It’s been a hot topic lately: the effect of social media on people. On our brains, our relationships. Whether it’s possible to quit. Whether it’s helpful to quit.
As an immigrant who traveled four thousand miles away from home, I’ve always considered social media as an enjoyable — even necessary — way to keep up with friends and family, to stay in touch with their activities, their habits, their accomplishments. When my friend got a promotion, I found out on Facebook. When another friend was engaged, I found out on Instagram.
Especially in the first few years of living overseas, my nose was constantly glued to my phone, commenting on every picture, liking every status update. I was terrified to lose touch with old friends.
Plus, I discovered it was important to me to appear to my new friends as though I had many existing friends whose activities were of interest to me, hoping that the new ones would assume my old friends still cared about what happened to me, too.
It was also important to interact with these new friends online, in the expectation that it would lead to real-life closeness. (Spoiler alert, it doesn’t always work like that.)
I friended people left, right and center, in the knowledge that being Facebook friends was tantamount to being best friends IRL. Later on, I got caught up in the politics of who friended whom — was it better to wait and have the other person have to request to be your friend, but risk missing out on the friendship altogether? Or bite the bullet and request Facebook friendship, but then be the lower status friend of the two?
This social calculus took up so much of my free time and energy. It’s hard for me to think about it now, to rationalize why I cared so much about these things. But I really did care. A lot.
In the end, I had over a thousand Facebook friends. A thousand people whose photos, albums, updates, likes, groups, and activity cluttered my timeline. And at some point, I knew something had to change. Why?
The problem of social media dilution.
I challenge anyone to go onto Facebook right now and tell me they know and care about every single person that pops up on their feed.
Most of us can’t. Honestly, we’re not hardwired to be in close personal contact with even three hundred people, let alone one thousand. We can’t bring ourselves to care about that many. There’s no point to keeping in touch.
I did have a handful of friends in the awkward in-between zone where I wasn’t in regular contact, but we were still mutually interested in maintaining the relationship — in other words, the only group of people Facebook is useful for. But those people were swiftly crowded out by the sheer volume of Facebook friends I had who were incredibly tenuous connections.
Some were met on a night out and never spoken to again. Some were friended in anticipation of an in-person friendship that never blossomed. Some were upperclassmen who left after one year, whom I never saw. Some were added when Facebook was new and exciting, and having a bigger number of friends meant you were more popular.
The sources of these false friends were innumerable. What they all had in common was the fact that I didn’t really know them, or care about them. But somehow, being brought to the forefront of my mind every day through social media made me invested. They came to the top of my timeline and suddenly I cared.
It’s hard to let go.
The reason I thought I loved Facebook was that it brought me closer to the people I cared about. It gave me an easy, simple way to remember birthdays, keep up with life events, give excuses to get in touch, see photos, and, importantly, show off my own achievements and pictures to people I was interested in impressing.
But that didn’t happen. My feed was full of noise, not signal.
Social media started to bring out the worst in me. It’s far too easy for me to become jealous, nosey, gossipy — Facebook made it even easier.
I scrolled through miles of promotions, engagements, beach body shots, romantic dinners, new babies, exciting vacations. All on people I hadn’t spoken to in years, but whose lives I was still invested in because I’d been watching from afar for a decade, like my own personal reality TV show.
What’s more, I didn’t want to let go. I was convinced as soon as I “lost touch” with these people, they’d be missing out on seeing my amazing achievements. Or I’d fail to see a hot piece of gossip or drama.
I was afraid of missing out on other people’s lives when even ten years ago before Facebook existed, in the exact same situation, I would have been hard-pressed to remember their first names.
In order to test how much I actually knew about these people, I started playing a game with myself when I was mindlessly browsing Facebook. If a group picture came up, I’d quickly scroll past the name of the person who posted it and then try to guess who I recognized out of the picture.
Nine times out of ten, I couldn’t pick out the person. And in those instances, I forced myself to press that Unfriend button.
A systematic solution.
Of course, that Unfriending Project was haphazard at best. As I unfriended people, Facebook simply re-updated my news feed to show me more people I didn’t care about, who I would just be jealous of, or petty about. I tried deleting en-mass, but it took too much time. Plus, there were people I had to stay at least nominally in touch with, because they were work colleagues or friends’ exes. The time would come when I could unfriend, but not yet, not without being rude.
In the end, I came up with a system. I check Facebook every day, I’m a little ashamed to say. But in this case, it could work in my favor.
Facebook tells you when people’s birthdays are. It makes it so easy to keep those connections on life support — it’s simple to reach out and say “Happy Birthday” to someone you wouldn’t recognize if you ran into them at the grocery store.
It’s so simple to find them and press the button. They won’t miss me, I won’t miss them, and the connections I do cherish on Facebook grow stronger.
I wish I could quit altogether. I can’t.
In all honesty, I struggle with all kinds of social media. I’m prone to fruitlessly comparing myself to others, I’ve gone through phases of constantly checking notifications, and I’ve had to force myself to get off the screens an hour before bedtime, or else I just stay up late scrolling pointlessly.
I really, really wish I could quit. But I can’t.
Facebook is how most of my friends and I communicate nowadays. My pals from far-flung places share memes, tag in comments, invite to events and share photos on Facebook. Not only that, but I can maintain and strengthen relationships with people I’ve only ever met online.
I am fully invested in using Facebook as a human connection tool. While I may not be able to delete, I can unfriend.
That button is so powerful. It lets me turn Facebook back into a place of genuine connection, rather than a place for me to covet and envy and laugh at what other people post. I can sculpt the messages from the people I see.
I’m down to 700 friends now, and I cut out one or two more every day. Some I leave it willingly until next year, knowing it’s too soon to part ways yet. Some I say goodbye to with some regret, because there was a time I’d never have considered unfriending that person. But I know it’s manageable, I know I have a plan, and I know I’m on my way to a happier, healthier relationship with Facebook.
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