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Opinion Quitting social media enriched my life hugely - would you dare to hit delete?

I had a thousand Facebook friends but no one begged me to stay, writes Laoighseach Ní Choistealbha.

OVER CHRISTMAS 2018 I posted a status on Facebook announcing that I was leaving the site.

I was fully in the network. I scrolled, liked, shared and commented, I engaged in all of the etiquette required of modern relationships. I had more than a thousand friends.

My statuses and photo uploads earned me hearts, comments, likes, and reshares.

I had created and maintained ‘friendships’ on the site which I saw as the beating heart of my social life, connecting me to the lives of my friends through a web of online engagement, news, icons, likes and clicks.

I had set up my Facebook account in the year 2009 when I was fifteen.

The internet didn’t mean much to me at the time though, we didn’t have an internet connection at home until 2007, so while my pre-Facebook years were spent posting embarrassing comments on Bebo and arranging my Top 16 friends with care – I was more interested in reading, art, and schoolwork.

Building up your profile

But then in time, as Facebook outlasted Bebo, my classmates were joined on the online hub by Gaeltacht acquaintances, school mates that I hardly knew, who were in turn followed by college friends and strangers that I met in a nightclub bathroom.

“I’ll add you on Facebook! We should definitely meet up!” we promised. 

Facebook was part of life, part of us. We were our online personae and those artificial personae were us: an ersatz mirror-image of ourselves.

Potential friends or lovers would scan over our Facebook pages like a kind of baseline curriculum vitae of our lives. We fussed over our profiles, touched them up and built up our online selves over years and decades.

I once met someone my own age who didn’t have social media at all and I was shocked. I backed away from him subconsciously, this modern-day Luddite who eschewed what made the rest of us normal, connected, together.

Who didn’t want to be part of that collective? Who didn’t want to construct their own personality shrine to present to the world? I eyed him suspiciously, from the safety of the connected tribe.

Who cares?

When I posted a status announcing that I was leaving Facebook, no-one cared.

We delude ourselves into this fantasy of connection, that these sites help us maintain friendships and connect with people.

Over a decade of having a Facebook account, I had connected with more than a thousand people and I imagined that my sudden exit from the site would provoke a reaction with a slew of people begging me to stay. 

Of course, none of them did.

I mentioned in my status that anyone who wanted to connect with me should request my email or phone number, expecting hoards to descend upon me in a panic.

Roughly ten people messaged me requesting my contact details, that is about 1% of my Facebook ‘friends’. 

And those were all people that I knew well in real life, they were close friends and acquaintances with whom most of my dealings were already happening offline. 

The fact that no-one cared I was leaving Facebook was both saddening and liberating.

It was saddening in the sense that I had spent hours maintaining an online presence for people who didn’t care if they never saw my carefully-chosen profile picture again; it was liberating in the sense that I had now chosen a life that would not have the background chatter of people with whom I hadn’t spoken in years and that I no longer had to worry about their disinterested gaze on my life.

But Facebook doesn’t make it easy to leave.

Quitting is never easy

First, you have to deactivate the account, and then delete it. There’s no well-signposted way of removing yourself from their service. I had to search online for how to complete the task, as I couldn’t find the delete function.

Once I had managed to complete the necessary steps, however, Facebook hit me with some emotional blackmail. It brought up a page with the faces of my most engaged-with Facebook friends: my mother, my brother, my partner, my friends.

Facebook asked me if I was sure that I wanted to leave my connections with all of these people. The sight of that page made me feel bad. Briefly, I doubted my decision, thinking these are my friends and I’m withdrawing from them. I’m betraying our connection.

Then, I remembered the only 1% of my Facebook friends actually cared enough to ask for my email and I firmly clicked the final deletion button – and just like that, the persona that I had maintained with care and attention for almost a decade, disappeared.

So fall the dominoes. With Facebook gone, the other social media sites fell away; Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter were deleted by April 2019, almost without a thought (although I retained LinkedIn for professional purposes). They meant nothing.

My days became longer. My tasks became completed. My life became streamlined. My work became more productive. My friends became real.

I grieved for the thousands of hours I had spent online that I could never get back, squandered on the architecture of nothingness.

I woke up and didn’t check my phone. I called people. I met people. I deleted the email apps from my phone. I turned my phone off during work hours. I checked email on my desktop computer once a day.

I wrote most of a poetry collection. I went to yoga classes and I lost forty-two pounds (I had been seriously overweight). 

I began to live an analogue life, as much as possible. I became an analogue millennial. 

I respect technology and all that it does for us, but I understand now how much it demands from us in return.

One evening as I was out for a stroll enjoying the April air,  I walked past a gourmet burger restaurant in Galway city centre. 

I glanced in the window of the restaurant: a family of six, circled around a table, five of them staring downwards at their mobile phones.

The oldest family member (either a father, uncle or grandfather) was gazing out of the window as I passed. Our eyes met.   

Laoighseach Ní Choistealbha is an Irish Research Council Laureate Scholar on the Project ‘Republic of Conscience: Human Rights and Modern Irish Poetry’ in NUI Galway.

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Laoighseach Ní Choistealbha
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