lauren paige kennedy
A bruising election forced me to acknowledge a toxic relationship I was seemingly addicted to despite its emotionally unhealthy drawbacks. Goodbye, Facebook. I'm not ghosting you. But this is the end.
Dear Facebook and My List of Friends:
Remember the early days? It was the first blush of a love affair.
I remember when we met cute. It was 2007. New users like me were a cobbled collection of shiny, happy people. Adjusting to a life-changing social interface, one that only required a keyboard and an Internet connection to travel back in time and simultaneously create a new kind of future. Like the photos of our babies we haltingly shared before logging off for days, we were barely crawling. Testing boundaries with so many wobbly steps. Never imagining what this thing would grow into after we'd learned to run with it.
The dawning Facebook age just so happened to coincide with another seismic shift: the popular campaign and subsequent election of our first African American president. Together we passed around Will.I.Am’s “Yes We Can” video and felt a stirring, unfamiliar pride well within our chests. This musical tribute of the junior senator’s soaring speech affirmed both our dreams and begrudging suspicions: yes, maybe we could be the kind of people, and the sort of nation, that lived up to big ideals. Choosing equality and color blindness over fear and intolerance. And it made us feel good. Dare I say it? It made us feel hopeful. Through budding social media we’d tapped into a pure mountain spring, a mountain we’d climbed together to joyously overcome. Understanding at last how millions of its underground tributaries, invisible from the surface, did indeed overlap and join and course as one.
Next: old classmates appeared from the murky past. One said to me: “Wow. The years have been kind to you.” This was his polite way of acknowledging a transformation he never saw coming. When we last crossed paths at our Midwestern high school in the mid-1980s I was a snarling Bauhaus brat, angry and puffy and sullen, the sort of girl who shaved one side of her head (and not the other), defiantly smoked cigarettes during the lunch hour, and hung out in the art room in smock-like apparel. I had my reasons for such draped gloom but didn’t articulate them; teenagers silently wear churning emotions on their black sleeves. Suddenly twenty years had passed and I was living in LA, blonde and lean, with a handsome husband and two beautiful daughters, serenely smiling before an ocean sunset. These were strange new times. Heads spun.
Such curiosity is what drove our friends’ list at the start of this brave social experiment: “Whatever happened to…???” A viral dance of sorts soon followed: who would friend whom first? Would it happen at all? What about the fallen-out bestie, the one with whom you fought so bitterly before your wedding in 1999? Would she find her way back to you? Or you, to her? Could you be so bold as to reconnect with the Lothario who broke your heart back in 1993? Or was it better to wait him out, make him grovel with his own invitation of rekindled friendship, one you'd sit on for days or weeks before deigning to respond, if you responded at all?
Our lists grew into the hundreds, sometimes thousands, and eventually settled into three distinct, friendly categories: those we adored engaging with once again, a consortium of tribal members we’d collected with intention through present and past adventures. Then there were connections we merely accepted, feeling neither strongly for nor against their presence in our virtual lives. Finally, there were the random mugs we couldn’t pick out in a lineup, people we vaguely—if at all—remembered, and perhaps never actually met in person. Some of them, ironically enough, we didn’t even much “like.”
The years marched on and we grew more sophisticated. A few of us began peddling our wares. Why not? Here was a trapped audience of intimates! Who could be guilt-tripped through allied friendship into buying our anti-aging creams, scented candles, and real estate, too! This annoyed me, but not as much as the revealed narcissists, by definition repeat offenders. Those who posted photos of their own faces over and again, close ups of identical grinning visages against the backdrops of various locales, and always from the most attractive, overly filtered angles. “Aren’t you sick of yourself?” I’d wonder as I’d scroll past another toothy portrait, this one taken in Antigua.
But who am I to throw stones? I became a shameless self-promoter. I posted my published writing at every turn, partly because my editors expected me to share my work in hopes it might go viral and attract a wider audience. But also—I'm not proud yet I’ll admit it—because I wanted to show every kid who’d ever known me as a Bauhaus brat how I’d left our dying Rust Belt town to do something semi-interesting with my life. The same kids who’d once mocked or dismissed me, or whispered behind my back that I was a freak, a loose girl, someone who was clearly — tsk tsk — imploding. Sharing my latest cover story with Cameron, Seth, Harrison, Chelsea, Jimmy, Sheryl, or Queen Latifah, said without actually saying: “Hey, former high school frenemy! Yes, you! The one who actually gasped upon spotting me in the parking lot at our twenty-five year high school reunion, clapped her hands and squealed: ‘Most improved! Most improved!’ [Note: This really happened. I was mortified. I only went to the damn thing, the first and only reunion I’ve attended, because the pressure I felt from Facebook pals to do so.] I share my latest essay or feature story or celebrity sit-down for you and all the people I came up with because you once believed I’d go down in flames, not in print.”
