When Will Jermyn was in seventh grade, he did what many 2007 middle schoolers did — he set up a Facebook account.
But unlike most other 7th-graders, the Facebook Jermyn created was for his mom, not himself. Jermyn, a Public Policy junior, used his email to make it. He didn’t know many others on the site at the time and thought it would be too much effort to create a new email.
Jermyn has cycled through several new email accounts in the nine years since then, but he still hasn’t found a reason to create a Facebook. As the popularity of the social network grew and more of his classmates used the site to organize events after school or created groups for clubs, he considered making one but found he was always fine without it. He said he has realized at times that his life would be easier with an account, but the extra work that came with not having one — like having to go out of his way to make sure he knew about events happening — didn’t outweigh his feeling that it wasn’t essential.
“I just never really decided to get one,” he said. “There were definitely a lot of instances where I was like, I should have one with different clubs and stuff and different teams. Using Facebook was kind of like a big way that everyone communicated.”
Jermyn is outgoing, but prefers to stay in. He has a good group of core friends, whom he says he relies on to hear about things going on on campus — whether they be events or the daily doings of one’s friends. The ubiquity of Facebook as a tool for communication is something Information Prof. Nichole Ellison studies at the University of Michigan. She said its popularity and utility have made it a “common language,” but also come with the drawbacks of the having a life online: how much time it takes.
“Facebook is kind of one-stop shopping,” Ellison said. “For many people, that’s where all their friends are. So you have the cell phone numbers of some of your friends, but not all, or you’re on Snapchat with some of them, but not all, but Facebook is kind of like a common language. Facebook does of course have these coordination features, like planning events, that kind of lower the barrier to that kind of work.”
I had the opposite experience of Jermyn: In seventh grade, my mom set up my account. Today, the way I utilize Facebook has shifted — as I’m sure it has for most users as the site has moved to expand. It’s gone from a place where my double-digit amount of classmates posted gawky photos and messaged after school before I had a phone, to what is now essentially a database of everyone I know. The ability to “unfollow” users makes it more personable, but the experience is less genuine. Though there’s nothing which particularly attracts me to the site, it’s hard to imagine life without it. I am not a fan of memes or 30-second cooking tutorials, nor do I enjoy flipping through tagged photos of people from my middle school. Day to day, Facebook for me is often banal. Log on, see the same active users, hear about an event, check my notifications, close browser. It’s not an activity I want to do, need to do, or look forward to doing, it’s something I just do. It’s normal.
Even the activity of keeping up with 1,200 Facebook “friends” can be exhausting, with the exhausting yet ultimately appealing voyeurism that is Facebook stalking. There is also the issue of fretting about one’s own appearance — the fundamentally fruitless concerns over how many “likes” a new profile picture or status receives. These are social anxieties that, regardless of Facebook, we all experience, but are amplified on the site.
Jermyn has never had to deal with that. His friends are actually his friends, and he’s not pretending to have a four-digit amount of them.
“One aversion to Facebook that I’ve had is it is very easy to connect with people and the idea of having thousands and thousands of friends or something — I don’t know if I ever really liked that kind of idea,” Jermyn said. “For me, I’m more about having a few close friends that you text with and that you hang out with on a regular basis instead of having this large, expansive network that’s maybe people that you aren’t as willing to hang out with frequently, maybe you see them like once every now and then, but not on a regular basis.”
He added that if a club or a job required him to make one, he would, but for personal use, probably not. He’s content with the friends he has in real life, and doesn’t understand the appeal of having lots of “friends” online.
Yet Facebook seems critical; for many, it’s hard to imagine a world without it. Whenever a new social media app is created, it seems Facebook ends up buying it — take how Facebook Live emulated Periscope, or how moving Messenger to a separate app put it at odds with other popular messaging applications like Whatsapp. The site bought out picture-sharing app Instagram in 2012 and recently launched “Instagram stories,” mimicking the operatives of Snapchat. According to a Pew survey conducted in September 2014, Facebook is the most used social media site.
