This past summer one of the richest and most famous people on the planet committed Facebook suicide.

“It was just way too much trouble, so I gave it up,” said Bill Gates at an event in New Delhi. Gates deactivated his account upon being inundated with more than 10,000 friend requests. He then expressed his aversion to certain aspects of new media, stating that “some tools can waste our time if we’re not careful.”

Most Facebook suicides—otherwise know as deactivation—are not the consequence of being too popular. On average, Facebook users (350 million and rising) have 130 friends, send 8 friend requests per month, and spend nearly an hour per day using the website. Statistics on deactivations have not been made public by Facebook, Inc.

In “Facebook Suicide: The End of a Virtual Life”, Times Online reporter Emma Justice documented the Facebook deactivation of a woman named Stephanie Painter. Painter decided to commit Facebook hara-kiri when the presence of ex-lovers on her profile caused tensions between her and her boyfriend.

“In the end, Facebook was causing so many arguments between us that I decided the best thing would be to log off,” Painter said. “As soon as my Facebook profile died, our relationship improved.”

On February 11, 2007, at 9:10 p.m., Stephanie Painter “poked” each of her 121 friends and deactivated her Facebook account. She was 27 years old.

With the rise of new media has come the redefinition of privacy. No longer is privacy simply the condition of withdrawal from public view or company; it now suggests the active ability to control what the public sees of you, as well as your availability to said company. This shift in interpersonal communications may explain why we find it funny (and somewhat annoying) when a friend cannot be reached by phone—but text him and he texts you back within seconds.

In light of the social network revolution, the significance of popularity is also being reconsidered.

“The vast majority of those who collect large numbers of Friends are adults—musicians, politicians, corporations, and wannabe celebrities,” writes danah boyd, a social networks scholar who works as a Social Media Researcher for Microsoft. For teenagers—who are generally more discreet about choosing “friends”—having a presence on a social network is vital to maintaining a normal social life. If you are not where your friends are then you are no one.

Unlike teenagers, many adults are still trying to work out a comfortable balance between a real social life and a healthy social network life.

A good friend of mine works as a software designer. He’s 28 years old, lives in Southern California, and spends a lot of time on his computer, working. But, oddly enough, he has zero Internet presence. He does not use Facebook, MySpace, or Bebo. As far as Internet communication goes, we’ve only got Gmail—and even that doesn’t satisfy his need for real human interaction.

His decision to steer clear of social networking websites like Facebook does not make him a bad person, of course. But it does make him seem like no one.

As the two big social networks, MySpace and Facebook, have become ubiquitous in daily life, a fascinating socio-economic class rift has formed. Historically, Facebook has catered to a college-educated (and college-bound) populace. Whereas, Myspace has been viewed as an edgier medium, generally the stomping ground for the disaffected. To put it another way: Facebook is a latte, and MySpace, a can of Mountain Dew.

Like a million others I grew out of MySpace and moved over to Facebook, giving little thought to what might come next.

The only thing I’ve learned from my brief Facebook experience is that it’s fun to snoop. Updates, notes, and wall-to-wall interactions are all mildly interesting, but the photographs of “friends” keep us logging in day after day. I’m aware that this snooping is now an accepted behavior, that “friends” have granted me permission to snoop, but I never feel right doing it.

I’ve made 209 “friends” on Facebook. A good many of these “friends” are people I’ve never actually met. Many are not and never will be my friends. And a whole bunch were added only to increase my exposure as a writer. And then, of course, there’s my mom, who just recently became my “friend”.

The banner on the homepage reads: “Facebook helps you connect and share with people in your life.”

Facebook is clearly being humble here. The website has become a vital aspect of social interaction, and is quickly becoming a component of the status quo.

Unless you are rich or famous or both, like Bill Gates, without Facebook you kind of are no one.

In 1936, F. Scott Fitzgerald published a series of articles in Esquire about fame and failure now packaged as “The Crack-Up”. Fitzgerald’s brutal self-analysis is strange and unsettling, a portrait of an artist approaching (if not already at) rock bottom. Fitzgerald believes that “the natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness” and states that “one should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

I couldn’t agree with Fitzgerald more.

Some days I feel like an ice cube; other days I feel like an iceberg. Facebook may not seem like a big deal. After all, it’s only a website, and voluntary at that. No one points a gun at you and makes you create a Facebook profile. Although, arguably, that would be a cogent way to expand their user-base.

