But let’s back up a bit.
This past week, I did an experiment. I had considered doing this experiment for a long time, but every time I thought about it, I got a little anxious about what the repercussions might be. I wasn’t sure how I would feel, how others might respond, or whether or not this was the right time to do it.
My grand (and not very original) experiment was: to see how it felt to refrain from facebook, internet, movies, music, podcasts, radio, TV, or any other electronic media for a week. Some of those things are relatively easy for me; others are not.
I gave myself limited permission to check email, texts, and voicemail because I am in the middle of directing a show and couldn’t have done my job without those things. But I did my best to minimize my online interactions with my phone as well as my computer.
This is the culture I’m living in – or the headspace I’ve put myself in. The idea of turning off all electronic media is a bold and risky endeavor!
I am self-aware enough to realize that, while sometimes the internet keeps me engaged, informed, and connected, I am also prone to slipping off-task quite easily for hours at a time. Life is too short to spend it coasting from one news story to another, from an informative essay to an entertaining video to an inspirational quote to looking up random friends from my past to see what they’re doing now.
The internet was made for people like me, people who like to wander. It’s also a trap. It’s the deep dark forest of our time – a nice place to take a stroll, but if you’re not paying attention you’re likely to get lost and possibly devoured. There are a few too many seductive wolves out there.
So that particular night, after a couple weeks of excuses, I looked up from the dim light of my laptop in the middle of the night and thought, “It’s only a week. In the grand scheme of things, really, what is a week?” I turned everything off and went to bed.
But first, I left a note. “Goodbye, Facebook. See ya’ in a week,” I said.
The first day was blessedly quiet. I went to a bookstore, bought five books, and immediately dove into two of them. What a treat!
One night as I dealt with my ongoing insomnia, I reached habitually for my phone, ready to partake in my usual mindless scrolling that often lulled me to sleep. But then I remembered: No. I’m on a media fast. Slowly, I remembered the other methods I’ve developed over the years to help myself to fall asleep, and I drifted off, my phone still safely just out of reach.
On the third day or so, the messages started appearing on my phone. They began slowly, but built up quickly.
YOU HAVE 31 NOTIFICATIONS
DOUG R HAS COMMENTED ON HIS POST
ANDY M HAS COMMENTED ON DOUG R’S POST
TWO OF YOUR FRIENDS HAVE BIRTHDAYS TODAY
YOU HAVE 17 NOTIFICATIONS AND 2 NEW MESSAGES
RENEE M HAS TAGGED YOU IN A COMMENT
I checked all my settings again – yes, I had asked for NO notifications from Facebook. And yet, here they were, in pop-up messages, one after another – more than I had ever received when I had left notifications on.
In a couple of face-to-face conversations with friends, I brought up the fact that I was taking a facebook/media vacation. One of them smiled a bit, as if she knew a secret. My gut went, “Uh oh. What is happening on my page?” But I let it pass.
I mentioned the notifications I was getting to another friend.
“It’s all being done with love,” he assured me.
“Uh… what is?!” I wanted to ask. But I also didn’t want the answer. The point was that I didn’t want to be thinking about facebook, I didn’t want to hear anything about it. I wanted to immerse myself in real-time conversations. I wanted to be present in my real life. I wanted to get back in touch with the things I knew I was avoiding when I scrolled through facebook or mindlessly did “research” on a spontaneously chosen topic. I did not want to even think about what was happening in virtual space and time.
I love wandering in real space and time. There is almost nothing I love more than hiking through the woods not knowing what I will find around the corner, or meandering along streets in a new neighborhood or city without a preconceived agenda, becoming more alert because I’m not focusing on a destination. I love getting lost, and then finding my way out.
But there is a different experience when the wandering is virtual. In real time, all my senses are still engaged. I experience with my whole body, not just my fingers and eyes (or sometimes ears).
In virtual wandering, I am not physically walking or standing, going up and down stairs, turning corners, looking left and right. My neck is not bending up to look at buildings or sky or trees, nor down to look at graffiti on the sidewalk, or a new kind of flower. Nor am I feeling the air change as I pass people, plants, cement, cars, bicyclists, birds, bridges, streams, food carts… Our bodies are not engaged at the computer. We do not feel each others’ breath, as we do, at least subconsciously, in person.
Despite some clear benefits of the virtual world, our experience of it will always be limited; and due to the addictive nature of the technology, we risk getting lost in the woods and frozen in our bodies, all at the same time. We wander and get lost, but we don’t always find our way out.
I have always wanted a surprise party, but only if planned by someone who knows me well and knows what kind of party I will like, who should be there, how it should be timed, and how to make sure I’m in the right mood when it happens. That’s a lot of ifs, so maybe it’s better that no one has ever tried.
Put some of my particular preferences together with the lack of physical responsiveness through the intertubes of facebook, and I will admit that the surprise party I was thrown threw me.
I had heard the rumors, I had seen the funny looks. I knew something was up. And the notifications kept coming.
KEITH HAS COMMENTED…
SHARON HAS COMMENTED…
CHRIS TAGGED YOU…
Facebook wasn’t respecting my boundaries. I had told it “no notifications,” and yet they still came – and seemed to be getting more and more desperate in their appeals. Facebook thought we had been playing nicely in the sandbox, and then when it realized I’d stepped away for a moment, there was pleading, needling, gnashing of teeth.
