It’s weird sometimes being the person who isn’t on Facebook, as if the idea of being off the Zuckerberg grid breaks an expected social contract. If you meet a guy at a party you want to talk to again, telling him to look you up on Facebook is a low-stakes way to give him your information. In the age of social media, getting someone’s number feels strangely personal. You’re giving them the ability to contact you directly and send a message no one else can see. Your communication isn’t public knowledge for the world to consume. It’s a secret forged between just you two. The number ask announces your intentions in a way it didn’t when it was the only option to get in touch. It means you want to be intimate.
Establishing that kind of intimacy after a first interaction can be jarring, but as often as people are puzzled by my lack of Facebook reachability, they’re envious. When I messaged friends to tell them I was unplugging for a few months to take a break from the Internet, the most common response was that they wished they could do the same. Some vowed to join me, but from what I understand, none of them followed through. They tired of the constant onslaught of their Newsfeeds, the trivia that somehow becomes the center of your digital universe, but couldn’t bring themselves to get away. Wanting to unplug was one thing, but actually doing it was another.
To all of these people, I asked them what kept them online. “Why do you do this thing if it doesn’t make you happy? What’s the point?” No one knew. Not a single person was able to give me a clear answer.
I think there are a lot of reasons that people get stuck on social media. It’s a fear that if we are not seen, we will not be heard. Facebook is like a party that all of your friends are at, one you don’t want to go to but you know you have to. If you don’t show up, people will ask questions. When I announced that I was logging off Facebook (just for a short period of time, not even forever), people inquired about my health and personal well-being. “Are you okay? Is there anything you need to talk about?” Disconnection was seen as a cry for help, as if my goal were to disconnect from all of life. To be off Facebook, I must be just giving up.
All of this is the classic FOMO rhetoric, a fear that we won’t be a part of the conversation or that people will start loving us less if they can’t validate every aspect of our being all the time. If you eat a sandwich and it’s not posted on Instagram, have you eaten?
But more than that, our fear of missing out isn’t about ourselves. The addiction of Facebook isn’t just an outgrowth of our own narcissism. It’s the curiosity gap applied to sociality. The “curiosity gap” is a term that’s been applied to click-bait websites like Upworthy, defined as the gap between ourselves the promise of knowledge that the Internet offers. The curiosity gap teases you will the promise of learning with headlines like “What You Don’t Know Might Just Kill You,” but filling in the emptiness is never enough. Our Internet existence is a hunger that can never be filled. When we devour one subject, we move onto the next, like a Ponderosa smorgasbord without end.
Applied to our News Feeds, the curiosity gap is what keeps you refreshing and going back to your homepage, promised breaking news in your best friend’s life or a status to like. To “like” something on Facebook isn’t just affirming the other person. It’s like carving your name into someone’s day, as if to say “I was here.” But it’s also a way to indicate that you’ve learned something about that person. They are a piece of digital information that’s been consumed, just like a BuzzFeed list or a picture of a cat wearing Elvis Costello glasses. We all become memes that exist for others.
I recently lectured to a classroom full of students on the philosophy of a social media detox, and I asked them the same question I’d posed to so many of my friends: “What keeps you coming back?” Many of the students reported that logging on had become an unwanted reflex, but a life without Facebook was inconceivable. How would they know what was happening in the world without it? Facebook wasn’t something they did for themselves. It was what they did for other people, in order to be a part of the crowd. Some feared not knowing what what their friends were up to, others worried about losing touch with family members with whom they otherwise would have no contact.
The thing about being on Facebook, though, is that like all curiosity gaps, it doesn’t actually make you more connected or intelligent about the world, in anything but a superficial sense. Joseph Campbell once suggested that those seeking knowledge shouldn’t try to read every book or one book from a wide variety of authors. Students should choose a writer they love and look up everything they can by him. In the same way, connection isn’t fostered by a shallow facsimile of intimacy with everyone you know but by being selective, getting to know the constant stream of data within a single person. Instead of settling for click bait to skim, being selective forces us to read more closely.
Recently, a friend of mine shared a moment he and his friends captured on Vine. They were discussing a girl someone met at a party. What made her special wasn’t her eyes or her smile, any of the normal attributes one cites when referencing a sexual or romantic interest. Her most alluring quality was that she wasn’t on Facebook. My friend shouted, “Dude, that’s hot!” I didn’t get to ask what about her lack of a social media handle made her so attractive, but I think it’s the same idea that’s so alluring when we all think about unplugging from Facebook. It’s the hope that by getting offline, that intimacy gap might finally be filled.
Illustration by Jason Reed