This morning I awoke and, like most mornings, reached for my iPhone to check my feed. Except today I didn't have a feed anymore. Last night I died on Facebook. It wasn't a literal death, but a virtual death. It's called "deactivation" in which Facebook allows you to check out without exiting completely. Like a phoenix, you can instantly come alive again just by logging in. But once you've deactivated, your Facebook profile disappears completely from the site. It's as if you never existed.
The reaction to my deactivation announcement was varied and at times profound. "I will miss you being here," wrote a friend from college. "Your family will be sad and I'm sad that you are no longer online, even if it's temporary," pronounced an aunt. "This is social death, but you'll survive," declared a good friend. "I've never commented or liked anything you've posted, but I've followed and enjoyed many of your posts immensely," proclaimed someone who I didn't even know was a friend. "This is a major life decision" warned a close family member.
I must admit by the end of the day I was feeling more than a bit chagrined. I was feeling guilty and selfish, slightly bemused by the outpouring, and a little sad to be removing myself from "here." Because clearly Facebook is a place. An existence. A milieu. That's what had gotten to me and prompted my exit.
In order to let people know that I wasn't dissing them, or unfriending, or blocking, I declared quite simply that I was looking for a more meaningful virtual existence and in order to find meaning I had to experience loss. That my exit was likely only temporary, but that I had grown weary of the endless animal pictures, inane political discussions, panicked posts about world events (which admittedly haven't been good this month), click-bait advertisements, and perfect selfies. Clearly there must be more to life, even a virtual life, beyond the digital veneer.
And yes I was part of the problem. My comments were at times stupid and purposeless. My re-posts of news articles unnecessary. My pictures ever too perfect. The real issue for me is what does all of this say about me, and about us, in a quest for meaning in the digital age?
The line between physical and virtual reality is becoming more and more thin with complicated and somewhat unknowable consequences. For example, last year my friend told me about this man she had met and gotten to know and like. Since they lived in different cities, they didn't see each other much but shared occasional articles and chats online.
Soon they became Facebook friends and he took up residence in her FB friend box. She related how she felt intimately connected to this person on a daily basis just by seeing his profile pic in her box. Even though they could go weeks without communicating, there he was day after day on her page, a comforting fixture in her life.
Then suddenly one day he disappeared followed by a quick announcement in her feed that this once ever-present soul mate was in a "relationship." My friend was sad and perplexed. What exactly had the presence of this guy in her friend box even meant? And why had she taken such comfort in it? What did their virtual intimacy say about her? Was their friend box love affair real or a projection, random or intentional? And how could she ever know? Could the algorithm even tell her?
In a final sarcastic insult, Facebook asked her the next day if she wanted to friend this dude's new girlfriend. And in an even more bizarre twist, Facebook kept prompting her to tag him in pictures after his relationship ended months later. What, if anything, was Facebook trying to tell her now?
And that's the point of grasping for perspective in the digital world. Devoid of context, interpersonal connection, and human expression, we are all voyeurs unable to process a two dimensional realm which only tells us what we want to know. True or false, real or imagined, it's impossible to ascribe authentic meaning when someone suddenly appears in our friend box, or an animal needs rescuing, or a political feud is brewing. The possibilities are endless and the answers hard to apprehend.
Which is why I'm unplugging, at least for now. Maybe better world news or happier days when all the animals are rescued and pictures of death and destruction are replaced by sunsets and rainbows -- and a longing for candy-coated comments and missed likes -- will inspire me to return. But clearly, we all need some digital detox from time to time, if only to realize what we've missed and how far we must go to truly understand ourselves and the new world around us.
Now if I can only find a way to share this post…
Follow James R. Marsh on Twitter: www.twitter.com/marshlawfirm