But I think Facebook is a big deal, and a massively expanding one at that. Internet communication cannot be lumped together with broadcast medias like radio and television—technologies that operate in what author Clay Shirky calls a “one-to-many” pattern. New media provides us with a “many-to-many” pattern. Facebook is one channel, always on, and only everybody’s on it.

Young people no doubt take their social tools for granted. In Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, Shirky notes that older generations have the advantage of more real-world experience, but also the burden of having to unlearn obsolete things.

“Young people are taking better advantage of social tools,” Shirky writes, “extending their capabilities in ways that violate old models not because they know more useful things than we do but because they know fewer useless things than we do.”

The process of unlearning can be a valuable quality. I wonder what would happen if I undid my Facebook doppelganger.

If I’m not where my friends are—if I disappeared completely—would I then be no one?

Okay. I’ve always disagreed with Kurt Cobain. I don’t think it’s better to burn out than to fade away. Neil Young would likely have my back on this. I see Cobain’s point, and I respect his choice, but he should’ve taken a tip from Wendy O. Williams’ suicide note: “I don’t believe that people should take their own lives without deep and thoughtful reflection over a considerable period of time.”

I’ve given it some deep and thoughtful reflection, and I’ve decided it’s time to deactivate.

So I log in. Click on Settings. Scroll down to the bottom of the page.

I click deactivate.

A new page appears. At the top—the following message in bold print:

Are you sure you want to deactivate your account? Your 209 friends will no longer be able to keep in touch with you.

Guilt. I know that all too well. Below that, a strip of photographs of my friends and me. Above each photograph, more guilt—

Andy will miss you. Keith will miss you. Lesley will miss you.

Maura will miss you.

Sorry, Ma.

Facebook doesn’t necessarily want me to stick around, but it thinks other people will miss my presence. I doubt it. But I don’t blame Facebook for trying.

Before I can fade to black I’m required to justify my decision. Facebook gives me an ACT-like list of potential reasons, such as “I don’t feel safe on Facebook” and “This is temporary. I’ll be back”. I click “Other” and type my final words in the empty space below:

I have a terrible headache.

On December 11, at 8:34 a.m., I deactivated. I was 28 years old.

 

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JUSTIN BENTON has written for the Nervous Breakdown since 2009. He co-authored Board with Brad Listi, a literary collage released by TNB Books in 2012. He is now a father and is currently writing an ongoing pantoum poem you can find here.

41 responses to “How to Disappear Completely”

  1. Anon says:

    You are far from alone, my friend – http://www.seppukoo.com.

    • JB says:

      Well, unfortunately, it doesn’t work. It’s like stabbing yourself in the stomach and realizing it’s a trick dagger.

      • Anon says:

        Hm. So, perhaps one should develop “eCobain.com: A Load of Virtual Buckshot For When Sepukoo.com Isn’t Enough”….

  2. D.R. Haney says:

    A-ha! So THAT’s why my friend count went down by one! And you’d only just said you’d liked one of my status updates! Where were the signs?! You seemed so happy, and then…and then…

    It’s going to take a long time for me to sort through my feelings.

  3. Brad Listi says:

    I deactivated a while back, but when I did, the TNB Facebook page went with me. So I’m sort of tethered to Facebook for that reason. It’s hugely useful in getting the word out to readers, etc. I think it works perfectly in that regard. But the truth is that I do very little personal interaction on Facebook. I almost never upload photos. I never post notes. I keep my personal info to a minimum. Etc.

    • JB says:

      I will miss the PR…

    • D.R. Haney says:

      Um, you don’t need to upload photos, since your friends will kindly do that for you. I’ve had to de-tag upteen wretched shots of myself. We all live now in a world of paparazzi — fifteen minutes, etc.

      I do, on very rare occasion, post notes and status updates, but I never got into Facebook. It seemed to me the Disneyfied version of MySpace, which seemed to me the stoopid version of Friendster. There was genuine wit to be found in the testimonials of Friendster, stoopid (and dated) as that no doubt sounds.

      RIP, JB.

      • Yes, logging in to find that your friends have tagged photos of you making a fool of yourself is definitely one of the downsides to FB. I have to limit who can see my tagged photos so if I miss one my boss/family/boyfriend (if I had one) doesn’t end up seeing something I’d rather them not see.

        Nice piece Justin. I really liked the disappearing picture that went with it. I’ve been trying to deactivate my myspace for while now, but haven’t done it because I’m way too lazy about moving my blog over to my wordpress account. Anyway, I can’t wait to read part 2.