YOU HAVE 57 NEW NOTIFICATIONS! WHY WON’T YOU COME AND LOOK AT THEM?!
I don’t do well with needy, manipulative people – or apps. I don’t do well when my boundaries aren’t respected, or when I sense that someone (or something) is trying to control me.
In desperation, four days in, I removed facebook from my phone.
I felt so rebellious! So carefree! I threw it all to the wind! Facebook was gone from my phone completely, and I knew I would stay away from it on my computer. But what might happen? Would I be banned from facebook permanently as a punishment? Would my account be deleted? Would the world fall apart?
In another act of rebellion, I decided that my week would now be ten days, since facebook hadn’t allowed me to have the vacation I had wanted in the first few days.
But on day 7, the day I originally had thought I would return, my curiosity got the best of me. I took a little peek.
YOU HAVE 96 NEW NOTIFICATIONS!
Hesitantly, I clicked on the list: comments, posts, tags, mostly on my wall. I saw a few posts to pages I belong to, and noticed I had missed a few group conversations that interested me, but nothing major.
With a deep breath, I clicked on my name.
My wall appeared, filled to the brim with… what was it?
Flashiness! Colors! Animation! Images of hammers, vegetables, cute animals, Star Trek! My friends had been having a party on my wall. They had posted cartoons, videos, music, gifs, puns… I scrolled through, trying to understand what was happening, what had happened.
After my week of silence, of wondering, of being worried that I would miss the world news, or an important life event of a friend, the bright colors and witty (or silly) back-and-forths slammed into my system. I felt like I had emerged from a cave, and was eyeballing the brightest sunlight imaginable. Quickly, I closed it all and walked away.
A friend had told me he would join me in my facebook vacation, but around day three, he called it quits; he was starting to feel a little disconnected and depressed. When he told me this, I urged him on, explaining that those feelings were the whole point. We need to acknowledge those feelings, I said, rather than immediately soothing ourselves, escaping into mindless, virtual scrolling.
The next day, I was given the chance to live what I preached. After a couple of days feeling all the good things one might expect (More time! Reconnection with myself! Noticing the people and things around me! Remembering things I like to do! Being more productive!), I felt something new. Melancholy hit full force.
I lay on my bed wanting to find out what my friends were up to. I walked outside and looked at the yard, the sky, the neighbors down the street, fighting the urge to “just check in really quick.” I continued reading my books, enjoying them immensely, but with an odd weight underneath it all. I was writing a lot, and directing a show – I was busy and engaged.
But I missed my faraway friends. I missed seeing what they were thinking about, what was happening in their lives – even just the small things. My solitude reminded me how much I value community, how much I work to nurture that, in my own (sometimes idiosyncratic) ways.
But when I allowed myself that one peek at facebook before my new goal of ten days was up, I felt like I had just walked into my own surprise party and walked right back out before anyone saw me. I didn’t feel ready. I wasn’t dressed for a party. I had already eaten. It was more people than I expected. I had a headache. I closed the door quietly and slipped back out.
Three days later, I tried again.
“Michelle was supposed to be back yesterday but I haven’t seen her yet,” one friend had written.
“Maybe she has extended her vacation. Either that, or she’s not amused,” another one responded.
“Like,” clicked my only friend who had posted flowers as a welcome back (“I just can’t do it,” she had written in response to the calls for silliness).
I didn’t think anyone would be paying that close attention when I posted what I thought was my innocuous goodbye, the one that I thought would just slip into their feeds and out of their minds.
But someone noticed, and then some others noticed. And they noticed each other. And they were having a heck of a lot of fun.
Many of the friends who were posting on my wall while I was “away” are some of the people I love most in the world. Facebook, unfortunately, gave away the surprise.
My experience these past ten days was complicated, somewhat fraught, lonely, beautiful, tumultuous, healthy, generative, and revealing. I made headway on some things I had been avoiding. I felt my feelings a little more deeply, I reconsidered my priorities in life, I took some tiny steps towards scary personal goals.
When I returned to Facebook Land the first time, it was like stepping off a plane, arriving back home from a visit to another country – the shock that things haven’t changed, the shock that things have moved on without me, and also the (happy) surprise of people there again; people who I love, who I missed, who noticed I was gone, and who had their own experiences of the week.
On day 10 (or was it 11? I lost track, which was honestly a nice feeling in itself), I decided to show up. I walked in the door. And this time, I was ready.
I saw friends from different parts of my life “meeting” each other and enjoying each other on my wall. I remembered, after a week of soul-searching and a bit of loneliness, that playfulness and laughter are things I value in my friends. I realized that, even when my friends aren’t in my day to day life, they remember me. I’m not as invisible as I sometimes feel. I realized that my wall is not really my wall, unless I lock it up when I go away, like a house. And I was reminded that every time I plug in, I am choosing when and how to return.
When I spontaneously posted my facebook goodbye ten days ago, it was an insurance policy that just in case anyone needed me, they wouldn’t go looking for me there.
In walking away, I let go of control.
In walking back, I join the party.
And now, for now, (I think) I’m ready.