Remember those graphic films they showed in high school to warn you about the dangers of dabbling in certain activities? Like driving recklessly—or smoking marijuana? According to one I recall, taking drugs invariably led to eating paint, jumping off buildings, and hallucinations involving Jesus. (An impressionable youth, I was forever afterward terrified of antibiotics.)
There ought to be such a film about Facebook.
I’d heard about people addicted to the social-networking site, stories of folks getting fired for posting inappropriate material or for spending too much time doing status updates. There were reports of people compulsively checking their page, even at weddings or funerals. But I never thought it could happen to me.
I joined Facebook a year ago, but I can’t remember why I thought it was a good idea. I’d heard the word “networking” bandied about, which sounds harmless enough. I also like to stay close to my nieces and nephews. In conversations with them, however, I’d discovered that e-mail was more or less the Lascaux Cave paintings of communication forms.
For the first few weeks, I was both thrilled and unnerved by my power to “friend” or not as I wished. One day, when I was feeling particularly ornery, I declined a friend request simply because the person’s page indicated she liked the movie Forrest Gump. Given half a chance, I could easily become a ruthless dictator.
I was equally fascinated by the window Facebook offered into the lives of my friends. I eagerly awaited new “status updates,” as well as the new videos, links, and photos people posted. Just like that, I became Gladys Kravitz.
That’s the dirty secret about Facebook: With the click of a mouse, you’ve become a nosy neighbor, worse so because it’s mostly about people you do not actually know. You are sucked into a vortex of banal information about people that, were there degrees of not knowing someone, would register off the charts. Yet you become consumed. You find yourself checking your smartphone in the rest room while out to dinner with friends. You get up in the middle of the night to check your page because…well, because something somewhere might be happening.
At one point, I became obsessed with someone who was trying to sell his car for well over its Blue Book value. Oh, how it vexed me! What a scam, I thought. Who the hell does this guy think he is? I regularly checked Facebook for updates on the guy’s progress.
I did not know this person, nor was I in the market for a car. Moreover, the guy lived more than 2,500 miles away. It had absolutely nothing to do with me. Nothing. And yes, I’d even taken the time to research the Blue Book value of a stranger’s automobile. I’m not proud of it—I’m just telling it like it is.
Then I got into an argument with my husband on Facebook, and realized maybe I had a problem. We’d had a playful exchange, commenting on each other’s page, and it somehow escalated into an argument. All via Facebook. Mind you, we were sitting at our separate computers but 30 feet from one another.
I was perseverating even more than usual, updating the page every two seconds and awaiting his latest salvo, when suddenly I realized that my husband, with whom I enjoy a loving, happy marriage, had de-friended me.
It was just so easy to get carried away. You take such glee in your repartee, and you’re emboldened by the computer scrim of anonymity. You become faceless, rather amorphous, and it’s so much easier to filter your identity in 140 characters. I don’t have bad breath or food in my teeth by being a Facebook friend, nor can my “friends” ask me to drive them to the airport at 6 on Sunday morning.
I suppose this is the new backyard fence, a new way of communing. We are social creatures after all, and trafficking in the banal is as old as banality itself. But I’ve wasted valuable, irreplaceable hours of my life noodling on a website that only occasionally enlightens me, and clearly doesn’t enlarge my spirit or psyche. And it’s so easy to avoid everything else in your life by taking an inordinate interest in the activity of strangers.
I asked my husband, face-to-real-face, to re-friend me. It took some fortitude—and methadone—but I managed to delete the Facebook application from my iPhone, and I unplug the Internet when I’m on the computer. I have to believe there are more meaningful ways to waste my time.