By Colleen Eren
I deleted my account and disappeared from the facebook newsfeed suddenly 2 weeks ago. A message came into my e-mail the next day from a colleague, “hey, just checking to make sure you and your family are okay? I saw that you got off of facebook….” Several others expressed curiosity as to my rationale, as I am a regular participant.
Just as there is an emergent genre of “quit lit,” describing–in almost confessional manner—why PhDs and graduate students are choosing to leave academia, so too the declarations of abandoning facebook and rationales for doing so abound. I’m not attempting here to analyze the themes of facebook “quit lit,” why such announcements seem to need a public performance (although it is very sociologically interesting), or to make an impassioned argument for either continuing to use the platform or not. I’m also not going to wade into the discussion about whether social media platforms like Facebook strengthen democracy (such as its role in the Arab Spring) or weaken it (such as with Russian interference in the 2016 US elections. My N=1.
I am an associate professor of criminal justice, I recently published my first book, Bernie Madoff and the Crisis: The Public Trial of Capitalism. I am in the midst of trying to get speaking engagements and interviews on podcasts and reviews. So why the abandonment? Don’t I need facebook to promote my work and my “brand”? Won’t I lose potentially useful contacts or make them less interested in me as a friend or colleague because I am not interacting? Won’t I be all but completely unheard, irrelevant, for all intents and purposes—dead?
I will take not figurative, but literal death as the starting point for this very brief note. My father died suddenly, unexpectedly, in his sleep at the end of 2016. I fell down a vertiginous existential black hole, where other than the seemingly unending pain of the loss, everything else—including, yes, politics—no longer could cause me to feel anything. Having sat in the basement of a funeral home filling out with my mother the almost laughably paltry forms necessary to have a human being cremated—a human being with an entire life’s history of aspirations and struggles—the idea of caring about my book, a career, or other’s opinions of my life, became ridiculous. To interact with others on facebook at that time felt almost physically nauseating. Life became stripped down to its essentials, its entire meaning brought back to the simplicity of love, loss, deep friendship, family. I asked my partner to post a message just mentioning my loss and that I wouldn’t be on for some time. I didn’t look at it again for months.
Very few of my approximately 400 “friends” on facebook actually contacted me about my loss via a visit, phone, instant message, card, e-mail, or even text—in spite of the fact that my partner had explicitly written that I would not be on the platform. Instead, they chose to leave a comment. I wasn’t angry or even disappointed—I didn’t feel much of anything– but as the year passed, it emphasized for me the complete superficiality and (excuse the hyperbole) soullessness of the form, and the narcissistic individualism it cultivates, the false sense of significance. You don’t understand, you don’t understand, you don’t understand, I thought, otherwise, you wouldn’t be here on facebook. As I gradually returned to facebook, I did so at first with the sensation of looking into a fishbowl, an outsider. I had a heightened awareness of the disturbing way in which it falsely presents the image of a concerned community, a network somehow constantly embedded in each others’ lives. I wanted to play Jonathan Edwards, to break through the mystification, to announce “death comes unexpectedly!”
This feeling of dislocation, and of seeing the fatuousness of facebook, the sense of loss of a human community and of life lived independently of its performative social capital, continues for me. Perhaps it was the recent one-year anniversary of my dad’s death and its subsequent bringing me back into depression that subconsciously led me to feel the imperative to get off of facebook. I was reminded how the veil was lifted on the nature of my relationships following that day, how small the circle in fact became when mortality in all its unpleasantness greeted me, how few people who I considered “friends” went past what is understandable discomfort with grief to actually physically, or even emotionally be present with me.
Facebook, from my vantage point, does not solidify or create relationships which endure moments of crisis. It may well be useful for promotion. But even in my experience of promoting my book, one glaring observation I’ve made is that the people who show up are not those I’ve invited on facebook. During my book launch, for instance—of 55 people, the vast majority of those who showed up do not even have a social media account. They found out from me personally, responded to my e-mail announcement, or through word of mouth. Almost all of the invitations I’ve received to give a talk are from individuals who contacted me through e-mail and who are not friends with me on facebook. Facebook allows us that false sense of having participated by merely clicking “interested,” or giving an “RSVP,” regardless of whether we actually “show up” for our friends and family, or for that matter, for issues which we consider important. It also gives us the “out” of not having to explain our absence, contributing to a culture where flaking becomes customary.
Maybe I will miss out on some opportunity by not being on facebook. Maybe someone would have seen one of my self-aggrandizing, self-promotional posts and thought that I would be fantastic for a plum job I hadn’t even considered. But those scholars and activists I most admire, who write important work, who have a considerable audience, and who are deeply embedded in causes, such as my long time friend Silvia Federici, somehow have done so without needing to post about it, and have shown up for me in moments of darkness and joy. If we do important work, if we are engaged, if we are present—and not just in writing “so sorry for your loss” or “so happy for you!” in the comment section, we are not—even in our absence on facebook—dead. We are, in fact, more alive.
Colleen Eren is a sociologist and teaches criminal justice from a critical perspective at LaGuardia Community College, where she is an associate professor.