This past February, I ended a six-and-a-half-year relationship with Facebook.
It had become the most dysfunctional area of my life, and ending things with the site proved just as difficult as ending things with a boyfriend. It brought up a lot of questions about myself, my relationships, and whether or not I was actually the problem.
I joined Facebook as soon as I got my college email address in 2006. I was thrilled, as we all were in those days, to get access to something so exclusive. And for years, I used it as we all did: I joined groups titled with Wes Anderson quotes to let everyone know I was very hip and posted song lyrics tweaked to fit that “Bridey Heing is ___” format to prove how deeply analytical I was at the age of 18. And let’s just be honest, Facebook back then was great because it was simple and structured.
I studied Political Science and am in general a very political person. I’m not sure at what point we all got together and decided that social media is not the place to talk about politics, but I never quite honored the agreement.
I also didn’t take very seriously the norm of not addressing things like racism and sexism on a friend’s feed because, to me, it was always shocking when someone I enjoy spending time with was suddenly bigoted. Like the Facebook feed is somehow a sanctuary where you can project whatever you want and then not be questioned.
It’s the Internet, dude, not a diary. If you wouldn’t say, “I hate poor, urban non-whites,” to me in public, why would you post a stupid cartoon that says as much with bad sarcasm?
That was the crux of my problems on Facebook later in our time together. I started getting into more and more “Facebook fights” or discussions, depending on who ended up engaging in the debate. On other people’s feeds, I tried to be extra nice and often not engage at all. But on my feed, I posted links and commentary on a lot of national and international issues.
Some people’s contributions were very constructive and interesting, others were basically name calling and telling me to shut up because no one cares. And on my own feed no less! But I took it and tried to respond responsibly even when I just wanted to hold down the caps lock and let loose.
Then, one day, I made a bad joke on a racist post about taxes. I was at work that day and didn’t check in with Facebook until that evening. What I found waiting for me was shocking. I hadn’t been mean or aggressive, and yet I was met with a long thread attacking me personally.
I was welfare-shamed because obviously if I support a safety net, I’m benefiting from it. I was called names by people I thought of as friends, people who would never say such things to me if I bumped into them at Walmart. And to add insult to injury, others were liking the comments. Friends were liking the comments that did nothing but tear me down, even after I apologized and deleted the joke.
I went home that night and cried for an hour. Yes, Facebook bullying reduced me to tears at age 24 and I’m not ashamed to say it because that shit is not OK to do to other people, regardless of the ages involved. Once I had composed myself, I considered my options. First, I deleted and blocked everyone involved in the thread, be it through comments or likes. I never wanted to see their names again.
But then I realized that it wasn’t just them that’s the problem. It’s the strange culture we have built up around social media that’s the problem. It’s OK to say those things on Facebook, a platform designed to communicate with people you like and care about, because Facebook isn’t real life. Things on Facebook can’t be taken seriously or personally because it’s only Facebook, and so we can say what we wish.
That night I deleted my account. In the days that followed, I struggled to stay away. Was someone posting pictures I would want to see? Was someone sharing a great article? What would Facebook say about this random thing I’m doing right now? I thought about it incessantly, but fought the urge to log back on just once to see.
I still have to fight the urge, much like fighting the urge to just text an ex to see how they’re doing. I still imagine smart, cutting responses to the insults that were hurled at me and wonder what I would do if I saw the people who posted them in public.
Much like after a breakup, though, I also relearned who I was outside of the context of Facebook. I started reading more and became more private. I had to become comfortable finding things to do other than Facebook, and in turn I started using other social media less and living more in the moment.
It’s a shame that the relationship had to end the way it did. I wish I had the strength to leave sooner, and that I didn’t have to be shaken violently to see the monster Facebook had become in those final months. But it did teach me that those who seek to silence me rather than encourage me are not worth the time or effort to keep in my life, even if the effort is just liking their statuses.