Facebook: why it’s good to take a break

It was at the end of last year that I decided that I’d had enough of Facebook.

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A number of factors led to me making this decision, which had been bubbling away in me for quite some time. The never-ending status updates on what friends, family, work colleagues and distant acquaintances were doing. The numerous brands vying for my attention, begging me to ‘like’ their page in return for the chance to win yet another iPad. The motivational, self-help mottos. The videos of kittens. The ‘private’ group conversations between 50 people that I just didn’t stand a hope of keeping up with alongside a full-time job. Truthfully, it all just became a bit … much.

What started out as a recreational activity had almost become a job in itself – looking after my account, monitoring interactions, responding to comments, keeping abreast of Facebook’s numerous  privacy changes. It was just sucking up far too much of my time, drawing me in and seemingly offering little in return.

So I took the only action that seemed logical against this backdrop: I closed, and deleted, my account. Little rumination or discussion with others. I just deleted it – after first painstakingly and fastidiously deleting as many of my images as possible, and untagging myself from many others.

It was only after closing my account that I notified a select few of my decision – predominantly old contacts that I hadn’t seen face-to-face in many years. Contacting them via both email and phone, I explained that, after seven years as an ardent Facebook user, it just felt like the right time to shut up shop and to try and spend more time connecting in the old-fashioned way.

A few of my closest friends were stunned by my decision; after all, I had written about social media addiction in the past and had been a staunch and outspoken advocate of social media for many years, loudly singing the virtues of social networking and praising technology’s ability to forge connections that can cross continents and cultures.

However, others understood my rationale and why I had opted to turn away from the world’s most popular social media channel.

At the time of the birth of my first child, I had been very vocal about my refusal to share any personal photographs or private information via the site; thanks to an increased understanding of Mark Zuckerberg’s stance on privacy – coupled with findings revealed in the 2013 documentary Terms & Conditions May Apply – I was adamant that my offspring would have the opportunity to create their own digital footprint, should they choose to do so in the future. After all, my generation opted to share their personal details online, in the merry spirit of networking.

Not partaking in what is now considered the ‘normal’ practice of sharing every milestone in a child’s formative years certainly made it clear to my Facebook ‘friends’ that my love affair with the site was waning – yet surprise was still expressed when I so swiftly left the site in its entirety. After all, who isn’t on Facebook these days?

Social media figures published towards the end of 2013 revealed that an astonishing 31 million UK citizens have Facebook accounts. That’s approximately half of the country’s population. While no longer on the meteoric growth rise that it once was – thanks to the younger generation leaving in their droves in favour of the likes of Whatsapp and Snapchat – Facebook still remains a major contender, and a primary method of communication for many.

It was only after leaving the site in its entirety that the reality of how engrained it has become in all of us as a medium really hit me. By leaving the site, my intention was to connect more deeply with my closest friends in the real world, and to reconnect with former friends and colleagues in a meaningful way, rather than just leaving the occasional thumbs-up to a new holiday snap.

What I found, however, was that despite my best intentions this simply did not happen. Yes, in the early days after my departure, I was able to rekindle a few old friendships and have a number of good conversations over the phone. Heck, I even met up with a couple of folks that I’d lost touch with face-t0-face. But as the months rolled by, I began to feel more disconnected from both my local community and my wider friendship group. Despite my wife’s best efforts to keep me informed via occasionally mentioning notable highlights gleaned from her own – still active – account, I missed out on engagements, house moves, births, deaths, and many other landmark moments in my friends and families lives.

In short, by making a statement against the site, I may have been going against the grain but ultimately I was the one that was missing out.

Thus, one year on from my departure, I now return to Facebook, but with a very different view of the site than I had before.

I now recognise that Facebook is a valuable tool for keeping abreast of what is happening in one’s local community, for being alerted to and celebrating a friend or family member’s high points, and for identifying times of need in those close to you. What it is not is a private channel, where conversations are secure and sacred, and where personal information should be shared liberally and without due consideration for whom ultimately owns that data.

My time away from Facebook has been invaluable; it has shown me that, no matter my feelings about the channel, it currently has a valuable role to play within our society – if used for good and with a sizeable degree of caution. Through Facebook, I have in the past generated funds for causes that I believe in, shared my beliefs and invited open and honest debate, raised awareness of key issues that I care about, and shared moments of hilarity and kindness with many in my network.

The mistake I made first time round was dedicating my time and energy into the channel itself, and not focusing enough attention on transferring any valuable connections made online back back into the off-line world, where they truly belong.

At its heart, Facebook is the facilitator of dialogue. It’s a virtual meeting space for that initial introduction, and a handy way of checking in on those you care about on a frequent basis. But it is no substitute for face-to-face or verbal communication, and both it – and whichever rival ultimately takes its place as the dominant channel – never will be.

But for now, Facebook continues to have a role to play, and I am back to enjoy it for the benefits that it offers. But if you, like me, have suffered from a case of Facebook fatigue, then I encourage you to take a long, well-deserved break from the site. You’ll appreciate it all the more when you inevitably return.

 Image source: Coletivo Mambembe [via Flickr]