Tuesday May 26, 2020
The Monster in the Middle: Thoughts on Unfriending Facebook
I joined Facebook on December 31, 2008, because friends urged me to join, and I left Facebook this past weekend because it’s undermining American democracy. I joined when we were in the midst of the global financial meltdown and I leave as we’re in the midst of a global pandemic. I joined when that idiot Bush was president and … don’t get me started.
Donald Trump is actually the main reason I left Facebook.
I assumed in the wake of news that Facebook helped turn the 2016 election in Trump’s favor that Mark Zuckerberg and company would act as responsible corporate citizens—like Tylenol did after the 1982 poison-murders, or Jack in the Box after the 1993 E.coli outbreak. I assumed Facebook would be the place where ads were vetted and bullshit exiled. Nope. The opposite. To Facebook, political ads full of lies aren’t bugs, they’re features.
To be honest, I should have bolted after the Data Analytica scandal broke in March 2018, the way my wife did. One minute she was there, the next she was a ghostly blank avatar on my Friends page. That kind of freaked me out a little. She was gone … but still here? Seemed wrong. And dangerous? Some part of me—the part that doesn’t know anything about tech—thinks it’s easier for hackers to take over such accounts, since they’re just sitting there. So I decided when I left Facebook I wouldn’t leave any ghostly blank avatars behind. I’d get rid of it all.
Pro John, anti Jack
I’d been unfriending for a while anyway. In recent years, if Facebook reminded me it was So-and-So’s birthday, and if I had trouble placing them—someone I met at a dinner party once?—I’d just unfriend. It was kind of fun. Last fall, after Zuckerberg announced it wasn’t Facebook’s job to vet political ads, I sped up the process. I became proactive. I’d go to my Friends page and be merciless. Who are you again? Poof. I also began to see more blank avatars there. Others were bolting, too. I got down to 200 friends, then 100, then 50. I have to admit my Facebook feed became more interesting. It was news about people I cared about.
Soon I began to get rid of the photos I'd accumulated as well. I archived the ones I wanted and deleted the rest. It bugged me that I even had to delete Events—things I went to, or didn’t go to, two, four, or seven years ago: Vinny’s 50th, Erika’s 50th; a Prince Memorial I couldn’t attend; Silent Movie Mondays no one would attend with me. Why didn’t these go away once the Event was over? For a site that didn’t give a shit about chronology, it was an odd policy.
Then I went whole hog: I got rid of every scrap of “About” info: where I worked, lived, went to school; my family relationships, my life events. I got rid of Videos, Check-Ins, Sports, Music, Movies, Groups. There was so much of it. I was like “Park & Rec”'s Ron Swanson trying to get off the grid: ERASE ALL PICTURES OF ERIK! And yes, I assume deleting something on Facebook doesn’t mean it’s deleted for Facebook; I assume they keep that data somewhere. Deleting, in fact, is just another form of data for them. But it still felt good. I’m a bit anal—I tend to clean apartments when I move out—and this was like that. It was cutting ties. I wanted to leave a blank fucking slate.
Finally, I went after 11 years worth of posts. It took a while. Facebook is a bit like a scrapbook, and this was mine, and I wanted to archive the stuff that still mattered to me. It also took awhile because I kept watching stuff: clips of John Mulaney, or John Oliver, or Jon Stewart. (God, I miss Jon Stewart.) Here’s when Randy Rainbow seemed to post a new video a week. I watched a genius clip of Scott Thompson’s Buddy Cole character on “The Colbert Report” helping the 2014 U.S. Men’s speed-skating team appear less gay for the homophobic Russian Olympics. I watched my nephew Jordan, last spring, singing “Corner of the Sky” from his senior-year high school musical “Pippin.” He was 7 when I joined Facebook, and his brother Ryan 4. Now they’re nearly 19 and 16. Their whole lives were on the feed I was deleting.
Before I began, I assumed I posted way too many articles, particularly political articles, and not enough of those personal “status updates.” Turns out: Yes, I posted way too many articles, particularly political articles, but there were also tons of status updates:
- 2017: Steve Inskeep is the Joe Buck of NPR.
- 2016: Am I the only one who finds it hugely embarrassing that the biggest movie to play MLK weekend was called “American Sniper”?
- 2015: My New Year’s resolution is to unsubscribe from more things.
- 2014: Well, at least I won’t have to listen to Joe Buck for another 11 months.
- 2013: Caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror in boxers and dark socks and realized that eventually we all become Walter Matthau.
