I’m Back on Facebook: Charles Dickens Explains

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…(Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859).

Charles Dickens

The above quote from A Tale of Two Cities is timeless because the contradictions Dickens so splendidly employs, while using ridiculously effective repetition techniques, embodies not only London and Paris during the French Revolution, but also many other situations in all of our lives.

One of those situations for me has been the seemingly endless flip-flopping fight I’ve had with Facebook (FB). I deactivated my account for a week in September, wrote a passion filled piece a week a later about how I would change my habits, but then fell into the same patterns again. I re-downloaded the iPhone application, although I said I would not, and ended up wasting a lot of time on it again, even though I said I would not.

This failure to follow through, in addition to inspiration from some friends talking about how they deactivated their accounts and some family members who have never been on FB at all, inspired me to deactivate again. I deactivated my account for 23 days and was so committed this time that I was telling people I would delete the account. I was also going around telling all my friends why they should also delete their accounts. I actually convinced my friend Chris to deactivate his as well!

Yesterday, however, I once again reactivated. I did not plan on doing this, but did it because I was asked to by a future employer. I am working at a Space Camp in Turkey this summer, and they created a FB group for all of the English-speaking counselors to get to know each other. Thus, I somewhat reluctantly reactivated my account. The funny thing is, despite my passionate appeals opposing the very existence of FB just a few days before, I secretly kind of liked it.

So what is going on with me and FB? Am I for it or against it? What kind of social media scholar am I when I can’t even figure this out for myself?

I turn to the above Dickens quote to help explain this, and hope my narrative helps you think about your FB and other social media use as well.

TAKE IT AWAY, MR. DICKENS 

It Was the Best of Times…

I joined FB on July 11th, 2006 (I know this because of the Timeline), two months after graduating high school and realizing a high percentage of my friends would not go to Northern Kentucky University with me. I was skeptical at first (my profile picture was an image that said “Censored”), but soon I got into it.

I loved keeping up with high school friends during that first summer and I loved “friend requesting” new people once I started my career at NKU. Over the next few years my FB profile only grew as I used it more and more. I worked as a DJ for the student radio station and promoted my show primarily via FB. I ran for student senate, so I made a FB group to promote my case. I became way too involved with student life, so FB became my way to keep up with all the organizations and people. I studied abroad twice and used the site as the primary source of information about the trips with people back home. As I met more people abroad and more of my family abroad joined FB, I also used it to stay in touch across big geographic and time distances. And of course, I used FB to stalk my latest crushes and to see whether or not they were single!

Times were good.

It was the Worst of Times…

I don’t know when it happened, but FB eventually became “life spam” instead of a productive tool. I would look at my friend list and have no idea how I knew the people, would look at my newsfeed like a brainless zombie who needed to be fed with irrelevant information about what my friends were having for dinner, and would become a borderline stalker by looking at more photos of my friends than should ever be allowed in history, by anyone, alive. The FB “events” became primarily pointless and unrelated to my life, the birthdays I didn’t care about because I didn’t even know the people, and the FB groups seemed to get more useless every semester (join this group if you like bread with no crusts!).

FB became clutter, it became a waste of life. It felt addictive. I had urges to log on, I got  excited when I saw a new notification; I learned to depend on it like addicts depend on drugs. It became the worst of times.

It was the Age of Wisdom…

FB was ideal for sharing information with people who were interested in the same things. As I focused in on what I loved to study and became friends with like-minded people, they started to send me relevant links and videos they knew I would love. Inspirational articles, amazing YouTube videos, and really cool campus and community events; I learned about all of these things because of FB. I also had exciting and productive debates about different issues with these people, all via FB. It increased my wisdom.

It was the Age of Foolishness…

At some point, the productive academic debates turned into polarizing political bullshit (excuse my language, but it’s so bad that a strong word is required here). Lively debates turned into pointless insults, in which people would post articles they barely even read and adamantly defend their own position without ever considering the other side. These debates were silly, childlike, and pointlessly polarizing. At some point FB games became popular as well. Apparently, if I didn’t buy my friends’ virtual cows or visit their fake and nonexistent farms, I was being a bad person. Status updates also went from being interesting and fun, to repetitive and boring. FB was foolish.

It Was the Epoch of Belief…

Going along with the “wisdom” described above, FB allowed people to share their beliefs with each other in a non-awkward way. Perhaps people were afraid to ask each other about their religious or political beliefs, but now they could check out each others’ FB profiles and learn about their beliefs (assuming they had posted this information). Is he an atheist? Was she talking about her Jewish family? Do you think she’s a Democrat? Is he a Nader supporter? FB was not just about labels. When a big news event occurred, people would inevitably respond to it via FB status (i.e. the 2008 Presidential election). FB helped us to share our beliefs.

It Was the Epoch of Incredulity…

However, FB did as much to annoy us with others’ beliefs as it did to help us learn about them. You’re a Christian, congratulations, now please calm down and don’t spam my newsfeed with Bible verses. I’m a Christian too, but I don’t need you to be my virtual priest. Same thing goes for Muslims and the Koran, for Jews and the Torah, Atheists and quotes from famous Atheists, and for every other belief. Sharing your beliefs is one thing, but spamming FB with them is another. When you annoy people with your beliefs, they experience incredulity and become even less likely to see the merit of them.

