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.
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.