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.