Last Sunday night, between putting away my laundry and brushing my teeth, I deactivated my Facebook account. I’d like to say I did it with gusto, logging off for the last time with a triumphant “Ha!” But in reality, I felt torn.
I was now on the outside, with no way of even seeing what I was missing. No more updates from my neighbourhood groups about coming events and warnings of petty crimes. No more sweet – and okay, sometimes overabundant – photos of other people’s children. No more ridiculous, but occasionally side-splitting, viral videos. (Did you see that one of the adorable dog who can’t catch anything? Hilarious!) No more “Likes” to make me feel validated for my self-consciously crafted status updates.
I feared I would regret this decision.
Let me be straight with you. Quitting Facebook wasn’t my idea. Of course, I’d thought about doing it, long before the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In fact, for the past couple years, I thought about quitting almost daily. Facebook, for me, had become a bad habit, like biting my nails or slouching. I’d catch myself mindlessly checking it every few hours, between e-mails, before logging off at work, before going to bed. I didn’t even enjoy being on Facebook most of the time. Scrolling through my feed was simply something I’d become accustomed to doing and I resented that I was hooked.
Still, I didn’t seriously commit to deactivating my account until my editor asked me to give it a try, to see what it’s like to heed the recent calls to #DeleteFacebook. In light of reports the British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica may have improperly gathered data of up to 87 million Facebook users, including 622,000 Canadians, an Angus Reid poll reportedly found 64 per cent of Canadian respondents said they would change their privacy settings or use Facebook less in the future, while 10 per cent said they would suspend or delete their accounts. At least I’d be in good company.
Back around 2006, joining Facebook wasn’t entirely my idea either. Friends and relatives overseas had coaxed me to sign on to the then-two-year-old network because it was a more convenient way of staying in touch and sharing photos than e-mail. I was an easy convert. In those early days, it was thrilling to find long-lost friends and reconnect with old acquaintances through the site. (That thrill wore off when I received my first “friend request” from an ex. But by then, I was already a regular user.)
Gearing myself up to quit Facebook was hard. In fact, preparing to leave the social network has, so far, proved to be harder than staying off it.
First, there were the practical preparatory steps. Facebook was my only way of communicating with many friends, especially those in other parts of the world. Before leaving, I’d need to collect all their e-mails – or at least the e-mails of those whom I’d realistically write. (As far as user privacy is concerned, though, even that mode of communication is problematic; embarrassingly, I still have a Yahoo e-mail account.) Friends’ birthdays? That was a tough one. I jotted down a few birthdays into a notebook, but there’s little chance I’ll ever remember to wish people a happy birthday without Facebook’s automatic reminders. There’s even less chance anyone would remember mine. Worse, would anyone e-mail me notices of marriages, births and deaths?
Then, there was the psychological prep work. I needed to come to terms with the fact that I’d likely lose contact with the vast majority of Facebook friends I’d accumulated over most of my adult life. Before Facebook, saying goodbye was a big deal whenever you left a job or school or city. There were inevitably people you’d likely never see or hear from again. But Facebook made it possible to do away with hard goodbyes in favour of a softer farewell: “Let’s keep in touch!” Now, the process of deactivating my account felt like a definitive end to many relationships that had been artificially kept alive through occasional “Likes” and smiley face emojis. By disappearing from Facebook, I’d also cease to exist in other people’s minds.
I also needed to mentally say goodbye to all the groups I had joined. This was probably one of the most anxiety-provoking parts of leaving Facebook. I was a member of a local parenting group, a couple of neighbourhood groups, a group for former colleagues. By disconnecting from these groups, I feared I’d be totally in the dark.
How would I stay on top of what other parents are griping about or what the social norms are around child-rearing these days? What if my child turns out to be a total misfit because I’m not on Facebook? How would I find out about the latest neighbourhood news and gossip? Just days prior, a neighbour had alerted me via Facebook to a mugging incident that occurred nearby. Another neighbour posted that he needed to borrow a lemon to make a dish. How would I know the descriptions of potential muggers or respond to recipe emergencies if not for Facebook?
Leaving wouldn’t be so hard if everyone else did the same. That way, we’d probably be knocking on one another’s doors a whole lot more or actually using our phones to make phone calls. As it is, it kind of felt like I was packing up and going home all by myself, when the party’s still in full swing.
Finally, there was the process of quitting itself. After selecting to deactivate my account, Facebook craftily showed me a lineup of my friends, whom, it claimed, would “miss” me. It then asked me to select my reason for leaving from a list including, “I have a privacy concern,” “I don’t find Facebook useful” and “I spend too much time on Facebook.” No matter which one I clicked, it offered me tips on how I could address the problem – while, of course, remaining active on the site. As it turns out, this was the final push I needed. The more Facebook tried to convince me from leaving, the more I wanted to get out of there. “Deactivate Now.” Click.
More than a week later, I’m still on the outside. I don’t have any great revelations about how much extra time I have or how productive I am, now that I’m no longer constantly checking my feed. It’s not as though I’ve suddenly replaced Facebook with CrossFit or reading Dostoevsky. In spite of multiple studies that have linked Facebook use to depression, anxiety and loneliness, I can’t even say quitting the network has made me any happier or more social in real life. And I don’t feel my online privacy is any more secure either. I still use Google. I still shop online. (And I still really need to get rid of that Yahoo account.)
Resisting the impulse to check Facebook is getting easier each day. I found myself absentmindedly logging on less than 14 hours after I quit and immediately deactivated my account again before I could catch a glimpse of what I’d missed. This subconscious slip was an uncomfortable reminder of how ingrained Facebook had become in my life. It does make me feel better knowing I’m no longer bound to the network. Still, I can’t promise myself I’ll stay off for good.
I’m finally free of Facebook. And I’m really going to miss it.