Social media: Why can't I just leave? Why is it hard to stay?

20 November 2014

I am in love with the internet. It was love at first sight. I believe in the collective opportunities it enables, and I still believe in its power to build a better, more just world – because I still believe in people. I strongly believe online spaces are places we inhabit, as we do in the physical world. And to live there, we need a body, a body that can flow and change much easier than in other spaces. But at the same time, there is a reification imposed on us, displacing that mutational power that the internet has to offer.

I am a social media user, for several years now. I think Facebook, in particular, and the way it sets what is possible and what is not possible for its users, is slowly imitating the circle of life but in such a way that it narrows down our options, rather than opening them up. We start feeling more and more trapped after investing so much of our data, history, affections and expectations in our pages. I want a life online, but I want it my way – which means something diverse, not binary, something changing, sometimes questioning or indecisive.

When you are born

On December 2008, my first and only child was born. Her entrance into this world was not as we planned, well at least not for me: I am not sure about her own plans because she has always been such a delightfuly anxious i-can’t-wait-please-mama determined, lovely girl. I was so thrilled about being a first-time mom, I was so proud of my daughter, and so in love with her, that I gave her an existance not only in the offline but also in the online world. I gave birth to her online, as I did with my own flesh and blood. I just wanted to share the news of her evolution with the world, her funny faces, her playing the drums for the first time, her first mashed pumpkin, her adorable little butt slipping out of her diapers, or the time she fell trying to take her first steps. In order to do this – it was some kind of not very smart reflex – I oppened her own Facebook account. Just for her, just about her, managed by me. She had no means to approve or dissaprove my action. I pushed her into the cyberspace without even thinking or asking, just as a continuation of my own online existance.

At the time, it was my way of showing how proud I was of her; and I lived far away from her grandparents, uncles and aunts, so that reinforced the need. But I regret it today, almost 6 years later. I deleted the account for good – well, this in terms of Facebook just means that I never logged in again, basically – and I decided that whatever it is that I feel I want to share in relation to my daughter, I would do it on my own profile, from the perspective of my motherhood, and talking about my feelings, not talking for her. She will have time to make her own decisions.

I suspect that as a digital native she will have a set of different tools and conceptions to approach technology, and social media in particular, compared to me – a digital migrant, kind of testing out my online existance through error and success. And that was a big learning curve for me.

When you die

When a young friend of mine passed away, his Facebook profile was still there. Other Facebook users who had found out about the bad news were visiting his page and leaving messages. It became some kind of online wake, a social media public goodbye.

TV news programmes in Argentina have incorporated Facebook and Twitter as sources of information when it comes to news on cases of murder or suicide. I remember this incident when a TV channel was covering the news of a woman murdered by her former partner, and part of the coverage was about featuring pictures taken from her still-active Facebook account, showing them hugging, on holiday, and other private moments. The information was there, so they just took it and used it. Who gave them the permission to do that and to post their images on national media?

Then there was the incident of a young girl who committed suicide. Among the explanations for her suicide, the TV channel highlighted a post she had published some time ago saying something completely cryptic. The media decided to read this as a prophecy of her final fate.

Suicidal notes left on Facebook have unfortunately become common. They talk about how lonely, desperate and unsupported some people feel in this world, offline and online. But we live in times when our online bodies survives our physical ones. And who does that online body belong to then? My data is my body, and my online data will be postumus.

When you log out

There is no way out of Facebook. Once you register, it is basically a one-way street. All your information will be there, waiting for you to come back, even though you might get furious and say: “I’m outta here!”. But you will come back, probably because you know you can, and all you left in an outburst of rage will still be there, waiting for you, as you left it.

I once read this great blog post talking about a Facebook user who logged off every time she was not using Facebook, in order not to allow her profile to “exist” while her body was not there. No-one could leave her messages, post anything on her wall, check out her pictures or her personal information. She would simply not be there at all, as it happens when we are not home. It made a lot of sense to me as a strategy, and it really shows how tangled our offline and online bodies are, and how one affects the other.

When your love status changes

New relationships, heartbreaks, marriage, engagement, or even a subtile “it’s complicated” status can spark the most unexpected consequences when shared on social media.

As part of one of its latest privacy settings, Facebook incorporated the option of choosing whether or not to display some of your personal information, among them your relationship status. If you want to know, you can ask me. But what I personally find interesting is that fact that Facebook includes this particular part of our lives as something supposedly relevant to our online existance. Is it, I wonder? It is another way of linking people up, for sure, whether it means triggering interest by reading a “single” status on one person’s profile, or by knowing who that user is happily married to, therefore enabling the contacts net to expand.

