My shock when my friend gave up Facebook
An email arrived from my friend Lisa the other day. It was short and to the point. "Hello everyone," it read. "I am giving Facebook a break for a while and have deleted my account. See you all in the real world."
I was stunned -- I never saw this coming. After all, Lisa had always seemed so committed to our Facebook friendship, nurturing it at every opportunity. She had updated her status with impressive regularity and trademark pithiness. She was quick to post shared carefully tagged photos or links to YouTube clips.
And when she wasn't sharing her own news, she was first to pitch in with a witty response to other people's status updates, or post a comment expressing her amusement at a shared photo album.
Her Facebook page offered a neat window into her life in a way that made me feel connected to her world, but in no danger of stumbling into the murky territory of unwanted information or, God forbid, boredom.
In fact, as far as the world of social networking goes, Lisa was a model citizen; showing an innate understanding of her civic responsibility to amuse, entertain and inform while in turn being quick to register her own amusement and interest in others.
She was all about the give and take, which is not a bit surprising -- because that's the kind of girl she is anyway. But now here she was, turning her back on her community of online friends -- all 200-odd of us -- without warning. Why?
"I just needed a break from airing all my own thoughts and being constantly exposed to everybody else's," she said when I asked her. "And I felt a need for more privacy -- not wanting everyone to know where I was in the world all the time.
"I also felt that Facebook was robbing me and my friends of conversation -- somebody would say, 'Hey, I'm going to South America!' and I'd say, 'I know, I saw it on Facebook.'
"And I don't feel the same need I used to, to share photos and information about myself. I found that I was going through Facebook deleting a whole lot of friends -- my gauge was: 'Would I look this person up for a coffee if I were in their town?' -- and decided it was easier to just delete myself!"
Ultimately, she said, she wanted to see more of people in real life. Which is all very well, except for the fact she lives in Australia.
I've only actually physically seen Lisa twice in the past six years since we first met while working together on a magazine in Sydney. So having her as a Facebook friend allowed me to feel as though I was a real part of her life, despite our limited opportunities to catch up face-to-face.
I could see from her photos what way she was wearing her hair these days, what the latest boyfriend looked like, where she'd been on her holidays.
I could even see from her online bookshelf what she was reading. She felt ever-present in a low-level, unobtrusive way and I felt connected to her life in a way that I could never hope to otherwise -- which, surely, is the whole point of social networking.
So when I next logged in to my Facebook account, it was with a little pang that I saw not only had her profile picture disappeared from my list of friends, but all traces of her presence had vanished from my own wall. The funny little photo comments -- gone. The humorous retorts to status updates -- deleted.
Lisa had disappeared into thin air. It almost felt as though our friendship had ended. And you know what? In a way, it has.
Okay, I admit that I know where's she's coming from. There's been quite a few occasions where I've felt like packing it in myself -- usually when I've found myself in a half-trance, trawling through the online holiday albums of people I've never met while simultaneously putting off what I'm supposed to be doing: work, for instance, or the ironing. This mindless click-click-click through the endless labyrinth of online communications between people you barely know leaves in its wake a grubby, exhausted feeling.
And then, like Lisa said, there are the moments when you run into an acquaintance who, because they're also on Facebook, knows far more about your life than you -- and very possibly they -- would like.
So yes, on occasion, I've come close to quitting Facebook myself. But I've always held out at the last minute -- I like it too much.
So instead, I've settled for a few precautionary measures. I've defriended a few people in order to keep using Facebook the way I want to use it. The reality is that the internet has become an essential way for me to maintain certain relationships. And what's so superior about so-called 'real life' anyway?
Plenty of people would argue that the answer to that question is 'everything'. There are lots of people who remain unconvinced that social networking is a good thing, and worry about the damage our Facebook obsession is doing to our ability to communicate in the real world.
'My main worry is that Facebook could affect developing social skills," says John Smith, a Dublin-based psychotherapist. "Will social networking help or hinder those? The jury is still out. It's early days on this -- Facebook has only been around for a few years.
"What I'd like to see is if, in the end, it will help towards friendship as opposed to sitting down and meeting someone, having a coffee, going to the cinema, going out and playing a game of tennis with them. It's that whole thing of human connection."
For the time being, Lisa agrees. A couple of weeks after her Facebook demise, she says she is not missing it at all. Her liberation from the social networking site has enabled her to re-introduce boundaries in her life, she told me in a very convincing email.
"My priorities have changed -- I feel that I want to spend time with people close to me and shrink my circle to a few close friends who mean a lot. Facebook seemed the antithesis of that -- a lot of meaningless interaction."
All of a sudden, I was filled with an urge to re-introduce my own boundaries, shrink my own circle to my close friends and halt all of my own meaningless interaction.
But then came the admission that brought me back to my senses with a jolt. I'm still spending lots of time at the computer, Lisa wrote, as I've now joined Twitter instead.
There's no doubt about it -- meaningless interaction is here to stay. And for my part -- and for Lisa's, whether she realises it or not -- I'm hooked.