This post was inspired by a great series of essays about, broadly, the self on Facebook by Nathan Jurgenson, Rob Horning, and Whitney Erin Boesel. They’ve given more careful thought to these issues and you really should read their essays if you are interested in identity and ‘the web.’ Here I’ll just say a little bit about why I quit Facebook and how I think quitting was related to the performance of self and social time.
I was on Facebook for about 4 years, and I was a very active user. I know people who are reluctant to make status updates or share things, but I wasn’t one of those people. I made a large number of mostly inane status updates. I’d sit and wait for new status updates like an addict. For a long time it was a lot of fun. I didn’t play a lot of the games; for me creating and reading status updates was the fun. Like a lot of people, I didn’t like how often I was hitting refresh, but I didn’t quit Facebook because it was taking up too much of my day.
On February 1st of this year, however, I did quit. Why? First, I wasn’t very excited about producing free content for what was soon to become a publicly traded company or being an easy mark for advertisers. One time I made a stupid joke about Louis L’Amour and suddenly my sidebar was filled with ads for bad novels and ugly clothes. Second, and where I see connections with the essays I’ve mentioned above, I was not a fan of Timeline.
I remember saying to a friend (a former Facebook friend and someone I still get dinner with fairly regularly) that I thought the great part about Facebook was that with each status update I could eviscerate the past me. Yes, I was connected with family and long-time friends, but mostly I had these ‘friend’ships with acquaintances from high school and college, or even people from ‘now’ that I barely knew. I never felt great pressure to honor any past version of self on Facebook, nor to think strategically about the image I was crafting for the future. It is not that I was never a sincere actor in Goffman’s sense, but mostly I was just goofing around. Facebook was, to me, play. The people who ‘really’ knew me would know I was playing, and I simply assumed the people I didn’t know that well were doing the same. Everybody was in on the con, everybody was cooling out the mark. One of the most exciting parts about play is that it is in the moment. It is active and imaginative. Anybody who as a kid created a spontaneous game knows that you could ruin a lot of the fun quickly by trying to play it again or establishing rules. Play can allow us to bracket the past and the future (no, it doesn’t always do this and everyone in the game needs to commit if it’s going to work).
To me, Timeline was aptly named because now time, in particular past and future, was much more likely to matter on Facebook. Boesel refers to this as “unwanted resurgences of the past” and eloquently suggests how weighty they can be, whether online or not. Suddenly my past, and the strictures it puts on action and relationships, was going to stifle some of the fun of Facebook. To my memory, there wasn’t anything there that I was ashamed of, my “digital dirt” (as Jurgenson refers to it) wasn’t that dirty, but I’m sure I said things that would be hard to explain from the perspective of ‘now.’ But those were things said when Facebook essentially had no past or future. I took full advantage of that. To Horning‘s point, Facebook was ruining it by potentially putting me in a situations, if someone was to vindictively mine my Timeline, in which I might have to provide an account for some breach of who I was playing today. I didn’t like that. A big reason I quit, then, was that the moment to moment thrill of Facebook-play was being dampened by the introduction of time.