I announced recently with much self-certain finality that I was leaving Facebook. I succeeded in doing so for almost a month, after which I reopened my account with the status update: "Alright, I'm back. I can't leave you guys. Forgive me for trying." This update got 57 likes. I was delighted.
But how could I so blatantly fail to live up to my intention? The short answer is that I literally had to go back; I had too much information stored in various parts of my account --in my message box, in my photos, and even in my timeline-- to which I needed access. It was impractical for me to have to revive the account each time, particularly since after a certain number of deactivations, Facebook starts imposing a 24-hour delay on each new reactivation. As a very serious philosopher wrote in response to my homecoming update: "Zuckerberg has us by the short and curlies."
Many of my friends said, or implied, that I ought to be ashamed of myself for caving, but moreso for having announced such a bold intention in the first place. Some compared me to a lapsed AA enthusiast who has rediscovered his old familiar barstool. But I will say right out in the open: I am, in every aspect of my life, and not just the digital one, prone to wild swings between excess and renunciation. Some people don't know what this is like: some are naturally ascetic, some perfectly comfortable with a life of constant excess, and some are simply so constituted as to always consume only the right amount of everything. The last sort are a foreign species to me; I have no idea what it would be like to be one of them, and I am contemptuous of their facile recommendation to just do whatever one is inclined to do in moderation. As if we, the overeaters, overdrinkers, overworkers, hadn't thought of that already!
I understand in my soul the slogan of the recovering alcoholics, according to which one drink is too much, because ten drinks are not enough. In this respect, perhaps, I am more 'American' than 'European', the latter of whom insist that it is a distinctly New World problem to not be able to enjoy vices maturely, to live our lives as though vices are something to renounce rather than master. Those who know me know that I have peculiar eating habits; there is a whole gamut of foods I simply will not eat, and I hate being told that I should just learn to enjoy them in moderation. I could do so, I suppose, if I were differently constituted, but I've lived with myself long enough to know fairly precisely where the boundaries of my capacity to change lie.
I have to confess, though I move in Europhile circles where it is just taken for granted that mature Epicurean indulgence is the only way to live, I am 100% American in this regard. I hate balance, and if I can't be consistently at either the extreme of asceticism or of debauche, I still prefer wild pendularity over smug self-mastery.
So this explains, I hope, why I made that bold declaration, and then failed to live up to it. But I hope, moreover, that in that declaration my strong ambivalence was clear. I certainly did not say that I think Facebook is entirely sinister. What I in fact said was that Internet-mediated social networks are a more important development in human history than the printing press, and they can no more be said to be good or bad than books can be.
A few years ago I liked to say that part of Facebook's power is that it is a true equalizer of personal identity, in that it forces me to present myself in the same way to everyone in my list of friends: former mentors, students, parents, high-school friends, editors, literally everyone. I was often told in response that this was not in fact so, that I had the freedom to block certain people, to control the flow of information so that not everyone heard the same thing. I insisted that this went against my principles.
But I have now adopted the habit of blocking and list-making that I used to argue against. I have permanently removed from view the updates of everyone who carries on overmuch about their children, everyone who is in the habit of sharing frivolous memes; I've eliminated all the whooping and hollering about sports; I no longer see the updates of academics I barely know who have nothing to talk about but how much they resent grading papers, or how busy they are, or the quality of the airport they're at, or how they are 'addicted' to espresso. Come to think of it, most of my recent wall-grooming has really been a filtering out of my academic peers.
I expect others will do the same to me; perhaps they'll unfriend me altogether. So be it. This is a new era, and I no longer have the old principled commitment to unfettered sharing that I used to have. Now, instead, the digital social world is starting to look a good deal more like that other social world always has, where we select our smaller social groups based on elective affinities, and where we exclude people with whom we really don't have such affinities. Anyhow when I look at my wall these days, it is considerably less depressing than it had become.
In the month or so I spent away, I finished a book proposal, made significant progress on an article on medieval Indian logic, got through 200 more pages of Proust's masterpiece, and read a lot, but I mean a very lot, of Wikipedia. I finally got straight on the difference between Ranters, Levellers, Diggers, Fuggers, and Junckers; if the article in French on the Mediterranean winds (Sirocco, etc.) seemed inadequate, I would consult the ones in Italian, Corsican, Sicilian, Occitan. On February 17, my browser history indicates that within the space of an hour I read the entries on Goodluck Jonathan, Günther Kaufmann, the Neolithic Cultures of China, and Little House on the Prairie.
I don't know what exactly it is I'm doing when I'm doing this, but I definitely began to do more of it when I didn't have my Facebook wall to scan. The one was clearly functioning as a replacement drug for the other. Like Facebook to the Republic of Letters, Wikipedia makes Diderot's Encyclopédie look like a pathetic joke. And in both cases, this new thing that has overrun the old thing seems as corrosive as it is edifying. I absorb the world through it in a way that I could not have done before, but it's as if I'm absorbing it up my nose, or into my veins. This is potent shit, and it's clear that every one of us is going to have to learn to place it under some regime of control. This is a particular challenge for those of us who are not naturally inclined to moderation, and who know the difference between having a second espresso and having an addiction.