A friend of mine deleted her Facebook profile this week. It was rather sudden, although she did message me to ask for my other contact information before doing so, which makes it slightly less of a shock. I don't know why she did it, although I am curious and... sad. Really sad. Surprisingly sad and taken off guard. And silly - am I really mourning the loss of a friend... because she deleted her Facebook? She didn't die. She didn't tell me I would never see or hear from her again. For goodness sakes! She's still online. She still has a phone. She's still in my world... in a sense.
And, to be clear, it's not any of my business why she did it.
But without Facebook to connect us, I won't get to "see" her whenever I want. Or write on her wall to tell her "I love you and I was thinking about you today." Yes, of course I could email that same message. But to me, emailing has always felt like I'm sending something out into a vast void, something like a message in a bottle, and I don't know if it'll ever be opened or even reach the shore. There's no way to know the recipient saw it if they choose not to respond.
But Facebook. Facebook is different, although I can't entirely articulate it. Is it the visual aid of a person's profile picture that gives us that similar sense of direct contact that we feel when we've talked face-to-face? Is it the sense of community that we get from being able to give and receive along with hundreds of other people? Or is it the comfort we find in bearing witness to others' lives on some level, even if we don't converse daily? We still get to see their wedding pictures, their new-baby pictures, or their rant session when something has ticked them off enough to write it in their status, or the inside joke that they write on their best friend/sibling/parent/co-worker's wall... we even get to see where they've gone for dinner if they use Facebook's new Places feature. I'm tempted to leave out the part about witnessing their FarmVille obsessions, but it says a lot about how productive they are with their time.
In one sense, all of these features seem to give us a more direct and inclusive connection than communicating via telephone, email, letters, or other social media like Twitter, MySpace, etc. Even blogs can be more limiting than Facebook depending on the writer's purpose for the blog.
On the other hand, I suspect that Facebook makes us feel closer to a person than we actually are. We think we're keeping tabs on people, but we don't actually bear witness to their daily lives. What often results is a deeply misplaced sense of entitlement, an expectation of obligation and responsibility to participate, and it isn't real. The truth: they don't have to share.
And some don't. I realize that Facebook users are not all equal in the amount of time they spend using it or the quality of their engagement. Some feel it is a colossal waste of time, which I certainly respect. Facebook is indeed a portal for people to escape productivity. I just can't bring myself to pull the plug. I'd miss everyone too much. I'd miss other things, too - invites to events, seeing people celebrate major life experiences, the chance to find inspiring artists, writers, and businesses. I'd even miss major news headlines. And according to my approximations, about 15-20 of my average 25 readers on this blog are friends and family who I am connected with solely on Facebook.
Is that why I was so... uncomfortable with the idea that my friend disconnected? Is that why I'm so uncomfortable with the idea of disconnecting myself?
I stared at her message and thought to myself, "But... you don't want to share your life with us anymore? You just got married! Don't you want to leave those pictures up there for everyone to see and admire? Don't you want to be able to write on my wall and vice-versa whenever we're feeling nostalgic?" I'm saddened when people choose to stop sharing.
And here's another thought: In another era, I might have met this girl and traveled with her just as we did for 3 months, and then when we each went home we might have written letters. Or we might not have written letters. In the time before the internet and social media existed, we would have missed each other, but I might not feel so ill-equipped to accept the fact that I may never see her again, in a real or virtual sense. I wouldn't have been able to miss something that wasn't there: the constant connection we have in the digital era.
Now that I've graduated from college, there are many friends and peers and professors that I still feel connected to, despite the fact that I may go several years or a whole lifetime without seeing them face-to-face. I have the added experience of living states away from my family for the last 5 years. Facebook has been a good way to keep the family together, to allow me to keep my own connections rather than waiting for news to travel through the grapevine.
This is the internet's purpose: to keep us always connected. Through social networks, the once unfortunate reality of leaving people behind or losing touch as we move from one phase of life to the next is no longer inevitable. Up to this point I had regarded this as a good thing. However, I'm questioning it now.
I mean, is it a good thing that I'm still connected with all but one of my ex-boyfriends? Is it a good thing that the curiosity of knowing what's going on with 75% of the people we've met in our lives has almost become what we would articulate as a "need"?
What if what we really need is the ability to let go? What if we need the ability to accept that we may never see or hear from someone again, even if they're not dead? And if we do need that ability to disconnect from one another, then Facebook and social media have most certainly had an impact on us.
So here is what I'm really concerned about:
What if Facebook, social media - the world wide web - have compromised our ability to say goodbye?