        • You inspired me to finally delete my myspace account. Still have facebook for the time being, but I’m so happy to have one less username and password to keep track of. 🙂

  4. Zara Potts says:

    Zara will miss you.
    But this was a thought provoking and interesting piece, Justin. I’m afraid I’m hooked into the Facebook phenomenon but it’s funny because of lot of my really good friends aren’t – and I sometimes get mad with them for not being online and making me have to interact with them in the normal face-to-face way! Facebook definitely makes your friendships lazy.
    But FB has also reignited old friendships and I’m very grateful for that. The other thing that I was just thinking about this morning actually, is that it also allows me to interact with people that I perhaps wouldn’t call up on the phone, but yet I can still keep in contact with. It’s a strange thing, really, but I like it.
    I loved your disappearing FB photo by the way. The pathos!!!

  5. Matt says:

    I loathed Myspace. Hated it, hated it, hated it, and the only reason I kept it up an running was to read a couple of blogs I liked, including Brad’s. Once they went to different domains, I deactivated that account…though like any good zombie, it occasionally rises from the grave without my knowing.

    Facebook, on the other hand, I enjoy a great deal, mostly because it’s proven to be a convenient way to establish ties with people in far away places; about 90% of my contacts are people I’ve never met in person, and only a small handful of the remaining 10% actually live here in the same city. It’s convenient resource for keeping in touch with a bunch of disparate people, but I don’t “friend” people I usually spend a lot of physical time with; once we seperate and return to our respective homes, I don’t need to see them lurking around online right afterwards.

    It has, however, had one huge benefit I’m grateful for: I’ve found out that friends and coworkers I’d feared didn’t survive Hurricane Katrina are actually alive and well, as Facebook has reconnected us though the profiles of our mutual acquaintences.

    I am also enjoying Twitter way, waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyy too much at the moment.

    • JB says:

      Physical time as in…sexy time? Yeah, in that case it’s better just to separate and stay at a distance until the next physical-sexy time.

      In all seriousness, I think your Facebook philosophy is perfectly sensible. And I am very glad to hear your friends and coworkers are okay.

  6. I’ve deactivated my account in the past.

    But I came back a few days later, like a social networking Jesus…

    I hate that I love Facebook.

    I do though. I keep in touch with folk from TNB and most of my social life is arranged via my wall. a couple of my friends live out of town, and its often like a cheap three-way phone call…

    • JB says:

      A social networking Jesus! He has risen!

      See, it’s just a lot easier not to have friends, or “friends”. It’s solved a lot of my problems…

      I think you need Skype.

  7. Thanks, Justin. I have such mixed feelings about FB, joined because I was told to by publicity for my book. And I’ve deactivated three times, only to join again. A mixed bag and definitely an addictive voyueristic time-sucker. I do enjoy being updated on people’s lives–and it has helped me network. And how cool is it to be able to “friend” writers that I admire, such as Antonya Nelson, find out what she’s reading, etc.

    I’m looking forward to Part II.

  8. Nice post. I deactivated once. I was used to MySpace and couldn’t figure out who Facebook “worked,” so to speak; it was very different, and had a very different dynamic. Now I’m with Brad; I use it mainly to share links, to my own blog and to various Nervous Breakdown essays (like this one, in a hot minute).

    But can I just say, re: Ms. Painter’s experience, any relationship whose troubles seemed to stem from Facebook arguably went a lot deeper. I wonder if her deactivation resolved them, or if there are others now that may be superficially different but have similar root causes.

    And nice link to the Fitzgerald article. Thanks for that!

  9. Whew. Thank God Benton’s gone. I was feeling so cramped – and yes, I’m talking about my style.

    Aw, shoot, JB. Simon will miss you too. But be strong! I’ve often wondered what it would be like to deFacebook myself.

    I, too, got into MySpace first. At the urgings of a friend, who, as it turned out, only used it himself as a glorified email. And I got sick of it after a while. There was no specific turning point, I just thought ‘You know, I don’t really care about this thing.’ But during my brief tenure, I got to meet people who I’m still friends with today (I first crossed paths with a certain Mr. Will Entrekin on MySpace in a writing and editing group there), so it wasn’t a bust in any way, shape, or form.

  10. Mark Lee says:

    It’s a good thing the virtual world believes in resurrection, because I’ve offed myself plenty of times. I was on the verge of doing so on MySpace in early 2006 when I made this little video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=853HuiAchjE

    Happily, I didn’t. “Happily” because a month or so later I started a correspondance with a woman who has now been my partner for two and half years. We jumped off the MySpace cliff together later on after an uncomfortable experience with some other folks I’d rather not get into. Now, it’s Facebook and Twitter. In five years? Who knows.

