In Which My Friend Count Plummets

I used to have a sticky note on my laptop that read, “Stop hitting refresh. You are not one of Skinner’s rats.

That’s exactly what I felt like, sitting there on Facebook. Like I was a hungry rat pushing a lever, waiting for a food pellet to drop. Or, more accurately, for that tiny red bubble to appear. I’ve been using Facebook since I was a freshman in high school. In my small pre-college program, housed on a college campus, we were given college email addresses during our first year there. Though it’s difficult for me now to remember a time before my mom and little sister had free reign of social media, Facebook used to require a .edu email to sign up. So, with the help of my loophole, I did. Do anything regularly for 8 years and it becomes a habit. A less diplomatic word might be 'addiction.' Your brain develops neural pathways based on rewards from your behavior. Because my brain is saturated with endorphins when I see that tiny red bubble floating at the top right side of my homepage, I will continue to push the lever.

I have over 700 friends on Facebook, but I can count on two hands the number of people who truly invest in my life. These few friends are the ones that make it beyond the online veneer and into the messy, tangled unposted details of who I am. It’s in the weaknesses and imperfections of real life that friendship has a fighting chance. Facebook strips us of those. Online, we can edit, retouch, and erase until we have the perfect digital persona. I was spending an absurd amount of time curating my digital life, under an imagined pressure to create an online persona that somehow captured my best qualities and hid all the worst ones. Without any cracks in our digital facade, it becomes difficult for anyone to get through to the person behind the profile picture. And honestly? I’m not sure how many of us really want them to. Nowadays, we are faced with a confounding paradox about relationships: we are lonely but afraid of intimacy. We want connection without the demands of friendship.

My problem with Facebook came into sharp clarity when I found myself using other people’s lives to feel better or worse about mine. I was weighing my happiness against an endless stream of empty content from people I barely knew.  I was jealous, prideful, dismissive and obsessive (all at once). I was using real people as spare parts to support my fragile ego. I was using Facebook as a stand-in for real community. And I was relying on what amounted to gossip (Facebook posts, albums, profile picture swaps, relationship status changes) as a substitute for taking time to ask my friends about the real hurts, sorrows, and celebrations that were happening in their lives.

We are made to long for good things: connection, community, affirmation, and acceptance. The path to these things, however, is very difficult. With Facebook, I thought I'd found a way to get a cheap hit. In notifications and red bubbles, you can find instant relief from the hard task of growing and sustaining these things in our everyday lives. The results are brief and unsatisfying. The truth is that to achieve any of these good things in the way God intended them requires hard work and sacrifice. To find community means letting go of your selfishness. To find connection means relinquishing convenience. To find affirmation and acceptance means understanding where your true value lies. I've tried to use Facebook (and sites like it) to satisfy these intense cravings, but it only seems to make me yearn for the real thing more. God has intentionally built these desires into us. Things like loyal friends and good conversations are treasures to us here on earth, but also reminders that perfect understanding, connection, and acceptance can only happen in heaven. These impulses are us longing for a home that isn’t quite here yet. But, when I see flashes of home in deep friendships and rich conversation, it brings me a little closer to the person I was meant to be. Not the painstakingly-crafted social celebrity that Facebook made me into, but the girl underneath with all her cracks and imperfections and heartache, but also with a tremendous capacity for joy and loyalty and love. That's the person I want my friends to know. And Facebook was standing in the way. 

So I quit. I’m still experiencing a kind of phantom limb syndrome. Before my Google homepage has even loaded, I find I have typed ‘fa’ into the search bar, a disturbingly routine holdover from nearly 8 years of Facebook usage. At the first flicker of boredom I feel when writing or designing, my browser is open and I find myself dully looking at my bookmarks bar for the little blue f, only to realize that it’s gone. Now, I talk to fewer people. I’ve traded comments for conversations and photo likes for phone calls. My 700 rapidly dwindled to less than a dozen. I’m finding that the smaller number brings with it sweetness and depth — not in spite of, but because of the extra effort it takes. There are a finite number of people you can truly know and be known by in a lifetime. I want to love mine well.