I am 36 years old and am not on Facebook. It’s not that I ever explicitly decided not to sign up, but at first it was easy to avoid. It seemed like another fad that would peak and then fade, like Myspace (remember that?). But Facebook didn’t fade — in fact, it’s become expected — and by not making a decision to join, I made my decision.
The Facebook Era emerged slowly, at least for me. I grew up when the main function of home computers was for games and word processing, and I remember a line of kids my age snaking out of one neighbor’s dining room to take a turn on the family’s new machine. It was unbelievably exciting — for about a week, until we all became bored and went back outside to play Manhunt or Ghosts in the Graveyard.
Twenty-five years later, I’m still outside looking for playmates, but the block is empty. Everyone is on Facebook.
I don’t claim to be above technology: I have a smartphone and two Instagram accounts — one devoted to my collection of vinyl records. I truly do understand the appeal of social networking. It connects people who may otherwise not be connected, and there is a lot to appreciate about that. But I also have a deep affection for the face-to-face interaction.
A few weeks ago I was at the chiropractor when I ran into a woman I hadn’t seen since childhood. We were dear friends at 14 and spent a magical summer together with two other girls. For the first time, I felt I was part of a crew. At that age teetering between innocence and trouble, we smoked cigarettes and speculated on what exactly third base was but also built forts in the woods and sang Sheryl Crow and Expose songs at the top of our lungs on the swing set. Then we went off to separate high schools and it all ended.
So I was startled to see her in that chiropractic office after so many years (and stunned that she hadn’t aged at all). As we caught up and I played with her 2-year-old son, she asked, “Didn’t I hear you had a baby?” I did have a baby, I explained. I had one 14 years ago.
“Oh my goodness!” she exclaimed. “How did I not know this — why are you not on Facebook?”
And there was that question I get again and again these days. After our meeting, I considered signing up: I could look at her page and the pages of countless others who have slipped in and out of my life. But then what? I connect with her online, check out her vacation and family pictures, maybe send a friendly message. This exchange of surface information won’t lead to us building forts again or singing on the swings. Honestly, it probably wouldn’t even lead to lunch.
Sometimes it seems as if the entire world has agreed to change the way we interact and communicate with one another — and everyone but me is on board. Although intellectually I know that only almost everyone is: around 3 out of 4 adult Americans with an Internet connection, even more if you look only at people my age or younger.
When I was 8, I had the pleasure of being part of a community theater production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. I loved being onstage every night to hear the final (and famous) monologue of Emily Webb, a young woman who has died in childbirth and addresses the audience from the grave. “Oh earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you,” she says. “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? — every, every minute?”
This monologue made me cry during every performance — still does. For me, Facebook feels pretty similar. I suppose that it’s my deep affection for the tangible: the handshake, the thank you letter written in cursive, looking up someone in the white pages to see if they’re listed because you’ve been thinking of them lately and you just might try and give them a call.
Like Emily, I’m not ready to say goodbye to something I remember, even though it is already gone. If you look around, it is clear that we are so blinded by technology that we no longer see one another. At some point in recent history it became perfectly acceptable to have a face-to-face conversation with people while they are looking at their phones. They can hear you — because they are murmuring responses and nodding their heads in the right places — but their soul is given over to a screen. You wouldn’t read a novel or paint a watercolor while engaging in conversation with someone, but it’s somehow OK to check your social media feeds. The Facebook community has destroyed our actual sense of community.
What made Our Town so sad is that Emily had died just when she was beginning to appreciate how wonderful life can be and how much she loved being a part of her community. What makes me so sad — today — is that I’m alive but my community has slowly faded away.
Marianne Curcio is a writer in Newburyport. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
AMERICANS ONLINE WHO USE FACEBOOK
> 72% of all US adult Internet users are on Facebook
> 48% of users age 65+ are on Facebook
> 64% of users 50-64 are on Facebook
> 79% of users 30-49 are on Facebook
> 82% of users 18-29 are on Facebook
Source: Pew Research Center, 2015