  11. Greg Olear says:

    This means that I have one fewer friend, but, more importantly, TOTALLY KILLER BY GREG OLEAR has one fewer fan. Damn it all!

    I like Facebook in the same way I like football season: even if I don’t actually use it/watch it, it’s comforting to know it’s there. I have to have it for book reasons — and I’ve updated my status less since my book came out, and also since the “improvements” of several months ago — but bottom line, it’s a great way to show off how cute my kids are.

    Also: Matt’s right. MySpace is MyAss. Their server is powered by a hamster spinning a wheel. So. Fucking. Slow.

  12. I have these major fantasies of just unplugging completely and moving somewhere weird like Beaver Island, Michigan, where the only place on the island you can get reliable internet connection is at the library, and in the mornings you see a bunch of desperate urbanites on “vacation” sitting out in the parking lot of the not-yet-opened library trying to get onto their email. I feel like I have email disease. I spend about 5 hours a day on email, I think. Seriously. I do almost all of my business over it. Yet my understanding is that email itself is passe and I only continue to rely on it because I’m 41. I’m on FB and Twitter and LinkedIn, but I have to say, I have never figured out how to make as much of them as out of good “old fashioned” email. But that said, it’s like an albatross. You get to a point where it’s like you’d have to fake your own death just to get offline. Good for you, Justin! I’m impressed!

    • Justin Benton says:

      I had no idea a place called Beaver Island existed. Now, it will be the title of my forthcoming novel.

  13. Brilliant essay. That’s one of the best things I’ve read in a long time.

  14. Ducky says:

    loved this.

  15. Oh JB – this was delicious!!

    While I’m merely a Quitterer, you’ve gone for full-fledged FaceBroke.

    Bravo!

  16. tip robin says:

    Bravo JB. Excellent post. Insightful, informative and very current.

    Have you seen this site virtual suicide site? http://www.seppukoo.com
    Check out how as of today: “Les Liens Invisibles wants to inform everyone that on Dec. 16th, Facebook inc., after it has blocked any attempt of seppukoo from this website and has blocked/deleted all seppukoo.com information into the whole facebook network, has now threatened legal action against us in order to stop the suicide pandemic. ”

    As I read this, I remembered when I had this idea not too long ago and thought that I would do it and then document my experience of deactivation here on TNB. You beat me to the punch, and I am right behind you

    Also, I love the Radiohead song title as the subject. Fitting.

  17. Jim Simpson says:

    I just emailed you.

  18. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Thought-provoking post. Thanks.

    I’ve been tempted to disconnect from the social networking sites—which I joined out of covert pressure to be “out there” as a writer. One has to wade one’s way through the changing modes of book publicity and marketing. Finding a balance is possible. In the end, it really does make it easy to share news with readers.

    And FB did provide a way for old friends to find me and vice versa. I rather appreciate that.

  19. Darian Arky says:

    This feels like a meeting of MySpace Anonymous. Okay, yeah: I used to be on MySpace. Hell, that’s an understatement. I was a MySpace whore. Johnny Drama. And there was a time when I spent a lot of time thinking — and writing — about “What’s-it-all-about-on-social-networking?” I left all that behind me when I moved to FB. Sure, I post pictures, update my status, and leave comments on my friends’ pages. But it’s like toilet paper. It’s a utility. It’s for wiping my ass, not for thinking about. FB and MySpace don’t control us — unless we start swallowing our own shit.

  20. I’ve decided to deactivate. I don’t like the short attention span that I seem to have cultivated via FB and Internet. I appreciate the benefits to FB but I could be reading books and/or writing rather than messing around on FB. And really, writing requires large doses of concentration. I do feel like FB leads me away from writing–a distraction.

  21. Done. That felt good. Let’s see how long it lasts…

  22. Erika Rae says:

    Ah Justin – I have this weird guilty feeling reading this. I know I shouldn’t bow to Facebook because it’s bad for me, but I can’t seem to get out of it. It’s kind of like how I know I shouldn’t eat bacon or bratwurst, but can’t seem to help myself. I have much respect for you to deactivate.

  23. Marni Grossman says:

    Love this line:

    “Some days I feel like an ice cube; other days I feel like an iceberg.”

  24. […] glowing screen?  Justin Benton wrote something about this sort of thing recently, an essay called “How to Disappear Completely.” Imagine living next to a pond with a pile of books.   It might be really lonely and boring.   […]