Scroll down to the bottom of the page to listen to our podcast with Zoe in conversation with Richard Fieldhouse on her journey to a destination that's almost completely free of social media.
I was an early adopter of social networking, in the days when dial-up was it. I had to phone switchboard when I was on nights at the QE Hospital in King’s Lynn to get connected to AOL, to timewaste effectively before the next surgical admission arrived.
I met my husband through Faceparty (so close, guys) in 2003, and when the first Facebook invitations came out, I signed up – late 2007.
The sign of something becoming mainstream, and therefore uninteresting, was when it was adopted by the, er, mainstream. When your Gas Appliance Cover gets a Facebook page, for example.
Fast forward to 2015, and I was fully fledged on Facebook with my kids’ pictures from zero to 6 years, GP survival and Tea and Empathy posts, school mum groups, and all kinds of shared articles and photos. What a great way to avoid doing anything I needed to get on with, and a really great way to stay in touch with my old and new friends. My list of Friends expanded reassuringly, including some long-lost people from my childhood who I’d thought I’d never wanted to see again.
I was a regular Tweeter, with several accounts (Arvind – you’re not the only one who likes to play Devil’s Advocate) and lots of Followers, and no bots, of course!
What better way to spend an evening Liking and retweeting, spreading those important edgy political messages about the junior doctors’ strike and Brexit?
Echo chambers aside, the time it was taking was creeping up inexorably. This was not sociable, or networking: it was more like smoking, or drinking wine.
I posted on Facebook that I was leaving Facebook. For the first time in ages, my Friends actually commented. Real feelings, such as ‘Don’t go! We’ll miss you moaning about lack of sleep!’ or ‘Who else will tell us how bad the NHS is?’ This, followed by ‘We have to meet up before you go!’. I wasn’t announcing that I was terminally ill, nor that I was leaving the country. Just not posting pictures of my boys covered in mud, or a GIF of Jeremy Hunt ringing a bell. It was so pleasant to encounter this desire to keep me Facebooking, that I didn’t leave.
And then I heard that Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-president of Facebook user growth, had left Facebook, expressing regret for his part in building tools that destroy ‘the social fabric of how society works’. And then in early 2018, Cambridge Analytica happened.
It was time to think much more carefully about my internet footprint, and particularly those of my sons, which would likely outlast me by several decades at least.
Suddenly, I began to wonder if I could discover that pre-internet past where phone calls, and actual face-to-face conversations, and – totally retro – letters existed. Perhaps my ennui would resolve, and perhaps I could find something more useful to do with my time.
It took three long evenings to delete all my Facebook data. Post-by-post, photo-by-photo, like-by-like. Hemingway would counsel being superior to my former self – not difficult, according to my timeline of utter banality. And then the Twitter account. 12,300 retweets. Wtaf? Deleting them was an education and quite a challenge. Eventually, I stumped up $5 to delete 50 retweets a day for as long as it took.
I posted on Facebook that I was leaving Facebook. For the first time in ages, my Friends actually commented.
Luckily, my Instagram account was not blossoming, so deleting that was a cinch, although it has since been hacked by an Ebonics speaker with an interest in manga. I will deal with it eventually, when I remember the long password I used to prevent myself from logging back in.
At first, it was really difficult. I pretended that Doctors.net wasn’t really social networking, for example, and even posted on the Pulse comments pages. But without the little blue bird and the white F, life starts to grow through the cracks again.
I had lunch with a friend, I had coffee dates, I spent an hour on the phone to a friend one evening. We organised a night out by texting (does that count, or not, Your Honour?). I took photos that I knew would not be uploaded and that no-one would see except my immediate family. I didn’t have to update anyone. I sent cards for birthdays and anniversaries. I wrote a letter and a postcard for the first time in years.
I dusted off the books I’d never quite got around to reading, and horrifically, got through two books a week in the time I’d been spending on Facebook and Twitter.
A brief lapse into Whatsapp (for work reasons, obviously) provided another alternative suggestion – podcasts. Serial, by This American Life, along with Radio 4 podcasts, are reasons to have a commute to work.
The end result? It is wonderful not to look at other people’s lives, their curated versions of themselves, and feel inadequate or sad or lonely or bored.
The slope is slippery, though, and I think complete abstinence is unrealistic – although does LinkedIn count?
I would recommend a trial, a cold turkey trial of #deleteFacebook. And if you send me a postcard, I promise I’ll reply.