I closed my Facebook account this week, opting out of what's one of the most popular social trends of the present day. I'd been growing increasingly irritated with it, and felt that logging on and reading the mundane thoughts of an ever-growing number of acquaintences was not particularly edifying. By the end, I'd found it unbearable and had become paralysed by it - having felt that my entire identity had been erased...
It started off OK. I had a small number of friends - real ones. The ones I knew in real life and was in regular contact with anyway. Then I started getting friend requests from "friend-whores" - people who I'd never heard of who had thousands of friends and whose sole aim in life seemed to have more. Not realising this, I was both flattered, and afraid of committing a social faux pas as a newbie by rejecting them, so I then acquired a few of those people who seemed to live on Facebook, posting up updates, links and photos every few minutes - although I could never work out how they ever managed to attend the parties and events which they were so keen to document and share with everyone, as they seemed to spend every minute on Facebook. Maybe they lived in families of clones.
Then I got "friended" to members of my family, which was fine, but it meant that I needed to think carefully about how I presented myself. And I also found it unnerving and creepy to be suddenly given unedited details from the lives of my younger relatives who were studying at university - I didn't want to see them in a mankini at some party, or hear about them being "wasted" the night before, or who they fancied. It made me feel like Creepy Uncle Lubin. Or worst still, Judgemental Uncle Lubin.
And then the work contacts started to happen. Some of my students befriended me. And then my work colleagues. Initially that was OK, because it was generally people I liked from work, and was pretty comfortable with. And by this time I'd already worked out a kind of jolly, avuncular kind of persona on Facebook that wasn't going to shock anyone.
But Facebook is never happy for you to have a static number of friends. Facebook wants everyone to be friends with everyone else. So you keep getting little messages telling you that person X is friends with one of your friends, and you should consider befriending them too. And so, through this enforced network of jollity and togetherness, work colleagues who I'm not that close to began asking to befriend me. And unless you want to shatter the fake yet utterly necessarily civil work relationships that you've spent years creating, in order to deal with people that you actually don't like very much, you end up having to befriend such people on Facebook. Because if you didn't - they'd know that you really didn't like them. And staff meetings and all those times you bump into them in the corridor would be even less pleasant. (There's a professor at my workplace who hasn't figured out how to make his profile private so everyone can see when he's playing Mafia Wars when he's claiming to be busy working on his book - he's a laughing-stock.)
There were also the people from my past. Old school and university friends, who tracked me down and sent me kind emails, not realising that there were good reasons why we lost touch. I am still in contact with the girl I sat next to at school when I was 7. She was the first person I came out to. We don't live in the same town but we make the effort to see each other several times a year. We had a connection then, and we have one now. Most other people - we just happened to be at school together at the same time. That doesn't give us a real connection. We don't have to be friends.
And then there were the gays. Ex-boyfriend gays from many many years ago, who tracked me down and then befriended me, perhaps so they could demonstrate to me and all their other exes just how happy and exciting their lives were. Gays who loved naked men and porn so much that they wanted to share every new naked gay porn star with all of their Facebook friends. Every day. And then all of their other porn-loving friends would post up messages about they would like to do with the porn star. And don't forget the slightly older gays who harboured not-so-secret fantasies about me, and would immediately post sexually flirtatious responses to my updates, attempting to turn my most boring post into a double entendre, while hinting about aspects of my personal life which made me rather more exotic than I actually am. I would agonise over whether to delete these responses - knowing that my besotted admirer would be hurt and not understand, and that probably half my workplace and family had seen it anyway.
So in order for me to survive on Facebook, I would have to put aside my 20th century social skills (humility, respect, discretion) and replace them with a set of 21st century social skills (self-publicisation, endless flirting, indiscriminate indiscretion). I would have to become Paris Hilton. I simply couldn't do that, so I stopped posting up altogether - any piece of information about myself that I wrote could be read by someone who would misinterpret it or see a side of me that I would prefer to keep hidden from them. As a result, I became nothing - no-one. Not posting anything. Not logging on to read other people's postings, because I didn't want to know about aspects of their lives. Or worse still, I didn't care.
When things get worse gradually, it can be difficult to put a stop to them, because it's hard to define the point when they tip over from irritating to unaccepable. At this point there has to be an additional event - one which hammers home how unbearable things have become. For me, this became clear last week when Facebook decided that in response to the hegemony of Twitter (a word which once meant annoying and banal chatter and is now elevated to the highest form of communication), it had decided to change its default privacy settings to make everything potentially accessible to everybody. A spokesman for Facebook said that this "was the way that the world was going". It's the final extension of Facebook's pressing desire for everyone to have more and more friends. Why not turn everyone in the world into a friend-whore - in one swift blow.
The way the world is going.... Maybe so, but it's not the way that everyone's going. And that statement suddenly made me realise how at-odds I was with all of this.
So it's over. If you want to contact me, you'll need to do it the old-fashioned way - by a private email. And please don't send me photos of the last party you went to. I don't care. Really.