A few months ago, I decided to deactivate my Facebook account.
My initial reason for leaving was that I was spending too much time on the site in proportion to the benefit that I was getting in return. Looking at photos created by various friends-of-friends and acquaintances has the interesting property of seeming to be very "important" and even somewhat necessary. Seeing where high school acquaintances had gone on vacation similarly seemed to be somewhat relevant, as was learning where everyone had gone after graduating from college, where everyone was working, and what new friends they had made beyond what I knew from high school, even though I hadn't interacted with many of them in over five years. But, like 90% of the users who are "Lurkers", I rarely contributed anything to the site, and beyond the yearly influx of "Happy Bday!!!" posts, not much said back to me either. As a corollary, most of the news coming in to my news feed wasn't from the people who were most important to me, but rather the people who were most active on Facebook:
Since I've left, I realized that what I was wrestling with was a somewhat more fundamental struggle: a struggle over the meaning of friendship and acquaintaince itself.
Inevitably, over the course of a lifetime, there are many hundreds, if not thousands, of acquaintances that enter and exit our lives. I had something like 1,150 friends on Facebook when I left. Some of them have stuck, like best friends from high school, favorite past coworkers, and people with whom I've spent considerable time with. However, a great majority of acquaintances are temporary -- people I met once or never really talked to -- and it's healthy to let these relationships go. In fact, up until just a few years ago, it wasn't possible to stay updated on everyone's latest flings, and people were doing just fine. Knowing the intimate details of a person I met once, down to the costumes they wore last Halloween and the type of drinks they drink in their party pictures, wassn't really important to my daily life. But based on the way in which Facebook is structured, friends are a permanent feature of a user's network. As every Facebook user knows, even though most people don't pop up on your news feed regularly, you'll still come across them from time to time.
For me, Facebook wasn't even a tool that fosters maintaining real relationships with old friends (and I mean real life friends). For me, it somewhat detracted from the genuine catching up that happened when I actually ran into someone from my past. I love the mystery of running into people, and learning about where they've been directly from them, rather than from a secondary feed of snippets and status updates from their manually-curated Facebook profiles.
Aside: I have a good idea for a tragic movie based around a similar idea. Call it "The Profile":
Geeky dude looks up his crush on Facebook and studies it meticulously, learning about what music, clothing, and activities she's in to. With the rigor of a high-schooler preparing for the SATs, he learns how to impress her given what he learns from her profile. When they finally meet face-to-face, they end up hitting it off, because by chance they are in to exactly the same stuff. They go on a few dates, have a good time together. But after they spend time together, the irony steps in: the girl looks through the guy's profile, way back in the past, and learns that he isn't "cool". There is tumult in the relationship, neither side knowing what to make of what seemed to be legitimate. In the end, the moment of anagonorisis comes when both realize that when their profiles are removed from the story, they both would have gotten along just as they were, not like the portraits of idealized selves that they painted on their profiles.
Wouldn't at all surprised to see this in theaters soon. Anyways, back to my story
I've found the power of a phone call to be remarkable -- since I've left I've spent more time calling friends, which more often than not results in lengthy discussions about how things have changed, reflections on old times, and much storytelling and sharing. It's hard for me to justify looking through people's lives, when I wouldn't even have anything meaningful to talk about with them face-to-face or on the phone. The one drawback to leaving Facebook lies here as well: it's sometimes difficult to track down someone's phone number without the service. However, I haven't found it difficult to have a mutual acquaintence share a phone number withme in any of the situations where this has happened.
I still get the most important social news through friends, which in my post-college life has consisted mostly of who got engaged with who, and who got arrested. My college roommates and I have maintained our email list, just as I've stayed in touch with people individually over email, chat, and phone. A few people have even emailed me directly, asking "Did you block me on Facebook?" No, I just left.
Another wonderful positive is that I've gotten recovered a whole bunch of time for myself. Although I probably only spent around 15-20 minutes on Facebook a day, that really adds up in the aggregate. In that kind of time, I've managed to do quite a few different things, like getting more sleep, reading more, exercising, keeping my apartment clean, and spending time with people in the real world. When I want to waste time on the web, there are still plenty of places on the web I can find links that are relevant, like Hacker News, Arts and Letters Daily, and my Google Reader feed.
One of the most surprising results of leaving is other people's responses to this. "But you need to have a Facebook!" "How will you keep track of your friends?" "How will people find you?" None of these things have been a problem.