Newsweek Web Exclusive
I was a late convert to Facebook, the social-networking site that turned five years old Wednesday. I joined about a year ago at age 47, swept up in the massive wave of people turning the corner to the back nine of life, and pitifully trying to do what comes so naturally to our sons and daughters. My own 16-year-old, Grace, literally cried from embarrassment when I told her I was signing up, and she begged me through her tears not to do it. When it was clear that I was serious, she made me promise never to "friend" her. Since I didn't know what that meant at the time, I agreed. Last week I redeemed myself in her eyes, because I signed off of Facebook forever--or at least until Tuesday.
I had one of those Hallmark movie moments. I was sitting here at work thinking up my next pithy "status update," which is where you broadcast to all your online buddies in a few words what you're up to at that very moment--and finally came to my senses. "What the hell have I become?" I cried.
So goodbye 157 Facebook friends, 75 of whom I wouldn't recognize if I saw you on the street. Goodbye super nifty "Pieces of Flair" application, and the 1,332,359 members of the "I Don't Care How Comfortable Crocs Are, You Look Like a Dumbass" Crocs-hater group. Goodbye, William and Mary alums I barely remember from 25 years ago. Not you, Tom, the other Tom. Hello to actually working at my job again. Well, a little anyway. I wouldn't have been able to write this story about quitting Facebook if I didn't quit Facebook because I wouldn't have had the time.
When I think about all the hours I wasted this past year on Facebook, and imagine the good I could have done instead, it depresses me. Instead of scouring my friends' friends' photos for other possible friends, I could have been raising money for Darfur relief, helping out at the local animal shelter or delivering food to the homeless. It depresses me even more to know that I would never have done any of those things, even with all those extra hours.
I was so addicted to my imaginary playgroup, I put the Facebook application on my BlackBerry. That way I could know immediately when some kid who used to pick on me in elementary school was reaching out across the years to remind me that I still had cooties. Once I was so entranced reading my Facebook page on my handheld, that I lost sight of the actual faces of the people on the street around me, and came to only after I fell into the lap of a man in a wheelchair. I was hurt when he rebuffed my attempt to friend him, but it turns out real life doesn't have that feature.
Nothing personal, former Facebook friends: I'll miss those wall updates about doing dishes and changing the kitty litter. I'll miss seeing those artsy photos of beach sunsets and city streets covered with snow. I'll miss posting those, I mean. I'll miss your constant name dropping and updates that make sure we all know you're camping in a hemp tent on a sustainable emu farm in Costa Rica, or that you eat only dolphin-free tuna, and I should too. But most of all, I will miss those hundreds upon hundreds of baby pictures that remind me daily of how insanely happy I am that my kids aren't babies any more.
Then there's the whole anxiety-inducing to-friend-or-not-to-friend minefield that I won't miss at all. You get a request from, say, Spiffy McGee, but the name doesn't ring a bell. You see that you share a friend, so maybe he found you that way. Or you note that he went to your college, which makes sense, because there were a lot of WASPy "Old Virginia" guys at William and Mary with names like Biff or Buff or Ridge. So you think, what the hell, and you add him, and within minutes your wall is peppered with posts like "Spiffy McGee feels a deuce coming on" or "Spiffy ate the worm!" with photos to prove it. Then you feel pressure to say what you're doing to outwit Spiffy, so you write: "Steve is in a Honey Smacks mood this morning." Seriously, I wrote that.
Facebook status updates are the literary equivalent of inane cell-phone chatter, like when you're on Amtrak and the man in front of you can't stop talking loudly on his Bluetooth for one second, so you're stuck sitting behind him and have to listen to stuff like: "Hi, honey, I'm on Amtrak now. I'm sitting in my seat now. I'm taking off my coat now." Yes, I could always sit in the Quiet Car, but one of the last times I did that the train attendant kept waking me up every five minutes yelling: "This Is The Quiet Car! This Is The Quiet Car!"
Being on Facebook is like volunteering to receive spam, and the more successful you are at finding friends, the more spam you get! In the end, Facebook is really the emptiest, loneliest place on the whole World Wide Web. It's all static and white noise, and the steady streams of status updates start to look like ASDF, ASDF, ASDF after a while.
So I've decided now to do something more worthy and productive with all of my new free time. I'm going back to the original reality-based Facebook, the local bar where everybody knows your name, which for me is Off The Record at the Hay-Adams Hotel here in D.C. Status updates there are said in real time to real people, like: "That guy's got a problem with alcohol. I see him every time I come in here," or "How would the Civil War have changed if Abraham Lincoln had octopus tentacles instead of a beard?" (Thanks, Cliff Clavin). So goodbye, potential and former Facebook pals, all 150 million-plus of you, and hello, John Boswell, the best bartender in America. If any of you need to get in touch, check the third stool in, right side. If you want to friend me, buy me a beer.