- 2012: Lesson for the day: never put a ripe pear at the bottom of your backpack next to a heavy Kryptonite bike lock.
- 2011: Those internet ads for big muscles and tight abs are getting grosser and grosser.
- 2010: Voting Republican in November is essentially rewarding monstrously bad behavior.
- 2009: Man, the volume on the TV can’t be low enough when Joe Buck is announcing.
I was pleasantly surprised. Then I became a little annoyed. Finally I began to tell my younger self: “Shut up.”
At least my feelings about most of these things haven’t changed: Joe Buck still sucks, voting Republican is still rewarding monstrously bad behavior, my Walter Matthau-ness progresses apace.
What has changed? The times. In July 2017, I posted a news item about Kevin Spacey playing Gore Vidal in a Netflix biopic and wrote: “I’m there!” In 2016, in one of those “Who should host the next Oscars?” free-for-alls, I suggested Louis CK and everyone was like: “Love him!” I quoted Garrison Keillor quoting Christopher Morley. I kept writing: “Franken 2020!”
There was a lot of melancholy in past posts. In 2015, Cinema Books closed; in 2014, it was the Harvard Exit theater. I came across a jaunty invitation to a friend’s surprise birthday from his wife. They divorced eight years ago. Acrimoniously. There were obits for Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meadowlark Lemon, Gore Vidal, Harmon Killebrew, David Carr, Dave Niehaus. Some deaths were more personal. I couldn’t unfriend from my friend Jessica’s memorial page until the very end. My mother’s 2019 obituary, with nearly 200 comments from family and friends, was the first post I kept coming across in my backwards march but I could never bring myself to delete it. It stayed there at the top of my page, the hump to get over, the lump in my throat.
The further back in time I went, the quainter it became. Oh right, flash mobs. Oh god, word clouds. I came across the “Mad Men”-yourself meme, the Benedict Cumberbatch name generator, Alex Pareene’s “Hack List.” (God, I miss the hack list.) Here's when everyone was doing the “You’re in a horror movie” meme, and the “You’re a serial killer” meme. Top 15 albums. So much crap we did.
This must have been pre-Messenger because there are posts from friends but no conversational thread. We talked out in the open back then. There’s a real sense of excitement, too. Hey, it’s you! How fun to see you in here! I wound up reconnecting with the girl I had a crush on in my 20s, the girl I had a crush on in high school, the girl I had a crush on when I was 5. “Welcome to stalker central,” Myriam told me three days after I joined. Truer words.
But we didn’t really know what Facebook was. In January 2009, my former boss, 20 years older, posted this on my wall:
What the hell is this site supposed to do for me? I keep getting these e-mails telling me to join because So-and-So wants to be my friend. At the same time as I got the message from you, some guy I don’t even know, and who doesn’t even know me, says he wants to be my friend. Why would he do that? And why would I want to even respond? Help bring me into the Brave New World of Social Networking.
I was the wrong person to ask. I pimped my own blog too much, then chastised friends for commenting on Facebook rather than my site. I chastised friends who commented on the headline of a news article witout having read it. “Click through” was a new concept. I had zero idea what the Brave New World was.
But the toughest part of my scorched-earth march backwards wasn’t any of this; it was the monster in the middle.
The monster in the middle
2017 might have been the toughest year to comb through. Another gray, anti-Trump march that did nothing. Another shocking Trump scandal that didn't bring down his poll numbers.
There were a few surprising bright spots in 2016. Throughout the year, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s paean to immigration was forever competing with Trump’s xenophobia. Even back then, it felt like a battle for the soul of America to me, and I kept warning everybody. In June I posted about the idiot way the mainstream press kept steering Trump toward safe answers. In July, I wrote “the worst of the DNC leaked emails aren’t nearly as bad as the things Donald Trump says every day in public.” I posted a link to Jane Mayer’s great article about Trump’s ghostwriter Tony Schwartz, who calls Trump a sociopath. (He was the first, I believe.) For the idiot left, I quoted Dan Savage: “If Donald Trump becomes president, the people who will suffer are not going to be pasty white Jill Stein and her pasty white supporters.” He couldn't have been more right. Andrew Sullivan railed on the GOP for saying nothing when Trump asked a foreign government “to use the fruits of its espionage to help defeat his opponent.” That one turned out to be evergreen.
After one such warning, a friend tried to console me. “The country has a lot of numb-nuts,” he wrote, “but not enough to elect Trump.” I wasn’t consoled.
