In late 2017, after I got engaged to my now fiancée, members of my extended family noticed something peculiar about our ensuing digital activity: That is, there wasn’t any. We hadn’t shared the news on Facebook. Subsequently, they wondered if our engagement was a secret.
A secret? The happiest decision of our lives was hardly a secret. No, no, no. We told everyone we needed to.
And, that’s the key idea: We told everyone we needed to. Is my entire list of Facebook friends an accurate reflection of who I must tell things to? With nearly 500 people to account for (a number I’ve perennially tried to keep down), the answer is – and I say this respectfully – a simple no.
To be fair, I understood where my larger family circle was coming from. For years, amidst a sea of memes and noise, algorithms on Facebook and other social networks have prioritized pictures of newborn babies, heartfelt reflections of loved ones passed (humans or otherwise) and the odd post about someone’s new job, thus making our decision to eschew the social-media megaphone seem strange to some friends and family.
Realistically – my festering distrust of Silicon Valley aside – keeping our news offline was always about control. It allowed us to see and hear expressions of delight when we updated people in person or over the phone. Indeed, we got to experience something rare in 2019: the organic dissemination of personal news (amplified slightly by my very enthusiastic sister).
As a result, the process took on more meaning. I don’t regret our social silence for a second, but what I didn’t realize was how many people nowadays are employing similar strategies when they have news to share.
Jessica Toal, a young woman in Toronto, deliberately avoided a Facebook post about the news of her father’s death. “I initially wanted to post the obituary on my Facebook, mostly for practical reasons so people would know when the funeral was,” she says. “After some thought and consultation with family, we decided to leave it off social media. It was too raw, and I sort of thought, ‘Does my entire friend list need to know this?’”
Ian Gailer and Laurence Daneault, new parents in Quebec City, felt likewise regarding the recent birth of their first child. “We decided that it would be a good idea to keep our news for us,” Gailer says. “Lame ‘likes’ and ‘You look great, my friend!’ weren’t what we needed. We needed more time with friends. Also, who cares about my baby if they aren’t in our lives? It’s like being forced to ‘like’ something.”
Given he knows what you bought on Amazon last night, it’s no surprise even Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has noticed a decline in important Facebook posts.
“Facebook and Instagram have helped people connect with friends, communities, and interests in the digital equivalent of a town square,” he wrote in a blog post dated March 6. “But people increasingly want to connect privately in the digital equivalent of the living room.”
I can attest to that. In the mid-to-late 2000s, I used to post status updates and write on friends’ walls with the same alacrity as today’s avid Twitter users. These days, I’m reticent about sharing even a new single I’m digging. What’s changed?
“Facebook is seeing that people are no longer engaging with their main service,” says Tero Karppi, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto and author of Disconnect: Facebook’s Affective Bonds. “Networks have just grown too large, and the communication is shifting toward smaller groups and apps where there are fewer distractions in the form of ads and preselected content.”
Smaller groups – in other words, a living room-sized crowd of friends (or a private message thread).
“The idea that there is a life more real than the life online seems to be strong in people,” Karppi adds. “The return to that real life seems to be appealing to people who want to meet with their friends in their homes and share news there rather than on social media.”
The scary thing about all this? Thanks to the websites you visit or Google searches you make (such as, in our case, “weddings Toronto”), your news – whether you’ve shared it on social media or not – may already be well-known to digital marketers anyway. Combine this reality with the “shadow profiles” Facebook supposedly forms on non-users, and you can see why some people have ended up here: collectively grappling with digital surveillance in an always-on world.
Our summer wedding is still to come, but we’ve already begun asking ourselves if we’ll post the photos online. (Are we “losing” value by keeping them offline?)
Sigh. If only there was an easy, handy way to share the images in a living room-type situation, perhaps in some sort of book filled with our faces.