That ubiquity has made lives like LSA junior Hiro Christoph’s difficult, even in minor ways. I was surprised he didn’t have a Facebook — he’s an RA, known for being personable and kind. Christoph seems like the kind of person who would get hundreds of likes on his profile picture. Influenced by his parents, who were always adamantly against him having a Facebook, he never logged on.
He noted that he has faced some difficulties not having one, such as being unable to make accounts for certain sites that ask for a Facebook login, rather than providing the opportunity to make your own or use a Google login. But these difficulties are not enough to force him to join the website with 1.7 billion users.
The distaste for online relationships, Ellison said, is one of three reasons cited for people who do not have Facebook accounts. Ellison’s work focuses on the benefits of the social network, but she pointed to other research being done to specifically note why some people choose not to have Facebook accounts.
“We’re at the point now where on a college campus if you’re not on Facebook, it’s probably because you have some reason,” Ellison said. “It’s not just that you haven’t heard about it.”
The other two reasons cited by those without accounts include fearing productivity concerns and privacy issues — as Ellison puts it: “what one particular company is doing with my data once it’s out there.”
LSA senior Katrina Rayment’s reasons have shifted from adolescence to young adulthood. At first, she struggled socially in middle and high school, meaning “I did not want to advertise how few friends I had.” Now Rayment has plenty of pictures she could be tagged in. It’s just that she sees Facebook as a waste of time.
“Other people have told me how much time they spend on this one thing and that just seems, like, really unappealing,” Rayment said. “I already spend so much time wasted browsing the Internet; I don’t need to add, like, another distraction.”
The average person spends 50 minutes every day on Facebook, according to The New York Times. That’s more time than the average American spends on educational activities, grooming themselves, house care and real-life face-to-face communication, according to the widely cited Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Time Use Survey. Of all leisure activities, only television takes up more of our time.
For college students in particular, this can manifest into a larger problem of procrastination. It’s a real issue — writing this article alone, I frequently find myself opening up a new tab of the site almost unconsciously. Facebook’s distracting qualities are so prevalent that researchers Adrian Meier, Leonard Reinecke and Christine Meltzer at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany came up with a name for it: Facebocrastination.
Public Policy senior Graham Steffens said Facebook began to “go out of style” when he was a senior in high school. He hasn’t looked back since deleting his in 2013.
“I definitely have more time,” Steffens said. “The amount of time spent scrolling through your newsfeed is incredible. You don’t realize how much time it takes until you delete it.”
If students like Jermyn and Steffens are fine without it, what keeps others logged on? Ninety percent of those aged 18 to 29 use social media, according to Pew. On college campuses, the primary way to hear about parties and other campus events happening is through Facebook invites. In my own experience, Facebook Events and Facebook Groups seem essential for campus life.
Unsurprisingly, that’s the major drawback for Steffens and those who are Facebook-free.
“I wouldn’t get invited to events where other people would,” Steffens said. “It just took extra effort to kind of go out of my way to make sure I heard about those, or make plans with people if you actually want to hang out instead of just having like a third party to initiate that.”
Jermyn says to get invited to events he either has to go out of his way to get the information or depend on his friends for an invite.
“Even just social things, like if people would be having parties or something they would create a Facebook event, say: ‘I’ll invite you on Facebook,’ and I would say: ‘Well, I don’t have a Facebook,’ ” he said. “I probably missed out on some social interactions because I didn’t have a Facebook and I kind of just rely on other people to text me if there was something going on.”
However, not seeing events or social interactions via Facebook isn't all negative.
Steffens said he realized after leaving Facebook the effect staring at photos of parties he wasn’t invited to or vacations he didn’t go on has on users.
“I have an overall positive experience without it,” Steffens said. “The lack of FOMO — that’s a big thing. People can get really stressed out constantly looking at other people’s lives and compare their own lives to it. Removing that aspect, I think makes a happier person.”
