A Facebook Fast

Twenty-nine years and four days ago, I met Birgit.

She was here for a few months as an exchange student and, after she went back to Germany in the summer we kept in touch. Around once a month or so one of us would write to the other – just the latest news and gossip on the people we knew. Yes, I still have all of those letters. In later years we would sometimes phone each other. I visited her and met her family, she met mine. We sent and still send postcards when on holiday.

At the end of the last century she got email, and we would use that instead (though I would still sometimes write a proper letter). These days we occasionally text each other too; either to ‘talk’ about the latest Dortmund result or because she wants to double-check some English grammar for a student’s paper she’s marking.

Birgit is not on Facebook. That means we have to make an effort to keep in touch.

I took Lent off Facebook. No posts, the odd Like on the cadets Group but nothing else. When it someone’s birthday I sent greeting via Messenger, not via their Wall). Life went on. Emma bought a house. Sophie kicked a football in anger after almost two years. Sue’s mum died. One of those got a personal email (via Messenger) – you can guess which.

Two people remembered my birthday, two others twigged when I Liked those posts (it would have been rude not to, after all), one sent me wishes as she knew mine was the day after hers. That’s because I don’t show my birthday on Facebook. Make a note in your address book, like normal people 🙂

So for me, Facebook has nothing to do with actual friendship. In Facebook, it’s as if your Friends are your audience, who treat you as some sort of pseudo-celebrity. And that is not what friendship is about. Maybe that’s why the two non-family members I communicate with most are both included in my Will.

Facebook reminds me of the old YouTube slogan: “Broadcast yourself”. And boy, do we! You see how much other people are posting and you feel as if you’re letting the side down; so you post your news, ‘Like’ other people’s news, videos of cats, dogs and babies, random inspirational quotes, Minions – and can I get an ‘Amen’? You know, there are settings so I don’t have to see all this guff, you can exclude me from it. You’d do it in real life, why not on-line?

Coincidentally, W – the rebranded Watch – ran three documentaries recently: on Facebook (Sara Cox); dating (Grace Dent); and celebrity (Sophie Ellis-Bextor), all of which seemed to conclude that we just did too much on-line. Now, I don’t necessarily see that as a problem, though it obviously is for me. Around the same time, Zoe Williams wrote an article on narcissism for The Guardian which included a link to an interactive version of the Narcissistic Personality Index. I scored 6/40. I can name the people who would be in the high double figures. Not that they’d mind, being narcissistic…

Last summer I met up with a friend I hadn’t seen for about seven years. It became clear that she thought I knew more about what had been going on in her life (which was lots) than I actually did – because she’d never taken the time to tell me or even drop me a hint, although we are Facebook Friends and have known each other for 16 years. Which is when I realised we hadn’t actually been what I would call friends for those seven years. Yes, I’ve been trying to change that.

If you believe, as I do, that communication should promote understanding and be mutually beneficial then Facebook isn’t a communication medium either – it’s just a noisebox. My 142 Facebook Friends aren’t all interested in all my news; I’m probably only actively engaged with two dozen, at most. My posts, just like everyone else’s, are just filling the silence. When did we stop actually talking *and listening* to each other?

If you have news you want to share with your friends, share it with them – not with Facebook. Learn how to communicate instead of merely broadcasting yourself. And remember that less is sometimes more. Make the effort.

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