Monday, July 15, 2013
The train ride was an eventful one. We'd been stalled in Alpine, Texas, left to our own devices for an hour, and sauntered over the hill to the beckoning lights; there, we found the city's annual arts festival, and like the strange refugees we were they welcomed us with open arms. We sat around the firelights drinking homemade cider wine and comparing stories from our lives. Joseph Campbell would have been proud.
The righteous girl (the blonde one who had broken up the impending race fight between a drunk hillbilly and a family of Mexicans) bought me dinner without prompting. I told her I didn't need it, that I had rationed for the trip, but she insisted I couldn't survive on Life Savers and instant coffee for another day. Then the train whistle blew, and we all ran like children to a dinner bell, back to the traveling motel that was our temporary home.
That night, in the cafe car, long after last call and the closing of the snack counter, the remainder of the cider wine flowed freely. The hippie girl, cradling her baby, confessed that she was on the run from the law and her husband, who had rightful custody of the child. She cried as she listened to the advice of the wise old Latina woman, who begged her to reconsider for the safety and well being of the baby. Everyone nodded solemnly.
Finally we came to Tucson. This was my stop; I collected my bags and said my tearful, wistful goodbyes to them all -- to the young hip-hop producer on his way to L.A. with a stolen laptop, a DVD-R full of beats and VST plugins, and a dream of fame and fortune; to the teenage girl on her way to a MENSA convention, eager to prove herself among similar geniuses; to the Dominican man who I talked with about Philip K Dick and Watchmen; to my good and honest friends, one and all, whom I cared for deeply.
Then I turned and walked away, and none of us ever spoke to each other again.
I left Facebook this week. The decision was warranted; I was becoming increasingly agitated, adversarial, foul-mouthed and inhumane whenever I used the site. Every friend's post was an excuse for me to weigh in with my usual contrarian opinions, spoiling for a debate with anyone foolish enough to take the bait. Other bad habits began to creep back into my life along with it, the door for bad behavior opened wide with invitation. I drank until I vomited and blacked out on my birthday. I spent money willy-nilly. I didn't work on my art.
I'd been noticing my slippage for months, particularly due to having made such incredible progress in the opposite direction before recently; earlier in the year I'd experimented with oxytocin, a neurochemical hormone responsible for a number of behavioral modulations, and found it quite helpful in coaxing a more compassionate, open-minded, genial version of myself to the fore. That Facebook was able to undermine this progress bothered me immensely.
For weeks, I made time in my schedule to erase my offerings on the site, going back years and deleting old content, until only a bare and present remainder of my presence there was left. No one seemed to notice, or complain; maybe in a post Graph Search world it would have been more obvious.
Then again, perhaps not. Perhaps these posts we make are only ever meant for the moment they are made in, their semi-permanency an accident of technology and commerce, half-conversations stuck in amber like mosquitoes. No one really cares what you said six months ago, or a year, or five years; particularly they don't care if you said it about things that were going on then. For illustration, 2008 was five years ago. Britney Spears has a massive neurotic meltdown; Heath Ledger overdoses; a new Indiana Jones movie opens and is heavily panned; Joe the Plumber makes his debut; Palin claims she can see Russia from her house. Nobody cares, then or now.
In any case, there were a number of people whom I felt made staying worthwhile, and for whom I'd staved off leaving as long as I felt I could. When I made my decision to go, I contacted those folks, telling them I was leaving and giving them contact information to stay in touch, should they so choose.
Out of 27 friends, I've heard from one off of Facebook since leaving. I believe I will hear from at least one more, but we regularly text message as it is, so that doesn't quite count. Leaving Facebook is leaving the train. You'll never speak again.
This is a grim realization: these connections that seem so important when they're right in front of us dissolve almost immediately as soon as they are not. Why should it be so? A friend recently suggested there may be an evolutionary reason, which sits right with me. Friends in far away tribes can't help you fight tigers; you need to bond with those that are around you in the here and now for survival. Out of sight, out of mind.
We see this in many places and forms. Spending an entire afternoon in the DMV will get you talking to whoever happens to be next to you, and before long an outside observer wouldn't know you haven't been friends for life. Stockholm Syndrome is a particularly extreme example, where captors and hostages are stuck with each other due to dire circumstances. School itself is a strange example, where one is cast in with other children of their age group arbitrarily; similar things could be said of boot camp, or of prison.
Some of the last people I'd added before leaving Facebook were classmates I knew from Milton Hershey School. Some were good friends, some were only acquaintances, and some I barely remembered at all. But they all added me, because Facebook gave them back what life took from them at graduation: a way to get back onto the train.
Which is what makes it so very sinister. Facebook, like many services before it, hijacks what was previously a useful biological process -- location bonding -- and exploits it for its own purposes; specifically, to sell advertising space. I am not near my friends in Seattle or Philadelphia; there are very few ways they can truly help me in the physical world, unless they're willing to hop on a train.
The internet is a curious beast; it emulates many of the shapes of community while offering few of the benefits. I can't say I haven't enjoyed my time in, for example, IMVU or Guild Wars; on the other hand, what has it gotten me? What can I point to on my person, in my room, in my life, that shows how meaningful those virtual interactions are? I have nothing but spent time and pretty clothing on an avatar, which can't even translate to other internet services, let alone the physical world.
Networks are not communities, and there is a dangerous precedent in equivocating the two concepts -- as dangerous as equivocating lust with love, or credit with savings.
Is the train all there is? Am I simply moving from one set of immediate focuses to another by leaving Facebook? I don't know. What I do know is that whatever train I was on was making me miserable. Maybe it has to do with reconnecting to high school friends. Back then I was certainly an awful, depressed mess; going back there on purpose can't have been the brightest idea I've had.
The first morning, waking up after deactivating my Facebook account, I felt a little lost, unsure of what to do now with my mornings. I felt like I had on those days I lived back in Nottingham, Pennsylvania, wandering through the pathways behind the state park, each day a strange and unfamiliar adventure, each moment a moment I would decide which way to go, which path to walk down as I listened to the mixtapes I'd assembled for the journey. Those were some of the most peaceful moments of my life. It's not a bad place to be, even if it's on my own.