Facebook’s inherent voyeurism, and the jealousy that can result from it, is often lamented. However, Ellison, the social scientist, noted that as a perk.
“Facebook is a window to staying connected with friends in kind of a lightweight manner so that they’re able to see what others are doing and feel that there’s a connection even when they’re not co-located,” Ellison said.
As interesting as that can be, Ellison notes in the short term the feature can also aid in building connections in real life. While non-users like Christoph may not know what their friends have been up to recently, Ellison says users have conversation starters when they see them in person.
“One of the ways that we talk about that in our work is by making an argument that Facebook serves as a social lubricant, and the idea there is essentially the information that you see on Facebook can then be used to kind of make conversation happen more fluidly when you do communicate through some other channel,” she said.
Maybe a user sees a friend post about getting a puppy or visiting a new restaurant; the next time the user sees their Facebook friend in person these are starting topics of conversation. This aspect makes Christoph understand the appeal of Facebook; he said he never knows what people are up to unless he sees them day to day or makes an effort to reach out to them.
“My relationships are more stuck in the timeframe that I’ve seen the person,” Christoph said. “A lot of the people that I haven’t seen in a long time I have no idea what they’ve done in the last year or so, which is unfortunate. The thing with Facebook is that with Snapchat you can see what’s going on if you’re checking it, but with Facebook you can see what’s going on today and look back three weeks ago and check out everything up until when they created it in middle school.”
Yet Steffens’ feelings of FOMO associated with the barrage of information still aren’t unfounded. Psychology Prof. Ethan Kross published a study in 2013 linking avid Facebook users to higher rates of depression. His researchers found the more people utilized the social network throughout the day, the more their mood declined.
“We find that the more users use Facebook passively — i.e., browsing the site without adding content — the worse they subsequently feel,” Kross said. “We also have some data indicating that one potential explanation for this relationship has to do with jealousy — browsing the site passively is associated with higher feelings of jealousy, which in turn predict people feeling worse over time. Some researchers have speculated that this is because people curate the way they appear online.”
Keeping in mind the curation factor Kross referred to, the constant sharing can also be too much. Christoph said hearing about this stress from his Facebook-using friends was a reason he never joined.
“I feel a little less cluttered,” Christoph said. “I hear people complaining that Facebook is boring and they don’t know why they use it. I know people that get worried about putting their vacation photos on Facebook and making sure to share all their study abroad photos and stuff, so it’s kind of like people feel obligated to update it and keep their presence online fresh and update everyone. For me I don’t really worry about posting photos or Facebook drama that’s happening. It’s one less thing to check. I don’t have to look for Facebook messages.”
Here the benefits of Facebook become one of its disadvantages — this rings true for college students passively Facebocrastinating to avoid studying.
A study done by Sven Laumer, an assistant professor at Otto-Friedrich University in Germany, validated my annoyance with Facebook’s constant, banal notifications: Many users see Facebook as a place of demands rather than a space for interesting content to be shared. Users complained of feeling social overload when on the site because of its social demands and obligations, such as wishing “friends” a happy birthday, promote or share content produced by other “friends,” contribute to their fundraisers or react to their statuses.
Jermyn currently doesn’t suffer from this stress, nor does he foresee ever having to.
“I find that without having a Facebook, I’m able to keep in touch with the people I really want to keep in touch with,” Jermyn said. “The other people who maybe I wasn’t as good of friends with or whatever in high school, if I really want to get in touch with them, I can get in touch with them, but I don’t think that I really need a Facebook to make sure that I can do that.”
Sure, Jermyn will be the only classmate at his high school reunion shocked at how his classmates have aged. He may miss seeing where his acquaintances went over Spring Break, or hearing about so-and-so’s new job, but he’s content. The Facebook-less are fine without it; despite being disconnected online, they’d still pass on an online interaction to one face-to-face.