I’m just being honest. I haven't grown up to cure cancer or do anything particularly substantive, but I didn't settle for unchallenging, nor mundane. And I'm not above letting you know that. If you’re honest, too, you’ll recognize some of these baser human motivations in your own posts. Nearly every gay man I know shares fabulous selfies, fabulous travel escapes, and fabulous career accomplishments. Why? Because these men turned out fabulously, that’s why, despite being a member of a widely scorned, marginalized, and bullied underclass. And Facebook allows them to tell you so. YOU may still be in your crap hometown. But him? He’s art directing at Vogue, running movie campaigns, writing gourmet food reviews, or even meeting with foreign dignitaries. So there.
Facebook actually encourages a never-ending game of one-upmanship among everyone in our feeds, an uncouth behavior that not so long ago was socially frowned upon. We used to call it crass; now we call it "humblebrag."
The seeds for division were sown from the start, don’t you see? Life is just an extension of high school, and high school for most of us was Lord of the Flies.
It took our first test, the Arab Spring of 2011, to get us to freely debate politics on Facebook and fall back into an instantly familiar bullying banter. No one then was intensely hating on President Obama yet—this was soon to come—at least not on my feed, which consisted of loved ones and liked ones I’d acquired living and working in Rockford, Ill., and in nearby Madison and Minneapolis, plus New York, London, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, too. (I’ve moved a lot; that’s another essay.) Here was an unexpected mix of white dudes who wore flannel shirts and never missed a Friday evening fish fry; female compatriots of all stripes who I once marched with in “Take Back the Night” rallies; my African-American “little sister,” unofficially adopted in 1998 through a NYC Big Brothers-Big Sisters program, and her young pals; an array of acerbic Brits; Santa Monica sun-worshippers; and the aforementioned gay posse. In sum an assortment of small town dreamers and good 'ole boys aligned with big city writers, artists, musicians, political wonks, publicity mavens, and jet-setting fashionistas. On any given day on Facebook I might discuss: world affairs; the latest tragic style trend; my youngest sibling’s chicken coop in Minnesota; why The Replacements are the best band, like, ever; traveling to Iran after years of being exiled from it; and the breakup of TomKat’s marriage because Scientology turned the biggest star on Earth into a total wackjob. The mix made it interesting. The mix made it fun to engage.
But that all changed with Sandy Hook. It was December 2012. Twenty slaughtered and still partially toothed six-year-olds mowed senselessly down in their classrooms, along with the six adults who tried to save them from a deeply disturbed, semi-automatic assault weapon-toting teenager. Our collective, socially interwoven grief alchemized. For some of us, anguish distilled into a frothing rage. For others, a taut defensiveness. Now the NRA was front and center. The mothers in my friends’ list, and some of the fathers, too, metaphorically took up arms against the Second Amendment diehards. It was ideological warfare. My Facebook feed quickly devolved into a series of traded blows. Each side bloodied the other. Each claimed moral advantage. We kept logging on for yet another painful round. But the final bell never rang, and the so-called social network never released us from each other’s tight right uppercut to the chin.
The honeymoon was clearly over. I should have seen it then. Time spent on Facebook showed all the signs of being a dysfunctional relationship, maybe even an abusive one. The government shutdown of 2013 all but begged for stark sides to be drawn. Debates morphed into bitter name-calling. Forget throwing stones; we were tossing partisan bombs even as Facebook was secretly conducting social experiments on us, tampering with the feeds of some 700,000 users to determine if the network could alter our emotional states.
