Over the Christmas break I decided to take my real first Facebook holiday since joining the social network site back in 2007. I was sensing the need for an electronic rest and so completely switched off Facebook for one month. I am back on Facebook now but the short absence was invaluable and my approach to it is far more casual than it was before the hiatus.
When one first joins Facebook, their ‘friends’ consist of family and actual friends, and from there, depending on how a person chooses to use the site, they move out in concentric circles ‘friending’ more distant contacts, old school mates, former work colleagues, current and past associates and basically anyone else they cross paths with. British Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has proposed that humans can really only comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships; yet the average number of ‘friends’ a person has on Facebook is 388. Plenty of people, myself included, have more than that, which certainly doesn’t mean we are any more likeable or friendly than any other person; it probably just means we use the social media site as more of a networking tool. While I have personally found that the more connections maintained on Facebook the more valuable it becomes, it has also meant that my time tended to become more consumed by the lives of every single person I had ever known.
However, if Facebook is somewhat of a distraction on a desktop computer, that certainly increases when accessed via a smartphone. At any moment, waiting for a train, watching TV or walking down the street, I can read people’s comments, see recently uploaded photos and share my own articles and observations. And whether one likes to admit it or not, the instant gratification of being connected to other people and seeing their likes, comments and thoughts is highly addictive. As human beings we are naturally social animals; we desire to know more about others and for others to know more about us. Facebook feeds that desire. There is literally no end to the amount of time one can spend on Facebook. You can scroll and scroll and scroll but there will always be another post and another photo about someone you know. A recent British survey indicated that 72% of adults were spending their last waking moments in bed updating or checking their friends’ statuses which was often reducing their actual sleep time below what was needed in a healthy individual. And each morning I know my news feed will be brimming over with exactly the information I am interested in based on the various pages I have connected with, so the most appropriate thing to do every morning is of course to check Facebook. If I want news, it’s there, if I want a morning prayer, it’s there, if I want a traffic update, it’s there. Why read traditional news media when I can tap into my chosen mix of information intertwined with the ‘news’ of the people I know? Facebook is a one-stop-shop.
I have a number of friends who each year ‘give up’ Facebook as part of their Lenten penances, but I have never opted to do that because I saw staying on Facebook as a positive way to communicate, stay connected and build relationships. Of course I am aware that a phone call or face-to-face meeting is far more enriching than a pixelated connection. However there is no way that I could reach out in person to the number of people that I could via Facebook, short of quitting my job and becoming a full time socialite. Staying in touch via social media is certainly not the best or only way to communicate, but if over one billion people are on Facebook it seems to me certainly a place to be present.
You might be thinking that after my Facebook holiday I am declaring an end to my Facebook membership altogether but that is not the case. It is true that without Facebook I had more time to think quietly or talk with those around me. I really enjoyed the complete break from knowing who was doing what. Surprisingly I did not really feel the temptation to put up posts about the high price of tomatoes or share that cute video of my daughter spinning in circles but I certainly felt like I was somewhat out of the loop. Until I turned off Facebook, I did not completely realise how much perspective I was gaining from the various views and opinions of the posts that came across my news feed. I also missed out on the daily life stories of my family and close friends, which without Facebook I would not have been able to ‘participate’ in otherwise. I will look forward to the next opportunity to holiday from Facebook, but in the meantime I will do my best to use it well and with a greater degree of reserve.
Bernard Toutounji writes at www.foolishwisdom.com