Why I Quit Facebook


The Social Network, Columbia Pictures, 2010

by Justin E. H. Smith

I joined Facebook in September, 2007. My ‘timeline’, when I studied it for the last time yesterday evening, indicated very little activity until around April, 2008, at which point I, apparently, began posting frivolous status updates about my personal life, my tribulations and thoughts, roughly once a week. A style began to emerge over the coming months, one that was hardly original, but, I believe, still above average in the craft and care put into it.

I alternated between displays of grand, bullshitting erudition –one early update was a variation on a Latin motto from Leibniz, transformed for the social-networking age: Qui me non nisi renovationibus status mei in Libro Vultuum novit, non novit (‘Whoever knows me only through my Facebook status updates, does not know me’)– and the confessional mode, which I had the presumption to call ‘Montaignean’.

I received my first ‘like’ in February, 2009. I did not understand what it was, or how it got there. I was in Australia, and it was from someone I had known in high school in California.

I’ll skip over some history. By 2010 I had an iPhone, and I had taken to checking for likes every minute or so while walking down the street; I learned even to check for them, surreptitiously, while teaching.

The New York Times put up a firewall, and rather than pay the 99 cents per month required to get around it, I preferred to rely on links posted by my friends: I had 640 of them after all, and collectively they surely made up a reliable team of journalists (I’d estimate 30 to 40 of them were in fact professional journalists; another 200 or so were amateur journalists).

A few weeks ago I decided to get back to the four volumes of À la recherche du temps perdu that remained after I miraculously got through the first three a decade or so ago. But when one attempts to divide one’s attention between (i) page 801 of the Gallimard edition of Proust’s chef d’oeuvre, and (ii) one’s ever-refreshing newsfeed: which do you imagine wins? It is cognitively impossible, I believe, not to prefer the newsfeed. It is glowing and changing, and it doses out what it has to give in easily swallowed, sweet little bits.

That was rock-bottom. I had to cut it off, and set about rewiring my brain, to get it back to the way I know it used to be.

I hasten to add that Facebook is among the most remarkable innovations in human history. In the sweep of centuries it, and the variations that emerge from it, will prove to be more important than books. Books were never themselves fundamental to human learning; in fact their massive proliferation in the Renaissance and early modern periods was at the same time an usurpation and a destruction of established and wonderful technologies of learning– in particular, practices of memorization that would put Julien Sorel to shame.

So it is not that I am sticking with what is true and right, against what is vulgar and corrupted, but only that there are certain projects that I came to value given the precise historical moment of my birth and earliest education, and these projects had come under serious threat as a result of this mighty usurper.

There are other reasons, too, which I would like to list here, from the more personal ones, unique to my own case, to the more general. Some of these have to do with what Facebook had done to me as a user; others with what I see as the troubling failure of Facebook to live up to its real potential.

I am by nature a melancholic person, and for a long time I asked myself whether Facebook alleviated or exacerbated this condition. I finally determined it was the latter. I like to write and to share what I write, and I like it when what I write receives acclaim. But when this cycle of expression-and-gratification is reduced to a few hundred characters followed by a dozen or so ‘likes’, it becomes a parody of the creative process, and impedes any real engagement in that process. It calls to mind this painful indictment from Pascal’s Pensées, written just as if he could foresee the invention of the ‘like’ button:

We are so presumptuous as to wish to be known by all the world and even by those who will arrive when we are no more. And we are so vain that the esteem of five or six people who surround us amuses us and renders us content.

Typically what I have to say takes about 1500-3000 words; anything short of that is a compromise. I would never have dreamt of sinking into the swamp of Twitter-speak, where one is required by some arbitrary rule to substitute ‘u r’ for ‘you are’, and to indulge in other such adolescent vulgarities. But Facebook only partially enables its user to steer clear of texting code. Again, it is not that I do not want to receive gratification from what I have to say, but only that the formal constraints of the status update do not permit me to say it.

