My self-imposed exile from Facebook is over.
There were a lot of good reasons for me to walk away when I did. There are good reasons to stay away. But there are also good reasons to return.
I am under no illusion about my own importance or influence, nor am I running for anything.
In September 1980, mere weeks before he was gunned down by a deranged fan, John Lennon was asked why he and Yoko Ono were returning to the studio and to public life. Lennon started his answer with, “You breathe in and you breathe out. We feel like doing it and we have something to say.”¹
I’m no John Lennon, but I do have things to say. I miss being able to interact with friends and acquaintances online in a meaningful way.
Love it or hate it, Facebook is THE dominant player in social media. Whether it retains that position — whether the government or public will continue to tolerate and support such dominance — remains to be seen. One co-founder, Chris Hughes, argued this month in the New York Times that it’s time to break up Facebook. There is investigating. There is talk of fining, regulating, legislating and litigating. Facebook is facing intense pressure to change its ways.
And yet, users and advertisers keep coming back.
One of my old Facebook friends correctly surmised that leaving the social network would make it much more difficult to reach an audience. Damn nearly impossible, in fact, for an ordinary person. Talking to people requires meeting them where they are; Facebook has 2.3 billion active monthly users. Facebook is where people are.
Staying away from Facebook (and all of its related products) is like refusing to use a telephone, a radio, a television or a computer. It’s like refusing to use electricity.
It was good for me to get away from social media for a while. It gave me room to decompress and time to reflect. It gave me a chance to gain perspective that I could not get while I was immersed in my social media world.
And I really did break away from social media entirely. For about 11 months, the only social media content I’d see was stuff that turned up in news articles or web searches. In early March I created a Twitter account, largely to promote this blog. Twitter, however, does not lend itself to finding an audience if one is not already a public figure. Practically the only way for a relative unknown to make any ripples on Twitter is to comment on something posted by someone else who has a large following. This means that Twitter sort of encourages trolling and heckling, which I have no desire to do. Twitter users also have no way of moderating discussion on their own Tweets (none that I know of, anyway), short of blocking followers.
About a week ago I asked my wife if I could use her Facebook account to look in on some mutual friends and see what they’re up to. I’ve missed those folks. Again, Facebook has become a primary medium for people around the world to stay in contact. Do you write letters anymore? Even email, for many of us, has been relegated to communication we must do rather than anything we want to do.
Social media generally, and Facebook particularly, have become incredibly popular because they address the fundamental human need to feel understood. Solitude is fine and necessary for most of us from time to time, but extended isolation and loneliness — disconnectedness — are bad for us. Social media make it easy for us to connect, but they do not automatically bring out the best in us. This, paradoxically, can push us further apart.
Tools can be used for good or ill. To a very large degree, we get out of them what we put into them. How are we using them? What are we putting into them?
Last month, presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg — one of my early favorites — made an astute observation about the current president’s behavior while criticizing some specific online conduct. Buttigieg said, “It is not enough to condemn him; we must model something better.”
I think he’s right. I think it’s not just an empty platitude, but a call to our better angels.
It is a call to use these amazingly powerful tools for good.
¹ If you’ve never read it, check out David Sheff’s interview of John and Yoko, which was published in the January 1981 issue of Playboy magazine. It’s a remarkable piece of journalism, no matter how one might feel about the enigmatic artists, their work, or the magazine that published the article.