I scrolled through my newsfeed one last time, scanning the pictures and posts and 'Happy 2015!' status updates. I’d been a dutiful Facebook user since 2004, and had just marked my tenth anniversary on the network. Ten whole years. Good Lord, I thought.What was I doing? I couldn’t just quit like this, no warning. I needed to go back over my own pictures; to honor and celebrate my yesterdays. I began reviewing a decade’s worth of meals and moments and Candy Crush invites and forays into FarmVille. Just kidding. I didn’t do that. Instead, it took me about ten seconds to hit the 'Deactivate Account' link and confirm that, yes I wanted to do this and yes, I was aware all these people would miss me ... although I doubted they would even notice. I typed my password in one last time, paying attention to how final it felt on my fingertips and, in one fell swoop, cut off ties with my friends. All 733 of them.I had thought about this decision. It wasn’t like I woke up on January 1 and said "let me start living off the grid." This was a premeditated New Year’s resolution: to delete my Facebook account.
If we were in couples' therapy together, Facebook might accuse me of being misleading. Hadn’t I posted a picture of pastry doodles on the worst day ever with the falsely-cheerful caption "Baking up a storm!"? And hadn’t I ignored that post of an adorable infant because I said I was "so done with all these asshole babies?"
Twitter could stay, I reasoned, because Twitter was driven by thoughtful conversations and ideas, and didn’t the Arab Spring start on Twitter? So there was a social justice component to it. A noble purpose. Besides, I only had like 35 followers on Twitter, and half of them were Porn bots. It didn’t matter if I quit Twitter or not.
Facebook and I, on the other hand, had a torrid, checkered past. If we were in couples' therapy together, Facebook might accuse me of being misleading. Hadn’t I posted a picture of pastry doodles on the worst day ever with the falsely-cheerful caption "Baking up a storm!"? And hadn’t I ignored that post of an adorable infant because I said I was "so done with all these asshole babies?" Who even thinks like that? Fine, I might say back. But what about you, Facebook? What about the fact that you’re inconsistent? Constantly changing the rules of our relationship? Plus you have like zero respect for personal boundaries, all up in everyone’s business. I knew that immediately after I quit Facebook, a healing beam of sunlight would shine on me, and I would walk away from virtual reality, in favor of a three-dimensional one. I’d seen enough episodes of Super Soul Sunday to realize there are practices that are wholesome and restorative for your spirit, and that clicking through a stranger’s photo album at two in the morning is not one of those practices.
So I quit, expecting angels to break out into song. And for a while, it was like that. I didn’t feel as flooded or fatigued by the endless torrent of others’ emotions and opinions. I didn’t have to keep up anymore. The Joneses would go on without me.
But leaving social media also created a gap I’m not sure I’d fully anticipated. I began to fill that gap with things that mattered. I read actual books ... made of paper. I listened to the radio, and deepened my yoga practice, and cooked pancakes for breakfast.
And I photographed exactly none of this, because there was no need to. No audience, no one observing my life, and the choices I was making each day. I barely used my phone for anything anymore, because getting rid of social media also took care of my Pavlovian response to the bleeps and bops my phone would emit throughout the day. So, ultimately, deleting Facebook and Instagram was liberating. But it was also … what? Boring? Lonely? Analog. It felt like I was becoming this Paleozoic Era-creature, trying to live in a digital world.Two months in, I started missing things. Not just event-invites and wedding pictures (although I missed those, too), but like when Madonna fell on her butt during an awards show, and I missed it. And then when the cute guy in One Direction left the band, and then the other cute guy cried about it on stage, I missed that, too. And when the Kardashian dad was rumored to be transitioning, I HAD NO IDEA.
Maybe all this wouldn’t matter, if I didn’t teach college classes on youth and popular culture. About mid-semester, I began to wonder whether I was making myself culturally and professionally irrelevant by retreating from social media.
One day in class, a student announced that Taylor Swift and Calvin Harris were dating. My student is, what’s called in scholarly circles, a "Swiftie." The Calvin Harris thing sent a ripple of excitement through the room. "WHAT?" shouted another Swiftie."I know," said Swiftie Number One. "There are pictures online."That weekend, Easter Sunday, I had a moment of insight and it happened, coincidentally, as I was toodling around on Swift’s Instagram page (because, you know, work). The picture: a gift-bag onto which "To Taylor, Love the Easter Bunny" had been Sharpie-d. I gave the photo a silent awww, then looked down at the comments.
"BITCH!!" a user named "ibrnt" had written. "Why you're with @calvinharris??!!" Ibrnt had followed up with an aggressive emoticon: the one that’s red with steam coming out of its nose. Ibrnt had typed that face four times in a row.
Ibrnt’s pixelated anger simultaneously bothered me and gave me pause. Up until that point, I’d been telling myself I quit social media in order to live life "in the moment," but I wondered then if that was bullshit. Maybe I had quit social media in order to avoid the ibrnt’s of the world, or because I was secretly afraid I was an ibrnt, too. Maybe I quit because I was scared of being judged or — and this was major for me — scared of truly being seen.I began scrolling through Swift’s Instagram photos, which led to watching interviews of her, which led to: did you guys know that she was on the cover of Time ? The more I read, the more I saw how Swift was transcendental where I had been stuck.
Taylor herself probably isn’t affected by ibrnt. At most, she’ll get a song out of it, as soon as she figures out what rhymes with ibrnt. ("I-brnt a troll and I liked it?" It could work.) She isn’t running from discomfort, pretending to be beyond mistakes, made of titanium. She isn’t afraid of others' opinions, or of sharing intimate aspects of her life, like the fact that her mother is battling cancer. She isn’t denying that stuff happens, and that sometimes, she's reacted poorly to that stuff. Jealousy. Rage. Cheating on someone in her head.
You might not want to put all that out there, but she does, over and over again, and not just so she can make money, but also, I believe, so that she can learn from her own life.
And that’s really what it's all about, isn’t it? The definition of living fully is all about the ability to be vulnerable; to not crumble or retreat when someone throws virtual cat poop on you, but to transform that cat poop into awareness and acceptance, beauty and art. I get it now. I get that hiding from social media means hiding from people, which ultimately means hiding from yourself. And even though I still haven’t rejoined Facebook, I am now, as an act of hope for the future, following Taylor Swift on Twitter.