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Julie Flynn Badal Headshot

Facebook Interruptus

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It is common knowledge that all addictions eventually hit a fever pitch -- that breaking point in which the anxiety and desperation outweigh any benefit once derived from the habit. My addiction to Facebook hit this place some time in February. I came to a point where the habit became so knee-jerk that I was checking my newsfeed before I brushed my teeth in the morning.

Later that month, I took a vacation with my family to Miami. We stayed at the Ritz Carlton in Key Biscayne. Palm trees swayed in the night breeze as a Cuban band played rhumbas for the guests who sat on the patio sipping mojitos. I'd eaten enough cornflake breakfasts at the Days Inn in my life to know that things could not get much better than this. And yet I found myself crouched over my iPhone beside the gurgling fountains, thumbing through Facebook status updates about lasagna dinners and book club meetings.

I'm still not sure what I was looking for under the blue banner, but I was pretty certain I wasn't going to find it there. It was time to go cold turkey.

Fortunately, my determination to break the hold Facebook had on me coincided with Lent, a natural time of renunciation for lapsed Catholics. And so it was for Jesus that I decided to finally give the medium a rest. It seemed like the right choice at the time. Complaining about Facebook and the people that were on it (which was just about everyone) had become part of the culture. And I'd developed this creeping sense of shame about my overuse of the medium.

I had been on the site almost every day for four years. How had it shaped my thoughts, my ways of framing and understanding and sharing experiences? I was earnest and eager to know and feel the difference its absence could create.

It seemed to me that on social media, there are two kinds of animals: content producers and content consumers. A few days into Lent, I learned that I most definitely fell into the first category. The part of my brain that was always combing the environment for material to share was a little lost without a convenient place to put my found objects.

The forced break from Facebook put me in touch with my underlying urge to document everything. I had this drive to get it all down before it all went away. The need felt like a life-and-death matter for me and was not a comfortable thing to forgo. But without the constant toggling between my smart-phone and my immediate surroundings, experiences began to feel more vibrant and my thinking, more constructive.

Now I had even more to share! But sadly there was no one to share it with because everyone was on Facebook. I read articles on Slate and Salon, but could not link! I watched TED videos, but was unable to show my friends and family how smart I thought I was! My daughters were doing and saying adorable things and it was all going undocumented! I drank vintage cocktails with my husband in hopping restaurants and nobody knew about it...

Struggling to stay relevant, I began emailing friends rambling life updates like it was 2002. It took days for anyone to muster a reply. I started to wonder about trees falling in forests. Could anyone really hear them? I stopped taking photos of dog walkers and broken stop signs and floral designs on the tops of my cappuccinos with my iPhone camera.

The loss was palpable.

I realized, over the last four years, I had been living not one, but two lives. There was my life in the actual world with my husband and daughters: the one that involves loading and unloading the dishwasher and bath time and figuring out how much money we owe the babysitter after two glasses of wine on a date night. And then there was the other life: the narrative of this actual life. The document of my meandering thoughts, stray insights, the objects the eyes catch glittering in the background. This second life was just as real, just as vital. And it belonged to me alone.

I had hoped to transform the thoughts and visions of that second life into something more substantial. But without the convenient container of Facebook, I struggled to keep it alive. My two young daughters were in need of my constant care. The three or four minutes I had spent on Facebook here and there throughout the day could not be converted into productive work time. I was no closer to finishing the last chapter of my novel or drafting that plan for my dream business. I did, however, drink more green tea and gaze out the window at the sky while my kids watched Bubble Guppies on television.

Ultimately, I learned that my own vanity and curiosity would cave my Lenten commitment. It started with a casual line of inquiry. I noticed a photographer had been taking pictures of the yoga class I attend every Sunday morning. One day after class, I asked him what he did with the photos. He said he posted them on the yoga studio Facebook profile.

Boom, I was back on.

I did a search for the yoga studio profile and was a little stunned to discover myself in at least a dozen photos. The photos were proof that I existed in the flesh and blood. And apparently I was pretty good at yoga!

The discovery should have come as a relief, but something felt wrong. The images were aesthetically beautiful, yet the expression on my face in many of the photos seemed almost erotic. There were close ups of me with my eyes closed in rapturous side stretches. Other images offered a clear view of my chest spilling over the top of my tank as I folded forward or helped adjust a classmate. This was me, totally undefended and open, for virtually anyone in the world to view. I didn't know whether to gush or cringe, to feel flattered or violated.
This is the power of Facebook: our most intimate moments can be published online without our knowledge by strangers for other strangers to browse freely. And I still struggle to understand how we really feel about it. My need to be seen is that strong.

All I can say is at least there were no camel toes in my case.

My confusion about the yoga photos taught me that my need for connection and my need for privacy are in constant competition on social media. I'm not sure Facebook can ever resolve either one of those needs in a satisfactory way.

I am someone that has a hard time filtering thoughts and feelings. It was difficult for me to imagine all of my FB contacts reading my updates. Instead, I created a day-to-day narrative for one or two imagined readers and everyone else came along for the ride. Now I think twice about what I share, but I still ususally go ahead and share it.

Along with feelings of over-exposure came another idea about acceptance. I've stopped giving myself a hard time for feeling lonely sometimes despite all the blessings in my life. There are worse things to get wrapped up in than Facebook. And sure, the medium can encourage self-absorption and a myopic perspective. But it can also help build or restore relationships, broaden horizons, bring laughter to an otherwise tedious afternoon. The insight and perspective my short break offered loosened up my relationship with Facebook. I no longer need to check my newsfeed compulsively. Now a spare moment can be just that.

Like most things in life, Facebook is what you make of it. And it cannot be more than what it is.

It is not love and it is not friendship and it is not art and it is not literature and it is not music and it is not politics. But all of these things move through it to speak to us in the most unlikely moments and places.