20 years ago, the internet was still in its very early infancy. I had an email account 20 years ago, because I was a university student, and university students tend to be at the ‘cutting edge’ of all this new technology.
I thought email was great, because I’d just met my husband-to-be, but he lived in another country, and it took ages to write and receive an actual letter, whilst an email could be sent, received and replied to in a matter of seconds. In theory.
In practise, my husband’s law firm had one email account for the whole organisation, located in the firm’s library. The librarian would call him every time I emailed, and he would sprint down there sharpish to retrieve it, before anyone else could read it.
It seems like ancient history, doesn’t it? But it was only 20 ago.
15 years ago, I was one of the first people who had a wireless laptop, which meant I could work anywhere, anytime, anyhow. I got a special dispensation to have the very expensive laptop, because I had a ‘high level’ job working for the British government, and it was very important for me to be ‘on the job’ 24/7. In theory.
In practise, whenever I had a deadline that I really couldn’t miss, or an urgent need to retrieve an email or find some information, the laptop’s ‘remote’ connection would stop working for hours at a time. To say it was frustrating was an understatement.
But it seems like ancient history now, doesn’t it?
Five years ago, I was one of the first people to have a Facebook account. I got one primarily as a marketing tool, because I was in the PR business, and everyone in the PR business quickly realised that Facebook was a potential goldmine.
Not only could you glean very private, very pertinent ‘consumer’ information about millions of people (how old; married; kids?; likes; dislikes etc etc) – you could also use Facebook to specifically target people with your product or propaganda. Amazing!
I used my Facebook account for about six months, before I realised that the amazing, wonderful, superb Facebook also had a dark side. Right from the start, I never put a lot of personal information up, or any pictures, or updated my status, or posted any comments to anyone, ever. It just didn’t seem very ‘modest’.
But very quickly, I realised I was in the minority, and that most people were more than happy to publicise every facet of their lives for their 300 ‘friends’. I found out more private things about more acquaintances in that few months than in all the years that had gone before, and I started to think that maybe Facebook wasn’t such a great thing after all.
“I’m really cross today,” people would post. “My husband forgot my birthday!” Or, “My boss is such a jerk!” Or, “I’m having to go to yet another B-O-R-I-N-G family reunion, yawn.”
Hmm. Didn’t these people realise that the people they were writing stupid things about might actually read their comments and get upset?
Then, as it grew in popularity, I suddenly found my inbox flooded with ‘friend’ requests from people I hadn’t spoken to for years and years. People that I’d moved country to get away from. People who I found terribly annoying.
I was in a terrible quandary: if I turned down the ‘friend’ requests, then they’d know I actually didn’t like them very much. If I accepted them, they would flood my Facebook account with inane, pointless, annoying messages about ‘John Doe is having a bad day today’; or ‘Jane Doe is very excited about her new haircut’.
I went and talked to G-d about it all. ‘G-d, what should I do? I don’t want to cause any hard feelings by rejecting these ‘friends’, but if the truth be told, we weren’t ever really friends, even when I lived right next door to them, or worked in the same office as them, and saw them every day. That’s why I haven’t spoken to them for years and years – I have nothing much in common with them! But now, if I accept them as ‘friends’, I’m going to have to wade through tens of pointless, superficial, showing-off comments and updates from people I don’t even really like. What should I do, G-d?”
G-d, in His wisdom, gave me a great answer: deactivate your Facebook account, and then if anyone ever asks you why you didn’t respond, you can tell them it’s because you don’t have Facebook anymore.
It took me three seconds to ponder, then I realised what a great solution it was. OK, it also meant I couldn’t use Facebook as a marketing tool, but I’d had enough of my old career anyway, and it was time for a clean break, in every sense of the word.
Three years’ ago, I stopped using Facebook, and then I also got rid of the internet at home. And I haven’t stopped thanking Hashem for His great advice. Because in those three years, Facebook has grown into this all-consuming, distracting monster.
People literally spend hours and hours a day on Facebook, communicating with people they stopped actually talking to years ago.
The dishes stack up in the sink; the kids go bonkers trying to get five minutes of our attention; our husbands despair of ever having a home-cooked meal ever again, and what for? So we can tell Gladys from 20 years ago that her new Chihuahua puppy is adorable. Or tell Peter from 30 years ago that his holiday pictures in Maui were so professional-looking. Or tell Mary from 40 years ago that she’s still looking so thin, even after all this time.
What is the point of it all?
A lot of people get very upset with me when I start an anti-Facebook conversation; (let’s do an experiment, and see how many people ‘favourite’ this article on Facebook…).
“It’s a great way to stay in touch,” I’m told. “I need it for work,” I’m told. “I can handle Facebook,” I’m told, by people who spend easily three hours a day on it.
I know people who have reactivated high school romances via Facebook – twenty years on – and completely destroyed their marriages in the process. I know people who spend so much time with their 300 fake friends on Facebook, that they no longer have time to talk to their real friends, or go to a Torah class, or make a meal for their sick neighbour.
Before we start punishing our kids for being on the computer all the time and ‘abusing’ their Facebook privileges, let’s first take a good look in the mirror: how much time did I spend cleaning up today, and how much time did I spend on Facebook? How much time did I spend learning Torah today, and how much time did I spend on Facebook? How much did I spend helping other people out today, and how much time did I spend on Facebook?
The problem isn’t really the teenagers; the problem is really the adults – the kids are just mirroring our behaviour back at us.
Facebook is a great way to be ‘in touch’ on a very superficial level. But Facebook is a terrible way to really connect to people, to their essence. It’s Fakebook, in every sense of the word. If I want to really be in touch, if I really care about someone, I’ll pick up the phone and call, or I’ll pop round and visit – and that’s true for all of us.