I stubbornly ignored the signs, logging on with increasing ardor. Like every bad love song every written describing an affair you can’t shake off for solitary freedom, I was addicted. I focused resolutely on the photos of our kids, who were no longer babies but elementary and middle-schoolers now, singing in recitals, water-skiing on lakes, and vacationing in Hawaii. The funny GIFs and memes. The pithy commentary. The political mind-flexing, too. Yes, I sometimes took a bruising and all-too-eagerly gave one back. But interacting honestly isn’t always fun and games, I rationalized; it’s important to understand how the other side truly feels, right? Meanwhile, the reptilian part of my brain looked hungrily for those hourly red flags, rewarding it with a slew of new notifications. Ding ding ding! I could not resist those red flags, nor did I care to heed them.
By 2015, as the endless pre-election onslaught between a thousand vying Republicans and a measly three Democrats brewed and finally boiled down to The Orange One vs. The Woman, the rhetoric got downright ugly. Unapologetic fights over Obamacare’s costly insurance premiums. Nasty comments about Hillary’s emails and Bill’s hypocritically shady history with women. Denouncements and defenses of Trump’s notorious pussy-grabbing. The scattered GOP’ers I’d collected from the East Coast actually allied themselves with my Midwestern comrades, total strangers “friending” one another to gang up on my rampantly liberal posts. It was beginning to feel like a 21st-century Civil War, where even family members tried to off one another with gutting jabs.
The subsequent election by less than half of the electorate of an openly racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, $25M fraud-settling, hate-mongering candidate to the presidency—the culmination of, yes, Facebook-curated fake news, a partisan FBI, proven Russian interference, millions of angry (and often fact-free) white people in the Midwest and the South, a conspiring DNC, and a seriously flawed candidate in Ms. Clinton—makes the dysfunction of my feed, and my relationship to Facebook, impossible to keep ignoring.
This dalliance is no longer good for my soul. It’s decidedly bad for it. I want out.
The election’s divisive dynamic—city mouse versus country mouse—also illustrates my path, and the path of so many like me, on and off my Facebook feed. We fled our dying towns in so-called Flyover States, leaving our friends for more cosmopolitan climes, oftentimes for higher education and global adventures, what some might consider to be more exciting jobs, and usually better-paying ones. (Maybe this characterization is in itself elitist; not everyone is drawn to the bright lights of the big cities, and all that goes with living and working in them. And perhaps we latté-drinking, Prius-driving liberals should not assume our lives are inherently better due to plain geography with such offensively smug self-assurance.) Inevitably, many transplants did grow more open-minded with our daily interactions with every type of person in diverse urban areas; we generally became more accepting, too, of cultural, ethnic, sexual, and religious differences. How could we not? Those who we curtly abandoned in our native, rural regions perhaps grew more insulated, more homogenous with fewer progressively minded folks sticking around to challenge a predominantly Christian, overwhelmingly Caucasian status quo. Maybe both sides drifted to extremes; I'll agree that liberals likely did. This pluralistic drain, with a Democratic flight to blue coastal states and liberal urban pockets, helped create the current political chasm. Facebook, with its unfortunate algorithmic distortions, mirrored and exacerbated this gulf, creating the now famous “echo chambers” in which we all reside.
The gulf now feels insurmountable. At least it does while “socializing” online in the way we do in 2017, and I certainly include myself in this shameful display: shouting over one another in typed text with a snarkiness we would never, ever employ while speaking face to face to our neighbors, colleagues, and friends.
I don't want to do it anymore, or be that person. I'm sorry.
And so, as President Obama’s eight-year term comes to a close, so, too, does the era of Facebook. At least it does for me. It began with soaring hope and change. It ends in tears. I’m grown now, with my eyes wide open. I’m closing my account, or at least I'm trying to—how do I retain nine years of posted photos and videos, many of them irretrievable elsewhere, of a life lived and babies growing, if I shut it down completely? This question I'm still sorting out. But I'm leaving it and all who follow it, posting this so my friends understand why I’m once against returning to lovely, mostly disconnected anonymity. (I've already taken down Twitter. I may hang on to Instagram; it's more about images than words, and I do love to keep an eye on dear friends flung far and wide.) I’ll miss all the kids and the memes and the pithiness and some of the political mind-flexing, too, to be sure, but this affair is done, a modern love story that wasn’t designed to last. Facebook hasn’t exactly broken my heart, Mark Zuckerberg. But it has, without a doubt, virtually beaten it to a pulp.
Goodbye. Do not attempt to contact me. At least not here--
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