however, I realized that there is never going to be a main event, that Facebook is always going to be more soggy party nibbles and pineapple chunks than sushi.

Interestingly, both Facebook and alcohol are implicated in situations we commonly mistake for sociability. The two things play a role at the interface between our inner and outer lives; booze and Facebook make it more possible to ‘reach out’ without really risking anything real. We say a drink will ‘loosen us up’, that Facebook enables greater social interaction, but actually, both alcohol and status updates are shields behind which we hide and present funnier, happier, freer, more successful versions of ourselves.

Researchers have commented on Facebook’s ability to engender what is known as ‘ambient awareness’. This awareness, comprised of thousands of little clues gleaned over hundreds of updates, supposedly reveals everything about the intricacies of our friends’ lives without them explicitly telling us. Researchers say this ambient awareness is comparable to the subtle things we pick up in one-to-one interactions such as eye contact, body language and tone of voice, so why doesn’t it feel like that?

Studies show that when we have positive interactions on Facebook, we get a hit of the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin whereas too much alcohol has an inhibitory effect on its release. Oxytocin is the feel-good’ hormone that surges through postpartum mothers encouraging bonding and breastfeeding; it’s the hormone eddying through us when we orgasm or fall in love. But not all our online interactions are positive and I wonder if the oxytocin boost we get from Facebook is partly thwarted by the fact that our exchanges happen in front of a computer or over handheld devices. Our ‘real-life’ oxytocin surges are rewarded by touch, intimacy, and meaningful eye contact whereas frankly, Facebook leaves us hanging in a kind of ‘social medius interruptus.’ We go offline and are suddenly alone negotiating a confusing juxtaposition of closeness and absence, digital coolness and heart-centred warmth.

To my surprise, the warm, fuzzy feeling that I have missed is not of the red wine variety but of Facebook. I’ve missed the way it defies global time zones enabling me to laugh and cry with friends and family who live continents away. I have missed the human drama of the platform, the humour, the pathos and the support. But I have not missed the subtly undermining subtext of Facebook; the passive aggressive games of exclusion and inclusion that go on; the milieu of competition; the frustration that what could be a powerful tool for change is instead a global Village of the Bland. But most of all I have not missed the uncomfortable feeling that somehow, in some way, our blind passion for Zuckerberg’s rambling digital labyrinth might just be our downfall.

I have realized that much of my unease around Facebook is fuelled by the persona of its creator. If only Zuckerberg were more likeable, if only the network had not been born out of his need for vengeance. Hell, maybe if his teeth weren’t so vampirey it would all feel better. The fact is that we feed Facebook incredibly private data but its figurehead doesn’t have enough of the PR-friendly humanitarian guru chic of a Steve Jobs to make us feel comfortable.

For many, especially those in isolated or isolating circumstances, the sociability of Facebook is not just entertainment but a lifeline. However, just as some people’s relationship with alcohol can be unhealthy, our dealings with social media can also be addictive. Certainly for me, status updates have never been a casual affair ~ perhaps it’s the writer in me, perhaps the egomaniac, or maybe it’s because I know that to have a free voice is a privilege in a world where so many still die for that right. With each update, I was simultaneously hiding and casting myself out for validation and before I knew it those little ‘like boxes’ became life-sustaining as food. But, I tell you this: Facebook ‘likes’ are the currency of the damned. Damned you are to the refresh button, damned you are to the desire for validation, damned to the digital thing you think loves you but in fact just increases the value of its IPO.

Yet here I am, back in the digital space that both inspires and terrifies me but with renewed consciousness. I have learned to make better use of the list functions of Facebook and have streamlined my user experience blocking anyone who is likely to fuck with my oxytocin high. I have learned that when Facebook truly reflects my ‘real life’ social experiences, it works. It augments, it doesn’t replace.  I keep in mind anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s proposal that there is a cognitive limit to the amount of people we can have durable social relationships with (somewhere between 150-230 is the estimated number)**.  I finally see that, as with all long-term relationships, the one we have with Facebook has to be worked at. Sometimes, we’ve got to blow the whole thing apart and sift through the ashes to find the diamonds in the dust and decide if they’re enough to keep us together. Facebook can teach us nothing or it can show us why, how and who we love.

Now, where’s that bloody corkscrew?

**NB: If your Facebook tribe adds up to substantially more than this, consider the possibility that you are mistaking your personal profile for your brand which is more effective as a Page rather than a Profile.

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The Empress’s Old Clothes: On Why Every Ageing Woman Needs Patti Smith

Patti SmithCall me reckless and foolhardy, but I thought de-cluttering the attic would be a constructive way to spend a drizzly London Sunday. Fast-forward three hours however, and I was sitting on my bed in emotional turmoil, weeping over ‘old stuff’.

It all started innocently enough. The initial few feet of clutter comprised a series of dusty suitcases, lined up like dutiful soldiers. The first couple I opened were harmless containing as they did ‘Our Summer Things’. Sandals bent out of shape by last year’s sweat; beach dresses stiffened by seawater; t-shirts smelling of sun lotion from our holiday in Spain. I jumped when a couple of unspent Euros dropped onto the floor and noisily spun themselves into stillness. The next suitcases were more emotional, ‘The Ones With The Baby Clothes’. However, my nostalgia for the newborn days of my daughters was held in check by equally potent memories of how bloody hard it was.  So I happily kept the most precious items, things the girls might like ‘for their own kids’, and let the rest go to Oxfam. And then, just when I thought I was safe, I spotted the mother of all suitcases tucked away at the back of the eaves. Pillar box red and large enough to contain a small horse, it beckoned like Pandora’s Samsonite box.  “Open me” it said.

