This July will mark the 10 year anniversary of my Facebook account. Like most long term relationships, it began with innocent flirtation: I was about to embark on a year abroad studying in the US, just south of the Mason Dixie line. And that meant sharing a room with a stranger for a whole ten months.
I’d read about the American South. This was George W. Bush country, a place where grinning Bible bashers practised strict temperance and didn’t believe in pre-marital sex, gay rights or women who aspired to a life beyond motherhood. For a year now, I’d enjoyed the traditional British university experience of drinking interspersed with light academics, and I wasn’t keen on sharing my space with someone outside my liberal comfort zone. The US college was due to send details of my new roomie. It was time to see what I was up against.
I stumbled upon a website that was apparently popular with US college students called ‘The Facebook’. ‘Social network’ wasn’t an established term back then, and this was different from the sound & graphics bombardment offered by MySpace as well as the forums where I’d discussed university matters from behind the protective veil of my username. The Facebook was more like the Yellow Pages for select university campuses, except that the directory included information about their inmates’ favourite authors and music taste. I added my (real) name to the hundreds listed and spent an hour selecting a profile photo that best epitomised my quirky yet cool personality.
Thus was the tone of the year set. I ‘friended’ my coursemates and fellow exchange students (which felt like a strange imposition. Were we truly friends yet?) and whenever I met a new person, I’d tap their name into the search box to figure out whether we were soul mates or just ships passing in the night.
The following year, back on home shores after a year of chastened sobriety, Facebook launched in the UK and I encouraged my British university friends to join. It was fun! Communicating was so much simpler and more economical, negating the need to spend 12p on a text when we wanted to arrange a pub outing. The site aided our IRL socialising and kept us in the loop with gossip too, as the latest news feed capability updated us on who was newly ‘in a relationship’ and fed us salacious drunk photos from friends’ nights out.
News Feed was a big moment at Facebook towers in California. Ostensibly, it helped expose users to relevant content, prioritising the updates of good friends and frequently clicked on profiles. It also signalled the end of neutrality – users who shouted the loudest would be further amplified at the expense of less prolific friends – and the later intrusion of brands into this personal space.
As the site expanded, opening to high school students and finally Joe public in 2006, I added work colleagues to my burgeoning network. Companies cottoned on to the site’s opiate-like powers of distraction and blocked it, but that didn’t stop people from accessing it via smartphones (brand new technology in 2008).
But as my twenties waxed and then waned, my relationship with Facebook began to sour. By this point, social media was a much more developed science; an industry, stuffed with targeted ads, promoted posts and brand page suggestions. These were irksome at times. On one occasion, I saw an ad promoting a silly website where users could visualise their future children, featuring an image of a baby with red hair. Coincidence? I also started to see adverts for wedding venues conveniently near my hometown, something I hadn’t specified on my account.
Yet this wasn’t the dealbreaker. Perhaps it was my newly acquired wisdom as I drifted towards 30 (not likely), but sharing the unbidden intimacies of my life was increasingly unappealing. The updates from friends that had once entertained seemed boastful and repetitive, the stream of manicured proposal shots, ultrasounds and baby images felt like unnecessary broadcasting. Many people have discussed not just the time-wasting that comes with maintaining a Facebook account, taking our focus away from the real everyday relationships with our loved ones, but the social competitiveness of the platform.
While student photo streams indisputably contained an element of ‘look at all the fun I’m having with my mates’, the adult expression of this is more insidious. Imagery of dodgy Wetherspoons cocktails has been replaced with boasts of social status: property, expensive clothes and envy-inducing travel photos. Its no wonder that numerous studies have confirmed that Facebook makes us feel depressed.
The site itself is no stranger to psychological manipulation. In 2012, it conducted an experiment on 700,000 users, adapting its algorithm so that they saw content that provoked a specific emotion. The study prompted complaints by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, but millions of people were happy to continue using Facebook regardless.
It was already too late for me. I’d deactivated my account, not quite cutting the umbilical cord for good, but putting it on ice indefinitely. Its made a difference: I’m happier free of all that social comparison and I’m not generating data for Facebook to harvest on behalf of brands. Instead, I focus my efforts on knowledge sharing platforms like Twitter, where the information exchanged isn’t quite so personal and I have access to interesting individuals beyond my social circle.
It seems that young internet users are also forsaking the site. A study in the US found that Facebook use had fallen from 72% to 45% over a matter of months among a surveyed sample of 13-19 year olds.
And that college roommate? She was one of those elusive people who don’t have a Facebook account, but she was a rock music listening, democrat voting, sarcastic liberal, and many other things besides.