I announced my engagement to a wonderful person on Facebook, just by clicking on my status and changing it from “single” to “engaged”. And it was a blast, even bigger than I expected. Many people commented on the news on my wall, from sincere heartfull congratulations, to suspiscious “how the hell did this happen?” remarks.

Why did I share that, you may ask? Mainly because I wanted some friends and family who live far away and I don’t see frequently to know about it. But I had another, more secret and dark purpose: to help clean out my already out-of-control contacts list. By this I mean that anyone on my contacts list who reads something so personal and thinks “who is this person? why is she on my contact list? I don’t really care if she got engaged or not” will unfriend me. This is a great way to clean out your contacts list periodically (ironically speaking).

When you do everyday stuff

Oversharing in social media is today not only a matter of how much you reveal about your private existance, but also a matter of security. A quick jump out to buy groceries, going to the gym, the huge line at the bank, taking your kid to the playground, sleep time, your teenager kid spending his summer holidays in a specific camp, tweeting from that sunny park far away from your home, attending this amazing party at a friend’s house or even announcing a weekend trip to the mountains… Have you ever considered how much information a simple post or an spontaneous tweet like the ones mentioned reveals? You are basically saying to people: “Hey guys, I won’t be at home, so be my guest”. Or even worse: “My daughter is walking back from school according to the same itinerary she has followed every day for the last 2 years”. Of course I am not proposing self-censorship, but awareness and responsability instead. This is a crucial and necessary thing to hold onto as gently but assuredly as you do your computer mouse. Just do a simple mind-check before posting anything on social media, as straight forward as: Is it safe for me and my loved ones to share this? Does it enable other people to hurt us?

When you change your looks

Facebook has become the place to look for feedback when you are about to – or, for the bolder ones, already have – change the way you look: cutting your hair, dying it, make-up choices, what hat to wear, or trying out a new swimming suit, and more. Of course the feedback is quite often overwhelmingly positive, which makes us feel reasured in our decision. But why do you need reassurance from a group of people that you might not have seen or talked to in 20 years? And secondly, that is what Facebook seems to be designed for: to like. Of course we feel great, and everyone is our friend, and we want to stay in a world where every cyberbody likes every other cyberbody. That is where Facebook is heading to, in a more magnificent and ambitious way. To stop being a social network, and to become a happy country.

When I exercise my activism

I am positive that many contacts in my social media groups have blocked me or even unfriended me because of posting “boring” content related to my online activism, or the unhappiness that some conflicts or social injustices cause in me. Not all my Facebook friends are my ideological friends, and not all my ideological friends are on Facebook. And all those friends who find my activism-related posts not suitable for their walls are entitled to choose to keep me on their friends list, or not. And that is perfectly fine. Sometimes I am happy and sometimes I am not, but I want to feel free to express that activism – same as I do in my offline existance. And that is perfectly fine too.

The overall lesson for me as a user is that Facebook is not a space for much disagreement. The underlying statement is that “connecting with friends and the world around you” means liking everything about it. The spaces are limited when it comes to commenting critically, if not non-existant. You are my friend, I like your post, I share your content, I comment on your picture. And I think this idealised uni-dimensional version of life that Facebook proposes makes it hard for us to deal with the greys, or even the blackholes, as everyone does in their offline existance. Often my cyberbody feels amputated when being on Facebook.

When you are on holidays

Everybody wants to show how much fun they are having. Did we get to the point where life is not fun enough if you don’t post about it on social media? Bluffing on Facebook about our lifestyles has become the new self-promotional celebrity magazine, with you as the star – without the money, the fame or the papparazis. And its for free. You become your own papparazzi, deliberately sharing your intimate bits of leisure with the world.

That is one of the beautiful things that the internet in general, and social media in particular, allows: sharing and having a voice multiplied, or in other terms, the sociability and free expression that our online existance allows us. But come on, there is so much more we can do to honour our online existance than just sharing pictures wearing a bikini or travelling in a hot-air balloon.

If having fun or experiencing leisure is just one of the facets of our offline lives, why should it become the univocal dimension that many users consider worthy of featuring on their walls? I think the criteria ruling many groups o social media somehow follows the motto “show you are happy or go away”. Facebook in particular seems to function under an algorhythm that commands “be-happy-shit-happens”. The more I experience this, the more I treasure the “dislike” option I have in my offline existance.

Image by Chris Lister used under Creative Commons license

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Responses to this post

Nicely written and thoughtful talk. You illustrate nicely the issue of bodily integrity (linkage between our offline and online self – point first raised by jac sm kee in privacy puzzle post from 2009 ). I really like your point that there is no space for ‘negative” feelings and experiences like disagreements, shitty moods, dislikes…at social networks. And i wonder how much it is a result/outcome of profit/marketing-oriented design of social networks which is also solely using&promoting values of youth, happiness, beauty, …..

KF - 3 years 21 weeks ago

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