I got digitally impulsive last week. I read several stories about Cambridge Analytica and their use of people’s information, then completely jettisoned my relationship with Facebook.
Of course, like the dreams I used to have about dying when I was a kid, I wanted to immediately get back on to see what repercussions there’d be from leaving the social media site. Would there be an avalanche of requests to stay, equal in outpouring to birthday wishes from acquaintances? Would my comments and likes and rare postings gain followings over time?
I joked about Facebook withdrawal the next morning…and then asked my wife if I could take a look under her name. Lo and behold, I didn’t show up anywhere. I’d disappeared from conversations, and wasn’t even my wife’s husband anymore; she was newly listed as being without any relationship.
We tried to type my name in on her page but Facebook wouldn’t have it. I was dead to their world, not even a ghost.
Was it wrong what I did, a silly moment of impulsivity that would have deeper repercussions? I told myself I could use my wife’s account for work purposes, searching out people and making contact where whitepages.com and other sites no longer sufficed. But I also noted how I’d never been all that keen on utilizing people’s public Facebook conversations in the first place; they may be legal to lean but that doesn’t mean such practices are all that ethical, especially when most people forget how social a forum social media really is.
Witness all the trouble a kid I used to babysit got in trying to be ironic within an online discussion, leading to felony charges and a negotiated probation.
“Am I naive, or am I cynical? I assume my life has long been a well-worked information mine. I carry a transponder in my pocket; my credit card is a mercantile tracking device; EZPass knows where I’ve been at what speed; every keystroke and Google search has been recorded for what will pass as for all time,” wrote a friend — on Facebook — around the same time I was jumping overboard. “I never self-protected on Facebook because I figured they were way ahead of me and always would be. After all, they manufactured both the holes and the putty to stop them up with. I entered into an implicit agreement to let them use me so I could use them…”
Why couldn’t I have written that, I asked myself, and simply applied more putty to my privacy protections online? Then I could continue liking all my friends’ endlessly savvy writings, shaping my own thoughts alongside theirs.
Instead I’ve been looking ahead at my newly Facebook-free world, filling it with things I’ve let slip over the last nine years. I’ve been reading the newspaper each morning, ads, obits and funnies included; it’s a place where I actually know many of the people putting it together each day. I’m taking the dog for walks, reading novels, finishing entire issues of the magazines I subscribe to. I’ve been catching up with friends in person and on the phone (and realizing those most responsive are not social media users). I’m spending more time reading and answering emails. I’m writing more, getting out for dinner with greater regularity, and entertaining at home several nights a week.
Do I take the next step and try eschewing the omniscience of Google, even though one of my oldest friends is working there after years in the journalism field? I’ve unplugged the Amazon Echo in our kitchen, choosing to utilize its speaker solely as a light-show. I started spending more time on Instagram and YouTube, but then realized they were owned by my digital nemeses, too. Plus, I realized posting things I thought might be cool was really no different than any of the endless bragging I’ve long thought so much of social media was about.
What am I missing? It was nice validating thoughts, and getting a few disparate opinions included into my feed (things I’d set up over time). But it feels healthier enjoying dialogue outside digitally-manufactured bubbles that are basically just the product of some greedy algorithm. I’m enjoying removing parts of my life from the endless business orientation of so much that is “social” these days.
It was fun seeing all those events that punctuated daily Facebook feeds. But who can get to all, if any? Besides, those that really need my attendance will know how to reach me in other ways.
Instead of staring into my phone at all times, I’ve started allowing myself to sit and stare off into space. I’m teaching myself how to enjoy daydreaming and deep memory journeys once again. It’s enlivening to know that my meandering mind is again discovering connections and forming ideas that are all mine, again. I can once more order my own world idiosyncratically, without fear of it having been made to order based on how I ordered it before. I can appreciate the oddities of great art and literature without doing so via online quizzes and lists. I can wander the way we all once did among the stacks of a library, letting happenstance lead us to discovery, maybe even catharsis.
I think back at this moment, for instance, to an essay my father taught me to appreciate years ago: E.M. Forster’s “My Wood.” In it the great novelist talks of buying a bit of property and thinking his way into a corner, a prison of ownership, through contemplation of his riches.
“Property makes its owner feel that he ought to do something to it. Yet he isn’t sure what. A restlessness comes over him, a vague sense that he has a personality to express,” the great, soft English wit wrote in a loquacious manner no longer fit for most to read. “Creation, property, enjoyment form a sinister trinity in the human mind…It is, as Shakespeare said of lust, ‘The expense of spirit in a waste of shame;’ it is ‘Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.’ Yet we don’t know how to shun it. It is forced on us by our economic system as the alternative to starvation. It is also forced on us by an internal defect in the soul…”
Of course, we being social creatures built upon webs of self-reference (and loathing), there’s still a part of that wants to advertise all such things, to post them instantly, and maybe even create a whole website to promote ourselves. But then, I think, what good would that be in the end? Maybe I could profit from it. Surely, if I did, someone else would profit off that. In the end, instead of art or any modicum of understanding, I’d simply be feeding someone’s avarice for power.
Better, I figure, to simply order the process of such thinking into an essay, such as this. To mimic the culture handed down to us through the ages, rather than feed some newer entrepreneurial scheme. Better to save it all, old school, for real conversation. Or best of all, restart one of E.M. Forster’s novels while lying in bed next to that woman who used to be my Facebook wife, but is still the partner I want to and can reach out and actually touch.
Better to simply be.