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Hanging Out in a Windowless Room

April 23, 2012

Conversations with others and my own observations have taught me that everyone on Facebook belongs to one of two groups: the annoyed and the annoying. That is, everyone on Facebook recognizes these two groups, placing themselves in the former category. Complaining about the baby updates and Instagram salad pics that pollute Facebook news feeds is a surefire small talk hit, and for good reason, but in reality many of us unknowingly wear both hats—annoying and annoyed—during the time we spend logged in.

Removing obnoxious people from one’s news feed is a popular technique for making the Facebook experience less upsetting. As someone chronically trying to cut back on my Facebook time, however, I have come to value the people I don’t care about, and I never prune my news feed. Here’s why: Keeping my news feed clogged with the dregs of human expression ensures that I will never spend more than 5 seconds looking at it before closing the tab or clicking through to Words With Friends. If I systematically muted people with whom I don’t keep in touch, or who post updates like “I have the funniest friends,” I would gradually refine my feed into a more addictive compound, like grain alcohol or the crack variant of cocaine. I know in advance that I don’t want this to happen. I also know that it would happen, because Twitter works the same way, and my Twitter feed distracts me far more than Facebook ever will. That I welcome Twitter into my life while keeping Facebook at arm’s length is a topic for its own 1,200-word post.

Facebook is a tool that can make life easier, waste time, or do a little bit of both. Much of our frustration with Facebook, as with cars, stems from its necessity: We’d love to do without it, but we can’t. Too much of social life is intertwined with Facebook to make quitting it worthwhile for most people, including me. Instead, I maintain an account and use the features I believe will enhance my off-Facebook life: accepting friend requests, getting event invitations, and occasionally discovering something valuable about an acquaintance, like an unexpected mutual friend. I satisfy my need for self-expression on Twitter, which is nothing to brag about but which I prefer. I still waste time stalking people I don’t know and reading my news feed, but I’d like to do less of both.

In a recent Atlantic feature, Stephen Marche argued that Facebook is making us lonelier. See also: Eric Klinenberg’s catty rebuttal in Slate. I think both articles are thought-provoking but incorrect. Facebook is better viewed as a medium for responding to loneliness, which would exist with or without Facebook, and also as a means of concealing that loneliness. The news feed is the theater where these dynamics become most visible. As everyone knows, Facebook is a place where people feel comfortable venting whatever pops into their heads—a “windowless room of people shouting”—and much of that would quickly fade from face-to-face conversation thanks to withering glares, awkward silences, and abrupt changes of subject. Facebook offers few comparable tools for negative feedback (no “dislike” feature) so the best way to shut someone up is to mute them from your feed, unbeknownst to the offender. Facebook presents itself as a symbolic representation of social life that bears an approximate if imperfect relationship to one’s actual social life, but here the two diverge: If you’re annoying in real life, you have many chances to take the hints and adjust your behavior, but if you’re annoying on Facebook, you simply disappear from your friends’ reality. You experience no loneliness because you don’t find out. You’ll probably continue posting photos of your dinner to a shrinking audience. Facebook isn’t making us lonely, it’s just inducing solipsism.