Not only for my ability to read, but for my ability to write as well, I began to fear that Facebook was draining away much of the thinking that could have gone into real essays, articles, books. I work in two distinct modes, both academic/scholarly and essayistic/belle-lettristic, and I came to fear that both of them were more stagnant than they might be if I could just pull myself away from the endless exchange of sweet little bits in my social network. But I emphasize that I am really not certain about my final determination that Facebook was an impediment, any more than I am certain that it exacerbated my melancholy: for quite often I had the experience of writing a status update that would then get some thoughts percolating, that would then transform into a blog post, that would ultimately issue in a book review or even, on at least one occasion, a successful book proposal. It’s really hard to say whether on balance it was harmful or helpful. I suppose I just need, now, to test the alternative mode of working, and to see what happens when that all-too familiar, all-too inviting salon is no longer open to me.

Another source of frustration, about which I am much more ambivalent, has to do with the nature of the community one forges on Facebook. A few deep and genuine friendships have emerged out of my years there; some genuinely inspiring intellectual encounters have happened there; some rather mundane but necessary networking has taken place there. It would be dishonest for me to deny the good that has come of it, yet recently it dawned on me that I have a number of important connections with people who are not on Facebook, both intellectual and emotional connections, and in no sense do I feel like they are missing something of me, or I of them. Often, when someone I knew on Facebook wanted to discuss something important with me, they would send me an e-mail instead of a Facebook chat message, as if to signify the importance of the communication by moving into this other forum. I expect this sort of communication will continue.

I’ve said before that I don’t think there’s anything more ‘real’ about so-called real-world friendships. Those, too, come and go, and the truth is I have little interest in finding drinking buddies, or coevals to pursue hobbies with. That’s not my concern, not my existential mode. All I really want to do is exchange ideas with people; Facebook was often fairly useful for this, but as I’ve said I began to fear that the ideas were reduced by the medium, and the nature of their exchange, based as it was in the perpetual ejaculation of short witty insights, often made a mockery of the sort of exchange that was held out as an ideal.

(Am I just getting too serious? In my updates I aspired to be funny. But what is funny in this here eulogy?) 

I was comfortable all along with the equivocity of the concept of friend: I had 640 of them, call them what you will, and some of them were in truth my friends. Some others fulfilled other functions, and some did nothing at all but contribute to my tally. Fine. But again, it strikes me now that it was all somewhat like attending a very long summer camp: people come and go, and if anything worth preserving and cultivating should come about, then this will continue once the summer has drawn to a close.

I have mentioned that some of my reasons for leaving Facebook have to do with my own personal concerns, my projects and the way Facebook perhaps fails to facilitate them. I also mentioned that in my view Facebook is failing to live up to its potential. Recently, when I looked at my wall, it was as if ‘Family Circus’, ‘Marmaduke’, Penny Saver and Reader’s Digest were spilling right off of Gutenberg’s own press: such a wonderful and promising technology, descended into pure idiocy just after its first appearance in the world.

I have in mind in particular this new innovation, whereby whatever trashy meme some friend (in a highly equivocal sense) deems worthy of liking, ends up in my own newsfeed with the purported explanation that such-and-such friend has just deemed it like-worthy. Thus, after having fought so hard to banish Farmville and Cityville and shit like that from my wall, I was now being bombarded with misspelled slogans insisting that Marilyn Monroe’s curves are in fact more beautiful than Lindsay Lohan’s skin-and-bones, or that Obama is alright because he fist-bumps janitors, while Romney by contrast likes to get shoeshines on airport tarmacs (something I truly doubt, by the way). And most recently George Takei, likeable enough in himself, has entirely drowned out, with his good-spirited and sassy mash-ups, any possibility of using that social network for that higher aim for which it briefly held some promise: the exchange of well-thought-out ideas.

All the way back in 2007 there was something about this endeavor that rubbed me the wrong way: it was born of the dormitories, and to some extent it draws us all back into them. Or perhaps I should not say ‘back’: I was a commuter, to a state school, and I lived with my mother. I never lived in a dorm, and I never showed up in a yearbook, to be judged for my hotness or my plainness. The culture that produced Facebook is one that I never knew, and do not like. An image of that culture invaded, and invades, my mind every single time I hear the name of Mark Zuckerberg’s venture, and every time I hear the name of Mark Zuckerberg.

I still believe Internet-mediated social networks will prove to be more important in human history than printing presses. But my social network will not be Facebook.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website