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I gave myself a real birthday present this year. I got off Facebook.
Before you roll your eyes and turn the page (click away? finger swipe?), let me assure you that what follows is not a litany of complaints about Facebook’s (no) privacy policies, the aesthetics of Timeline, the politics of News Feed, or the influx of parent and grand-parent users. When my own parents joined Facebook and I was still a member of the 500-million club, I friended them without issue. I never kicked up a fuss about Facebook’s perplexing privacy settings, because I always had mine tightly regulated, and I never posted much, anyway. As for Timeline, I didn’t stick around long enough to use it, though, doctoral student that I am, I suspect it enacts problematic historicization of the beliefs, preferences, doings, and times of its users, whose lives can hardly be said to conform to the ordering dictates of the “line” and its attendant teleology. Timeline for what? Leading where, and when?
I suppose the move toward complete archivization of individual lives is consistent with the increasing number of “adult” users, who might actually have life events worthy of an ordering in time and recounting in (web) space. Maybe. But in my experience of profile making, way back when in my college days, the fun was in the subversion of time—the way favorite things (books, music, films, quotes) from across the years could reside together in a category convened to speak you, the profile creator. The appeal was in the fact that your friends needn’t know who you were in high school or what you’d done, how far you’d come from that awful haircut, from that letter-to-the-editor you wrote your local paper. Facebook wasn’t about telling your whole story, representing the full you, or capturing and flagging all the momentous events of your life. It was more experimental, an invitation to perform, a way to simulate the urban sociality of Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street” with eyes on the screen.
When I deactivated my Facebook account, my mother expressed alarm. Wouldn’t I be missing out on…well…everything? In the first week of my declared exile, she took it upon herself to email me posts that she’d thought I’d like to see: images from a cousin’s wedding; a revealingly flirtatious exchange of “likes” between mutual friends. “From facebook,” her emails were titled; “saw this on fb.”
But wasn’t that exactly the point? I didn’t want to “see this on fb” or know that about whomever. The only guilty twinge I felt stemmed from the fact that it would now be much harder to keep in touch with various extended family and friends in India, some of whom I had only connected with through Facebook in the first place. Then again, if Facebook was our only means of connection, what did it matter? We’d gone this many years with sporadic or no contact; we’d be fine.
And we have been fine. Really. Interestingly, I have found that users in their 40s and 50s express much more skepticism about life after Facebook than my own peers—many of whom inspired me with their earlier deactivations and deletions, or sustained resistance to joining in the first place. Talking with my parents’ peers (with apologies for constructing you as a bloc), I have found myself in the curious position of a Facebook old-timer. I’ve been on Facebook since 2004, I explain to the more recent joinees. I’m tired. I need a break. You’re still enjoying the first flush of pokes (do they do that anymore?) and messages with grade-school friends, but I’ve been there, done that, and baby, it gets old. I feel like my parents must have when, in response to my invitation to see the latest Pixar offering, they looked amusedly and said, “We have no interest in animated movies. We’ve done all that with you kids.”
There is life after Facebook, just as there was life before. The problem for me was always life with Facebook: life with the injunction to update the world about your goings and comings; life with the ever-present spectacle of other people’s doings and desires; life with the time-sucking seductions of social media; life as a big, blue thumbs-up button; life as a “like” if you care; life as a share, share, share.
My colleague and friend, India Currents’ own Kalpana Mohan, recently described her life with Facebook in an essay for The Hindu. “Facebook face-off” detailed her husband’s overly enthusiastic participation in various social networking sites, so much so that she was moved to temporarily unfriend him. Here’s Kalpana on the experience: “[The hiatus] made me think about the many ways in which my husband was uniting the community—with his camera and his computer. Thanks to him, we now had a folder of photographs of every friend or relative, alive or dead. Thanks to him, we had memories—of braces, warts, awards, events, grandparents and all.”
I encourage you to read the delightful piece in full, since I am necessarily extracting here what I find most provocative. Is Facebook actually a tool for uniting communities? Or, given the self-selective processes by which we “friend” friends and the algorithmic processes by which their “news” makes it onto our Feeds, does Facebook simply allow pre-exiting, already united communities to perform their connections?
Does Facebook help us make memories? Does it allow us to keep or have memories? Or, does it actually overwrite our memories, over-determining that which we recall, recollect, and recount to others? I’m not the only one who has had difficulty parsing a “genuine” memory from the photographic or cinematic image of it: of a childhood birthday party, Halloween parade, graduation ceremony.
As Facebook prepares to go public, anointing new billionaires and inaugurating speculation about its next move, I predict many more will move away from and off of it. Those of us who joined at the start know just how draining it has been to look and be looked at, comment and be commented on, like and be liked. My time is not for Timeline. It’s time to face up to that other world of the already living.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.