And so I did.  In it were layers of my old clothes, things I would have been wearing around the time I got together with my husband eleven years ago. I pulled them out one-by-one stroking the fabrics like and old lady finding stray cats. I tried desperately to remember the ‘me’ who wore the clothes, and found that rather like recalling the face of a dearly departed one, you remember the general idea, but the detail is lost. You think you won’t forget, but oh, how you do.

The clothes were all in sizes six and eight (UK sizes) like they belonged to a child. There was the top I was wearing when my husband proposed to me, and a t-shirt I was given when I toured Japan in my singing days. I found one of my few concessions to designer labels, a mint green Malene Birger skirt I bought off a friend who was at my wedding but who I’ve since lost touch with. There was a collection of eclectic items bought on Haight Street during my San Francisco years. “These are my old skins”, I thought to myself, “shredded layer upon layer, and I hadn’t even noticed I was changing.”

I was totally shocked to find these clothes defining moments in my past more powerfully than old photographs. The contents of the suitcase were like some terrible haunting, a ghostly revisiting of my old selves. I found myself almost superstitious about throwing any of it away. Perhaps because these things were there with me in the past, tangible witnesses to who I was then. They held my body, they were next to my skin and now they cannot even begin to contain me.  I couldn’t possibly get one of those tops over my burgeoning bosom now; my old waistline is my new thigh. That I was ever that small and streamlined strikes me as ridiculous and yet there’s a part of me that wants to crawl right back inside these acrylic and cotton castes of my old self.  How ironic it is that at a time when there is physically so much more of me in the world, I am at my most invisible culturally. I look up from Pandora’s suitcase and catch a glimpse of myself in the bedroom mirror.  I notice that I am kind of boggy now, moon shaped bags under my eyes, crevices when I smile. The angularity of my face has gone and there is no definition in my body.  The clothes remind me that I was once a wiry little missile, completely airborne, with a vision and expectations of the world that were arrow sharp. (The fact that I was this way due to lots of cigarettes, habitually skipped meals and a nervous system on fire matters not in my hankering for youth). The body I have now reflects what is needed now; be vigilant it says, buttress yourself against disappointment; scare the off the enemy  with the sheer size of your arse. I am a mother, my family’s frontline of defence, fattening for the domestic pot into which I would happily jump and boil myself if it would save my brood.

My outer appearance reflects my inner state. My mind, like my jaw line is ill-defined, constructed of fuzzy edges. How I long to forge sharp new neurological pathways in my brain or travel across America in a camper van, but instead I stick to what I know is needed for the greater good.  My goals feel less defined because they are less about me and perhaps it doesn’t really matter, but I do seem to find myself in an uncertain sea. Interestingly, the directionlessness I feel is being played out in the very cells of my being as my hormones shift towards menopause. There’s just no routine anymore. Yes ladies, perimenopause starts around age thrity-five and ends around fifty-five; that’s twenty years of chemical ping pong we all have to play without a goddamn bat between us.

I remember my granny  saying that she never felt old, that she never noticed time passing, and I know what she means now. In the Tarot of midlife, I am shifting from the Empress card of  fertility and family to the High Priestess, the goddess within. Sitting with a group of friends recently, I noticed how inward my energy has become. I am no longer reeling things in towards me, but instead am an observer, offering a bit of advice if asked.  On good days, I am journeying from Mother to Wise Woman, on bad days from youthful pretty hot stuff to boggy earthbound sloth. I would be lying if I said I don’t I miss something of the ‘me’ in Pandora’s suitcase; all that delicious youthful power that turns heads and breaks hearts. Now, I’m thankful if I get though a social encounter without breaking wind. But there are compensations; I’ve got funnier as I’ve got older, I have far more permission to be ridiculous now than I did when I was young.  And I have a bosom of Shakespearean barmaid proportions. Proper, bawdy lady bazookas that came free with child-rearing.

For those of you who aren’t there yet, midlife feels like this: You are standing alone in the middle of a large, flat desert plain; the tallest thing for miles is you. In the not so distant distance, a heady black thunderstorm is gathering and starts rolling towards you. Before you see the storm, you can sense it; the air is static and filled with moisture, pockets of heat surge and fall and lightening starts splitting open the sky and skewering the earth.  Man, I really wish I could put a tree somewhere in this metaphor, but there is nowhere to hide and there is nothing to do but stand tall and hope it strikes quickly.

If it had a soundtrack, midlife would be accompanied by the juddering strings of a suspense thriller or perhaps the ghostly crackle and bleep of one of those creepy satellite dishes listening for life on Mars. “Is there life over 50?”  The message is sent out across the universe and if you listen hard enough you can hear the whispers of invisible older women answering, “Yes, don’t be scared.”  But that’s my point, I can’t bloody hear them so I don’t want to throw the old me into the Oxfam bags yet. Where have all my cultural icons gone? Where are the amazing sisters who will pull me through the next phase of my life? Where are the older women who have survived motherhood (yes, it is a question of survival) AND the menopausal storm without resorting to surgery and its demeaning ugly sisters Botox and Microdermabrasion?

As I reached the bottom of the Dreadful Suitcase of Hell, I realized that Patti Smith is the only woman I could think of who can guide me now. She found her voice again at 50 and released a violent warrior of an album in the wake of her midlife fury. And so, with Patti on the CD player I finally found myself able to bag up the past and send it to the charity shop. I did however keep the shirt I was wearing when my husband proposed. That was, when all is said and done, a bloody good day.