You cant beat the sites global reach, but the dullness of the news feed is something thats easy to leave behind
Four years ago this month, I made a decision that has altered my life considerably. I left Facebook. I peeled away from the 2 billion monthly active users and into a world in which the dodgy views of people Id shared a carpool with on some trip or other werent thrust into my morning.
I didnt make a conscious decision to leave Facebook. It was similar to when I stopped smoking: every other time Id made a song and dance about quitting I had failed, but when one day I realised that it didnt make me feel good it dawned on me that I wouldnt be missing out.
But heres the thing I didnt actually delete my Facebook account. I simply stopped using it. A risky decision on my part, as for one, it means that my summer/autumn 2013 self is preserved for all the world to see. An online formaldehyde exhibit of a girl who was frequently stopped by the police on the streets of Oxford after leaving pubs carrying half-full glasses of sauvignon blanc. There is even a photograph of me in the Russian mountains, joke-wearing a Putins United Russia T-shirt, which I am surprised an angry commenter with a surplus of spare time hasnt dredged up to discredit a political column I might have written.
Thats the trouble with so much of us being online these days: the internet never forgets, Google especially (unless you employ an agency to bury your mentions or put in a right to be forgotten request). Prospective employers and even perhaps the US government will trawl your social media record. Cached content endures.
The main reason I didnt delete my account entirely, I should say, was a simple one: I used my personal login when controlling some of the Guardians branded pages. It might seem surprising for someone who frequently writes about social media to not be a Facebook user, but just as fashion editors often only seem to wear a uniform of black basics, so it is that plenty of tech writers limit their social media consumption or have their preferred platforms. I have kept on top of Facebooks developments and new features and often tested them, but experiencing them in the everyday is something I no longer do and some changes have passed me by.
So delving back into Facebook after a four-year break is a genuinely daunting experience. Its like stepping off a plane and realising theres a whole other world out there just carrying on without you. I am shocked to realise how much I have no clue about. The transformation of lives I once knew intimately. There are many babies I did not know existed. Last names changed with marriage. Sad death notifications. The shock of profile pages that are now memorial pages. These are things that in the past, even after moving away, one would hear about via text message or phone call or, even further back, through round robin emails and letters, but which now are collated on the internets noticeboard: Facebook. No need for any other town-crying.
There is a lot I am genuinely upset about being unaware of. But also a lot from people who I barely remember, or perhaps never knew from Adam (including a few Adams), and so none of their life events feels particularly relevant to me. I make a note that, if I decide to start a fresh Facebook, I will run it similarly to how I keep my Instagram feed friends and colleagues and people I have things in common with rather than how I run my Twitter, which is mass engagement and #content.
But its the messiness of my home feed that reminds me why I left in the first place. I am perplexed by some of what Facebook now thinks is a good idea: inserting into my news feed all the happy birthday messages people I know have left on other peoples walls (why? what?). Much on the news feed is a cacophony of dullness and makes for a messy interface. This I havent missed and is why I suspect my head has felt at least a little clearer these past four years. Just one less screaming technological wail of attention to deal with.
I cant get on board with the twee and reductive reaction buttons either: they dont allow for the subversive use of regular emoji. And the live video feature (nicked from, among others, Snapchat, as so much of Facebook is these days) is something that I still have high hopes for in journalism, but is too often used as a real-time depiction of the gross or dangerous or the sort of livestream of consciousness that would have Virginia Woolf rolling her eyes.
But there is something that is tempting me, when finally closing down this old account, to set up a fresh one. In my message inbox, a terrifying flash of unread red, is a note from an old friend from across the world who I havent seen for seven years. She will be in London next week. But that next week was in March. I kick myself for having missed her and, as with the pile of languishing friend requests, feel an incredible guilt at the thought that a lack of response might be taken as a slight.
One person cant seem to fathom my absence at all. But to a younger person, a generation Z-er, this itself would be odd: Facebook, they scoff, is for old people. And theres nothing that old people love more than a Rolodex. And that, I realise, by sheer reach alone, is what Facebook is still good for.