Signing onto Facebook after at least a year of abstaining is like unearthing a time capsule. Since actually deleting a Facebook profile involves a search through the site’s labyrinthine account settings — ostensibly so you choose the most transparent option, the “deactivate” option, in which Facebook keeps your information forever and ever — I was able to simply reactivate my account when I decided to return. All my information — all “friends,” photos and inane wall posts — was still there, suspended in time.
I decided to peruse my friends list to delete people I no longer know or like, and the number of unfamiliar names surprised me. One “friend” in particular had an unfamiliar name and an infant for her user picture. Upon further investigation, I discovered she was an old acquaintance who, at age 23, had gotten married (hence the changed name) and had a child (hence the user photo) in the span on my Facebook absence. It just shows how much of a dichotomy exists between Facebook life and real life — in real life, this person is clearly not in my network, if I’m not aware of her marriage or the birth of her first child. She only exists to me on Facebook.
And I realized, to a lot of people, I didn’t exist outside of Facebook. Once during my Facebook hiatus, a friend asked if I was going to her party. I told her I didn’t know she was having a party, and she kind of shrugged and said “I sent out a Facebook invite.” My return to Facebook prompted a few people to send me messages to "welcome" me back and ask how things are going with me, as if I had suddenly risen from the dead or returned from a remote, Internet-less destination after a long period of time.
My realization — that Facebook creates its own reality — coupled with my decision that Twitter, my social networking site of choice of the past two years, is superior leaves me feeling pretty disenchanted about Facebook. What I appreciate about Twitter is that it’s more of a meritocracy. Sure, it doesn’t streamline several different services on one site like Facebook does — Facebook provides the services of Flickr, Evite and email, all in one place — but it does, for the most part, prioritize quality of content. Facebook is like a directory. All you need to exist on that site is a name and a face. Even if a user’s Facebook actions consist of mundane status updates, MySpace-esque self-portraits (usually contained in photo albums called “Just Me”) and Farmville stats, that person still belongs on the site just by merit of being a person. And defriending a user like that can be taken as a personal affront, because you’re basically rejecting that entire person. Of course, you could argue that I shouldn’t care about people getting offended. That’s true, and I generally don’t, because it's not real life. But the fact remains that defriending is considered a callous action to most people.
On the other hand, Twitter only consists of, in Facebook parlance, “status updates.” Unless you're Ashton Kutcher or another absurdly popular person, your number of followers is pretty much a result of the quality of your posts. It’s not about the way a person looks or the kind of friends they have, because those qualities don’t really matter on Twitter. Even popular people — celebrities and even respected writers — might find their fanbase faltering when they prove to be “bad” at Twitter (posting annoying updates). Jezebel has a good article about that.
For us normal people, good updates are rewarded with followers. No one knew about Canadian stay-at-home mom Kelly Oxford until her funny, sardonic Twitter updates spread across the Internet. She currently has 56,820 Twitter followers and again, no one knew of her existence before Twitter. It’s the same story for Justin Halpern, a 30-year-old guy who was living with his father before his Shit My Dad Says feed earned him a CBS sitcom.
Conversely, Facebook status updates — “Eating a Blow Pop for the first time in a long time lol” — are not going to be earning anyone sitcoms or book deals any time soon. Because Facebook is just about being a person, and because you’re a person living in the 21rst century you are “special” and deserve your own space on the Internet, it gives people the license to post any inane or embarrassing thing that’s on their minds. Status updates tend to fall under the following categories (these are all real Facebook statuses):
1. Vague, therefore inviting curiosity (read: attention). Examples: “(User name) wonders why people insist on doing things the hard way”; “(User name) is nervous....” 2. Passive cries for help. Example: “having a very tough time right now” 3. Religious/political drivel. Example: “Despite the way I feel, I am determined to wear a smile today— all day. In Jesus' name I pray, AMEN.” (note: nothing against religion, but that statement means nothing to me); anything posted after the 2008 presidential election/anything about “socialist” Barack Obama 4. Overshares. Example: “my baby threw up twice today!!!”; anything bathroom-related 5. Completely and utterly pointless. Example: “The elbow hurts so bad! I hope it's just the weather.”
And the worst thing is that Facebook is a forum for positive affirmation of these inane Internet farts! You can “like” statuses and leave comments on them, further encouraging people to be stupid (at this point, there is no “dislike” option). And it’s really difficult to defriend people for the reason I said before, because you’re callously rejecting someone’s entire existence, but also because a Facebook friendship is a reciprocal one. When you agree to be “friends” with someone on the site, both parties enter into a mutual sharing relationship, unless you alter your privacy settings for that one particular person. With Twitter, someone can follow you, but it’s not necessary to return the favor. And people don’t often realize or care if someone they are following is following them, as well (unless you run your user name in a site like Friend or Follow). Again, talented Twitter users are rewarded with more followers — you have to earn your popularity (unless, like I said, you're Lindsay Lohan or someone). Facebook doesn’t work that way.
With two critically-acclaimed movies about Facebook out lately — The Social Network and Catfish — it seems like Facebook is still very much a part of our culture. But will it stay that way? I feel like it’s gotten so stupid to the point of near implosion, but it may just be initial shock from not using the site for so long. And with Facebook’s general recklessness and disregard for user privacy becoming increasingly problematic, to the point where other sites are the ones providing instructions on how to manage one’s Facebook privacy, it seems like it’s ripe for a competitor to emerge and cause a social network diaspora (maybe Diaspora?). A lot of people, like myself, like Twitter more than Facebook, but Twitter isn’t really meant as the full-service social networking site like Facebook. Maybe it could be that this whole social networking thing is relatively new, and we really don’t know how to handle it? Maybe we will eventually do good with Facebook, but since my generation is socialized to believe that everything we say or do is special and worthy of a forum thanks to the Internet and reality TV, we just end using it in a masturbatory way. But until we figure that out, I’m going to stay away from Facebook, even if that means I don’t exist to most people.