Interesting article on changing media culture

April 16, 2010

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In an era of cell phones that text and Web sites like Twitter and gadgets like the brand-new iPad, I recently made a choice that few can fathom.

I quit Facebook.

It's true. And weird, in a world where we are so connected by social media that Facebook is the most visited Web site in the nation.

But I didn't like what the social network did to me. So, I quit — or, as Facebook might say, I "unfriended" it. (Yes, it is a word. The New Oxford American Dictionary's 2009 word of the year, in fact!) Since my step away from social media is rather unusual, I thought I should explain.

Facebook is the online social network where users create profiles, post pictures and add friends. For years, on and off, I used it to express myself, look for long-lost classmates and conveniently catch up with friends.

But for me, Facebook became an excuse to be a narcissist. A giant waste of time. It felt like an effortless friendship in which I could offer my part of what it takes to connect and wait for someone else — it didn't matter who — to offer the rest. I became unintentional in communication, lazy in relationships, and didn't like it at all.

Quitting Facebook, it turns out, is an uphill battle. When you announce your impending departure, your friends implore you to stay. While you deactivate your account, the site actually tries to stop you. And when you're finally free, you are thrown into a tiny crowd of Internet users who have to go against the grain. That's how it is when you refuse to use the most popular site on the Internet.

Last month, the social network surpassed even Google to become the most visited Web site in America. Facebook accounted for 7.26 percent of all Internet visits in the country — 0.21 percent more than Google, according to Experian Hitwise.

So my step away isn't just unusual. It's unpopular. But leaving Facebook isn't the first step I've taken toward disconnecting. Of popular social media, the one I still use — and barely — is Twitter. I deleted my MySpace profile in 2006 and had text messaging turned off on my cell phone in 2007. Both decisions were inspired by what I saw myself becoming: kind of a lazy wuss. My disconnecting, however, clearly won't stop Facebook from taking over the virtual world, or encroaching on the real one.

"This is more than a fad," said Jesse Rice, author of a book called The Church of Facebook: How the Hyperconnected are Redefining Community. "This is a huge shift in communication."

In my generation and younger — I'm 24 now — the shift is popular, praised and addictive. Obsessions with constant connection are easy to spot. But even the connected who aren't obsessed might see some subtle consequences.

"It blurs the boundaries between private life and public life," said Rice. "It's good because it challenges us to be consistent."

But being tethered to social media has its drawbacks. Even if it drains us, we are constantly vigilant. We feel like we have to be, Rice said, or else we might miss something. We actually get annoyed if somebody's status updates are boring. We take it personally when we express ourselves and nobody responds.

"That really hits people hard," said psychologist Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, author of the book Generation Me and co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.

"We're hard-wired to take relationships seriously, and that extends to the computer."

What that implies for people with 500 Facebook friends is overwhelming.

When we use social media, Rice said, we also live like we have what he calls an invisible entourage. In adolescent psychology, it's called the invisible audience.

To think "people are always watching you is very typical of a teenager," Twenge said.

It is also typical of the hyperconnected, who update Twitter and Facebook all day long. When we feel like an invisible audience is watching us, the pressure is on. Our decisions are calculated to a fault because everything we do is fodder for a Facebook status.

"We're getting better at performing for each other," Rice said. "But it can erode our sense of having value just because we exist."

Social media can also inflate our standards in the real world. We feel more entitled to convenience, averse to effort and uncomfortable with aloneness. Finding friends the old-fashioned way can feel like too much work.

Social media makes what we once needed seem obsolete. It is to relationships what fast food is to nutrition — a quick way to feel like we've gotten what we need. But when compared with what we really need, what we get is insubstantial.

"We get this buzz off of social networking and that kind of holds us over. We can go back for another buzz and another buzz, but the reality is we were made for deep connections," said Rice. "Human relationships are such a mystery. It's hard, it's messy, it requires entering into fear."

Obstacles and effort and being all right with sometimes being alone are part of that. So are the risks we don't need to take when we communicate online.

"Fear of rejection certainly prevents us from taking those risks," Rice said. But they are "the very risks required to get to the kind of relationship we're actually after."

That kind of relationship makes the work worth it. But we are hard pressed to find that when we never take some time to disconnect. Unplugging lets you "enjoy the fullness of your own humanity," Rice said.

So, I quit. And even if it's weird, it's a start.

Arleen Spenceley is a staff writer for the North of Tampa and Pasco Times editions of the St. Petersburg Times. She can be reached at (727) 869-6235 or

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