He was still all over 2015, too. He disparaged Mexicans, Muslims, John McCain. If I was right in 2016 I kept getting it wrong in 2015. I thought the McCain quote would be his end. Nope. I thought Megyn Kelly handled him in that first GOP debate. I guess she did. But she only won the battle, he won the war. Aterwards, hetalked about the the blood coming out of her eyes, and her wherever, and then refused to apologize for it. And that became the story. I posted:
That awful thing I did last week? I will not apologize for it. That way the story becomes NOT the awful thing I did last week (which is awful) but the fact that I won’t apologize for it (which signals a forthright, stand-your-ground personality). So I turn a negative into a positive. What a neat trick.
Trump kept pulling this neat trick, and the mainstream media kept acting as his able assistant. Ta da.
Even before 2015, I wasn’t free of him. There was an Onion article from 2012 in which Trump owns up to what a “sad, pathetic human being” he is. Made me laugh back then. In 2010, vis a vis Alex Pareene’s “A patriot’s guide to still hating Obama for killing Osama,” my father wrote, “They threw his body in the OCEAN? How do we know he’s dead and this is not some cunning Democratic campaign ploy? Donald Trump is already asking to see the death certificate.” Back then, we all had a Trump joke. Now it all just seemed ominous.
Plus the forces that helped propel Trump were always there. The old stuff wasn't just quaint. Oh right, Cliven Bundy. Oh right, the “Ground Zero mosque.” Ted Cruz and “Green Eggs and Ham,” and Joe Wilson and “You lie!” Here’s when the GOP thought Scott Walker was the next big thing. Here’s when the GOP thought Bobby Jindal was the next big thing. Henry Louis Gates, an African-American Harvard professor, is arrested in his own home, Obama comments on it matter-of-factly during a press conference, and Obama has to apologize. There has to be a beer summit with the arresting officer at the White House. That’s how stupid we were. That’s how stupid we’ve always been.
This was my status update for Saturday, Nov. 4, 2016. It was a plea to the void:
According to 538.com, Hillary’s chances have gone down more than 20% in the last week—from 85% to 64%, with many of the swing states now swinging the other way. This is a direct result of FBI director James Comey’s unprecedented meddling, which somehow he’s gotten away with, just as Trump has gotten away with not disclosing his taxes, being caught on camera bragging about groping women, chastising a Gold Star family, etc., etc. He’s a disgusting, incompetent, race-baiting man who never did anything for anyone but himself. He may be, as his ghost writer called him, a sociopath.
So today I donated to Hillary’s campaign again, and I’ll be part of the get out the vote campaign this weekend. I’d recommend anyone who can, do the same.
If you have any friends on the left who are not voting for Hillary, warn them. If you have friends on the right, tell them about all of the Republicans who are voting for Hillary. I don’t want to wake up Wednesday morning with a President-Elect Trump. Your healthcare will suffer, your 401k will suffer, our prestige will suffer, and the U.S. Supreme Court will veer right again for the next 30 years. It may even be the end of the American experiment.
So do what you can. GOTV. Or just vote.
Here's my status update four days later:
Shorter Allen Ginsberg: America, go fuck yourself.
Also to the void.
So I wiped it all from my Facebook history. Maybe I was trying to wipe it from history? But we’re Lady Macbeth now. We’ll be scrubbing that spot into eternity.
Back in 2009, when my former boss asked me to explain the Brave New World of Facebook, I assured him it was like any new communication platform: great for keeping up with friends and family. It had the added attraction of learning the degrees of separation between people. I told him I'd come across a woman who was friends with two of my friends, Ben and Josh. Except Ben and Josh lived in different parts of the country and didn't know each other. So how did she know both of them? Turns out she lived next to Ben in New Jersey and now shares an office with Josh’s wife in Chicago. “That was fun, finding that out,” I wrote. “The unseen connections between friends. You’ll probably get a lot of it.”
I don’t know if he did, but I didn’t. The above was a one-off. Facebook was a small world and it stayed small. It was supposed to bring us together but it drove us apart. It’s still driving us apart.
I thought about deleting everything from my Facebook account except for my mom’s obituary. I thought about deleting everything and then adding a screenshot from “The Social Network”: the scene after Mark Zuckerberg creates a website for rating women and then gets passed a note from a woman in class. Two words on a piece of paper: “U dick.”
Instead, after looking through Jessica's memorial page and reading the comments to my mother’s obituary one last time, I just got rid of it all.