On people who quit Facebook

Facebook, you bring out the braggart in me. Also, the slacker, the insincere greaser, the snoop, the opinionated jerk. And yet, I do believe you add something to my life. Just give me a minute while I think what that is.

Well, a group of people in my suburb have been organising food and clothes for our financially hard-up neighbours – that happened efficiently and entirely through Facebook.

There are links to brainy articles. There's interaction with a bunch of long-overseas friends; sniggering at each other's quips, we could be huddled around the bar heater in a damp Wellington flat. And it goes back further: there's Jacqui Swann with whom I used to drink bourbon and Coke from paper cups; we willingly dropped all contact in 1988 but I don't hesitate to compliment her Saturday-night selfies ("Smokin hot, lady!").

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Then there's the ex colleague who has never been a friend online or off but, due to his lax security settings, I get to scroll through 32 photos of his medieval-themed wedding, which is hilarious.

And so you see how quickly something that begins with the champagne-clink of goodwill can spiral into the toilet of weirdness and wasted time.

Despite persistent rumours that Facebook is becoming passé, membership continues to mushroom, reaching 1.28 billion this year. Yet on the micro-sample of my own Facebook page, I've noticed a reverse trend; the faceless silhouettes of deactivated accounts are popping up like tombstones.

One friend hinted online that she was taking a break to focus on exciting projects, but in person admitted she had nothing in the pipelines save for a need to get off Facebook. Another announced that she was deactivating – but then didn't. Clearly Facebook has others feeling as I do; conflicted, and also kind of hooked.

A French survey recently reported that 90 percent of people who'd deactivated their accounts had no regrets. Their reasons for ditching Facebook included problems with productivity, awkward friend requests – and addiction.

In the pantheon of drugs, Facebook is not the most glamorous. I'd put it in the same category as high fructose corn syrup: seemingly mild, candy-coloured, yet the source of an epidemic. 

"You don't really want to admit to having a problem, because it's just Facebook and it does seem trivial," says Bonnie Sumner, a former Facebook friend who deactivated last year. "But Facebook comes to seem very important. You will ignore your children for it."

Any drug will only hook into the psychology of some. Others are immune: they might have an account but they don't come like a dog to a whistle when they hear that little blipping noise; don't turn their back on their approaching child because there's a red flag on their phone (Awww, it's Jacqui Swann. She liked my photo of a hamster snuggling into a goat).

"It's so hardwired into how our brains operate," says another former (Facebook) friend, Simon. "The noises, the colours, that rolling commentary – I don't know how anyone cannot be 100 percent engaged with it. I'm quite an obsessive personality and I definitely found it addictive."

Facebook pathology has many heads. It skews priorities and fritters time. On a deeper level, it's changing the nature of human relationships. The past is no longer washed away, which can be dull – or disturbing. In one survey, 88 percent of users admitted to stalking their ex on Facebook; subsequently, the internet is rife with tips on coping with excess information on the new lives of former lovers. You can unfriend a person or even block them, but if that person has an open page (and it's intriguing how many do), their intimate moments are available to 1.28 billion people, including you. Only willpower can save you from torturing yourself.

And there are other kinds of bitterness. In 2011, an American legal services firm reported that the word 'Facebook' appeared in more than one third of divorce filings. In custody cases, many have pointed to their children's Facebook profiles as evidence of their ex's bad parenting.

On a subtler level, Facebook is reorganising acceptable social behaviour. Take showing off, which we all enjoy on social media. The most potent lessons in modesty come via offline experience; who hasn't shamelessly bragged and got a lukewarm response? It's via that murmured nicety and dead-eyed smile that we learn to shut up. But not on Facebook, where horn blowers get a show of applause. Is bragging, which has annoyed people for centuries, now considered a great thing? Is Facebook changing basic human nature?

BRAGBOOK: We can get away with an infuriating noise level of blowing one's own trumpet on Facebook that just wouldn't fly in real life. Photo: 123rf.com

Real-life people are different to their digital faces. They're usually more physically haggard than their promotional material would suggest. Their conversation is filled with awkward pauses, non-deletable admissions. And while Facebook friends are full of joyous announcements and gratitude, real people complain all the time: they've gained weight; one of their children seems a bit sociopathic. They keep their holiday snaps to themselves. They're generally more likeable.

Could I ditch Facebook? There are people on there I'd miss. One day I might do something great and no one would know about it. I got out the phonebook, reached for the landline and called some Facebook absconders to hear about life on the other side.

'FOR CREATIVE WRITERS, IT'S THE DEVIL': Chad Taylor is a novelist and screen writer. His film REALITi recently screened at the New Zealand International Film Festival. He deactivated more than a year ago.