It Was the Season of Light / It Was the Spring of Hope…

FB allowed me to share in the moments of happiness of my friends. They have a new baby! They are engaged! He just graduated from college! She got a new job! These days people will post a FB status before they inform others about good news in their lives, so oftentimes it is the first source of information about exciting life events. It’s always nice to see good things happening to your friends, because it makes you feel happy and gives you hope.

 It Was the Season of Darkness / It was the Winter of Despair…

The pictures of new babies quickly went from being cute to obnoxious. In fact, many of the updates became aggravating. Oh, look, the baby is now their profile picture! Oh, the baby just puked, for the third time today, and it’s the third FB status about it. Oh look, another 35 photos of their engagement night, that makes about 300 in two days. People also began to use FB for sharing pointless bad news. There’s nothing wrong with sharing bad news with a community of friends to get support from them, but there is something wrong with complaining EVERYDAY about everything: “Just got out of bed, it’s 9AM and I have a headache. FML!” Nobody wants to see that status, and hundreds of FB friends don’t really care about your morning headache and how your life sucks because of it. Seeing newsfeeds full of people complaining about normal, everyday issues we all have would oftentimes turn them into dark places full of silly despair.

We Had Everything Before Us…

More than any social media website before it, and arguably more than any site since it (up to this point), FB allowed us to peek into our social networks through the Internet in a complete way. Photos, videos, messages, likes, dislikes, new life events, etc. The one thing distinguishing FB from all of other websites was not that we had the ability to share all this information, but that we chose to share this information on this specific website. FB is only as strong its users, and Mark Zuckerberg and company know this. The good news for them is that more than 800 million people are using FB in someway today. It has taken years to build such a huge user base, and it is the reason many people are still on FB today. Goggle+ and Path may be a lot better in many ways, but they do not have the users. If your friends are not using these websites, they become pointless, no matter how much better than FB they might be. FB places the majority of our social networks at our fingertips, it places “everything” before us.

We Had Nothing Before Us…

As alluded to earlier in this post, pretty soon this amazing database of information about our social networks became clutter, spam, and straight up obnoxious. We overdid it. Most of us friended people we didn’t know, and chose to become annoyed by their posts, which were irrelevant to our lives. When we have hundreds (or even thousands) of FB friends, the information we might care about usually gets lost in the “nothingness” of the information we don’t care about. Thus, although we had everything before us, we really had nothing.

FB; Egypt.

EMBRACING THE CONTRADICTIONS 

Last September I said we never realize how important something is in our life until we no longer have it. I want to add to that statement: sometimes we don’t realize how important something is in our life until we have lost it and then gotten it back. When I travel I often learn my biggest lessons when I come back home; when I have had time to “lose” my life at home and to find it again. That’s what happened yesterday with FB.

I reactivated FB and realized, despite all of my trash talking over the past few weeks, I really enjoy some of the services it provides. I feel way more “in touch” with my closest friends, I feel exponentially more in touch with my family in Europe, and I feel more connected to the world. Also, I can now meet my future co-workers (they seem awesome!), will know when people in my department get promotions, and will know when things change for meetings/organizations (these are all things I’ve missed).

The best of times, the age of wisdom, the epoch of belief, the season of light, the spring of hope, and having everything before me are all good enough reasons to learn to live with the worst of times, the age of foolishness, the epoch of incredulity, seasons of darkness, winters of despair, and having nothing before me. The positives outweigh the negatives, and that’s good enough for me.

I don’t feel bad for completely flip-flopping my position on FB yet again. It’s human nature to change our minds, to realize things, and to change our behaviors as a result. I am choosing to embrace my personal life contradictions and the contradictions of FB as well because the services the website offers are too useful to completely let go of just yet.

Furthermore, I’ve realized most of the things that annoy me about FB have nothing to do with FB, but with how I chose to use it. I can delete people who I’m not really friends with, I can limit my weekly log ins, I can force myself to not mindlessly watch the newsfeeds, and I can just choose to not become angry by the annoying status updates. I plan on doing all of this. I will never replace better forms of communication with FB (see below) and do not think I will use the website forever, I just realize that currently it is still one of the best forms of online communication with our social networks.

As I said last year, I will once again work to make sure that FB does not take over my life and does not become a mindless habit, but a useful tool instead. Also, I will make sure to always remember that good face-to-face conversations are pretty much always better than Internet conversations. FB will not become my primary source of daily communication.

Finish it up on that note, Mr. Dickens.

“Electric communication will never be a substitute for the face of someone who with their soul encourages another person to be brave and true” (Charles Dickens, The Wreck of the Golden Mary, 1856).

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About Igor Ristić

Graduate student. College instructor. Travel addict. Love & enjoy studying intercultural, interpersonal, computer, and mass mediated communication.
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