With the economy in a freefall, thrifty folks everywhere have decided to make sacrifices. There is a group of people not buying new clothes for a whole year, and another person who hasn’t driven a car for fifteen months. In TIME, Joel Stein laments that it isn’t as easy as he thought it would be to go off the grid for the National Day of Unplugging. Being Catholic, these sound to me like one continuous Lenten sacrifice. When Lent arrived this year, I thought about a guilty pleasure and what it would mean to do without it. Instead of the usual “no chocolate” (I always cheated by the second week of Lent anyway) I thought I’d give up something a little different. What is more valuable than anything else? How we spend our time. And since I seemed to be spending more and more time on the social networking site Facebook, I thought doing without it would make me consider if I really needed it. Used in moderation, I think Facebook is fun and harmless, unless you are a teenage girl sharing romance failures or a professor looking for a hitman. I don’t think I was addicted to Facebook, but I was feeling the same way I feel about being the one in the family who always makes dinner. It isn’t the cooking that requires so much effort, it is the thinking about the cooking. I was spending too much time thinking about what status updates I would post, whether something I was feeling was really “postable” and how much of myself I was disclosing that I may live to regret. But I felt too Catholic to share with my entire Facebook friends (of all denominations) that I was fasting on Facebook. Besides, in Gospel of Matthew we are told not to announce our sacrifice. So, without any status update to tell my Facebook friends, I decided to slip the nebulous bonds of Facebook for forty days.
When I told one of my Catholic Facebook friends of my plan he quickly pointed out that a priest once told him that there are forty days of Lent without fasting on weekends, so I should consider posting on the weekends, but it seemed like too much of a Catholic loophole to me, akin to an annulment. Curiosity got the best of me so I counted the days and in fact, it is true that this year there are 46 days in Lent if you count Ash Wednesday (Feb. 17 and you do not count Easter, April 4). Feeling resolute, I wasn’t planning on using the extra days to post. I let myself read other posts, and I responded to whoever sent me a message, but I did not update my status and I did not post photos (or anything on my wall) or comment about anything anyone else posted. Without shutting down my account, I simply stopped using it.
I thought I was unique in my quest to “fast” from Facebook, but even the urban dictionary had an entry “Facebook fasting”: to refrain from going on Facebook for a certain period of time. This often comes after the realization that too much time has been wasted on Facebook resulting in real life problems. In the event of a relapse, an individual is said to pull a triple F (see Failed Facebook Fast). A quick Google search reveals many other Catholics fasting from Facebook. So much for originality. Still, I thought my fast would be a good sacrifice for me and it might even turn into a mini research project that would reveal:
1) If anyone noticed I wasn’t on Facebook
2) If I missed not being on Facebook
3) If I got more work done
The first lesson: I received a few messages on Ash Wednesday and the next few days, a couple of friends posted comments about a photo I posted, and then… nothing. For five days. On the sixth day, one friend posted: “Dr. Gutgold must be very busy. I really miss her daily entries.” By the second week of Lent I got the impression that all my Facebook friends sort of forgot about me, but Facebook didn’t. I was getting messages from Facebook that read: “We miss you. Please re-connect.” I received several of these “come back” responses from Facebook throughout Lent. So, yes: a few friends missed me a little and Facebook missed me a lot.
The second lesson: I did miss Facebook a little. Facebook is a good way to send and receive information. Facebook for me, functions like a phone call to my sisters. It feels so good to catch up, even if there isn’t much to catch up about. The brand new four foot fluorescent bulb that didn’t work that sent me back to Target for another one. And how I’m stiiiillll painting the master bedroom, hired a painter, etc. yawn, yawn, yawn. I missed it enough that on Sunday, March 21, I thought I’d do what most fasting Catholics do. I cheated, sort of. It was Sunday after all, and there were more than forty days in Lent this year. So I posted this message: He who is without sin, right? My “Facebook fast” is going reasonably well, but did you know that there are 46 days of Lent this year? As if we Catholics don’t suffer enough, right? So today is Sunday, and I thought I’d “cheat.” Hello Facebook Friends. I miss you. Immediately one friend urged me not to feel I’m cheating since her Irish Catholic mother always had a bite of chocolate on Sundays. Another friend tried to console me by taking on the dialect of an Irish Catholic priest and offering me his blessing. But at the stroke of midnight, I went back to my fast. No commenting and no status updates. I was starting to feel a bit “over” Facebook and that it is a little silly to share so much dumb stuff with people who may or may not really care. Nevertheless, the following Sunday I “cheated” again by posting photos of the chocolate Easter eggs I made with my daughter. Friends requested samples. I was back and my Facebook friends noticed.
The third lesson: I don’t think I got more work done during my Facebook fast. I’m still plugging away at several new writing projects at the same speed as usual. I wasn’t checking Facebook as much and I was free from pondering what witty status update I might post next, but, I didn’t feel suddenly that I had a huge amount of extra time on my hands.
So, Forty-four days without Facebook are over and my conclusion is that it is a harmless and fun way to express yourself and connect with people you would likely not connect with so much if you were not on Facebook. Like face-to-face communication, Facebook is reciprocal. The more you contribute the more you get back. The adage “we get out of life exactly what we put in” certainly applies to Facebook. But unlike face to face communication, I think online communication can only take relationships so far. It is ambient awareness that helps connect people, but not truly connect with people the way that face to face communication does. I could imagine a great Facebook relationship building between two former college classmates, for example. There seems to be so much in common between you and the constant witty rapport back and forth is fun and stimulating. So after a few months of steady Facebook communication you plan to meet face to face, only to discover that the connection that Facebook facilitated doesn’t translate to your in person relationship. You’ve seen the tee-shirt: “You were more fun on Facebook.” Facebook is text-based and fun, but in a “hey you” kind of way that leads to …. not necessarily valuable relationships. And for those who are truly connected to us, Facebook is a poor substitute. A little like winter tomatoes. They taste so different than summer tomatoes that they should be called something else. To put it another way: Facebook communication is to deep and meaningful relationships what cubic zirconias are to diamonds—a cheap alternative that you know isn’t really fooling anyone. But, like the faux ring, it is cheap, harmless and stylish, too, so why not? In a Chronicle Review, a writer described Facebook communication “like binging on junk food.” As long as Facebook isn’t our main method of communication, I think we should go ahead and continue to indulge. I always did like some chocolate after I’ve eaten my vegetables.
Status Update: I’m back, Facebook Friends! Happy Easter!