"If you're at a party, there are some people you'll just say hi to and some people you'll talk to all night, but Facebook gives everybody the same level of intimacy and there's an inherent tension in that. I used to sort of check what I'd say before I said it; it was throttling in that respect. And I'd think, why am I even devoting brain cycles to this?

Being distracted was what I disliked about it. No, I don't want to join the sliced wonderbread fan club. And if you're checking something more than a few times every day, you may as well be standing outside in the cold, smoking. I think with any kind of addiction it's easier to give it up than to moderate it.

I like gadgets and software, computers and phones. There's no way I could ever disconnect from that stuff. Instagram I kind of like, but I got bored with it. Twitter I'm on and it's kind of okay, though it's really a 14-year-old girl's medium. 

Ironically, I think Facebook is a kind of a middle-aged medium.

I can't stand it when people try to have political debates on Facebook or Twitter. I don't mind reading a link someone posts to something serious, but trying to have a structured argument is like shouting through people's letter boxes. I find that whole talkback radio side of it unbearable.

For journalists, social media is just so damn useful. For creative writers, it's the devil.

To be creative you need to be by yourself and do the work. It's great when you've finished something and you want to tell people about it. But, if you're a writer, you only have use for that about once every five years."

'INSTAGRAM: FACEBOOK METHADONE': Bonnie Sumner is a parent of two preschoolers and a part-time collaborator with her partner James Crow, who makes many things, including Nice Blocks. She deactivated in 2013.

"I woke up one morning and realised I'd had enough of Facebook. I found it overwhelming, more than anything. Because it's not face to face, you load yourself up with more social contact than you can handle. I don't have time to acknowledge 400 people's birthdays.

When you're a full-time parent, it's like any job, it takes a lot of focus. If you're not committing to it, you end up resenting your children because they're trying to distract you from all of your dramas online.

One of the biggest things for me was the validation-seeking. I'm the kind of person who seeks approval from others and Facebook was the perfect platform for that.

You're constantly waiting for the likes – it's this constant loop that really works into the reward centre of your brain. It's so freeing to let go of all of that.

There's an over-saturation of information. I'd follow links to long articles that would be fascinating, but what do you do with that information? It just kind of disappears.

I also find people gushing about their children quite overwhelming. I understand they want to share the good points in their day, but it can create a false impression of what it's like to be a new parent, because it's actually a lot of hard work.

And then I had a few – well, more than a few – miscommunications. The nuances of what you truly mean don't always translate on Facebook. It's such a blunt tool. I think it can bring out something quite heartless in people – because they can't see the reactions to their comments, they feel free to be bolshier and more confrontational. I was the same, and often I would feel quite a lot of remorse for saying something I'd been passionate about in the moment, but [actually] didn't really feel that strongly about.

At one point I decided to unfriend everybody who wasn't an actual friend I saw in real life. That caused problems too... it offended people, but that hadn't been my intention. All those politics – I felt caught up in this kind of prism of teenage-hood and I just didn't want to be there any more.

I do miss out on a lot of stuff not being on Facebook. But I stopped getting FOMO (fear of missing out), which was massive for me. You tend to stop getting invited to stuff when you have kids, but you're still seeing pictures of your friends going out and think, why wasn't I invited? Now I don't know and I don't care.

I've replaced it with Instagram, which is milder; it's like Facebook methadone."

INSTAGRAM: Less addictive? Less mean? Or really just as bad (and far more public)? Photo: Reuters. 

'IT'S ABOUT PUBLICISING YOURSELF': Simon Farrell-Green is a writer. His website Eat Here Now is a guide to Auckland's restaurant scene. He deactivated earlier this year.

"I started to think Facebook was getting bitchier. Or maybe I was getting softer, I don't know. One day I posted a quote from a friend which I thought was very cool and a bunch of people were really cruel about it. I just remember thinking, I don't know if you're joking or not, but you've got me really upset. This is school yard stuff and I can't be f***ed with it.

I used to turn it on in the morning and I wouldn't say I was on it all day, but I was pretty active. As a freelancer working from home, Facebook gave me a sense of connection – that watercooler thing. I think, for a long time, that's how I justified it – being connected and knowing about stuff is kind of my job.

The bragging side of Facebook never bothered me because I think that's what its basic function is – it's about publicising yourself. In my circle of friends so many of us are self employed, social media is part of your tool kit to keep your name out there.

I have noticed I have more time since I quit Facebook. I made a conscious decision to read more, to read the newspaper. I do miss out on that viral stuff that goes around really fast, the video or the joke or whatever. I was worried about losing contact with overseas friends and I think that has happened; I definitely feel less connected to people... I guess I'm quite conflicted about it. I'm not a Facebook hater, but I was getting a bit fatigued with it.

I'm on Instagram now, it's more controllable, or it feels that way. It's a bit gentler."

- Have you ever tried to quit Facebook? Do you think you need a detox from it? 

Sunday Magazine