Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

May 8, 2013

House of Burgess: Committing virtual identity suicide

In which our hero ponders quitting Facebook

By Rob Burgess
Tribune columnist

— I joined Facebook Sept. 22, 2004. That was just seven months after Mark Zuckerberg and his cohorts created the site. Needless to say, it looked and felt much different back then. At its inception, the social network was only open to a few select Ivy League colleges. I signed up just as membership was opened to the majority of higher learning institutions in the country. I remember tech-savvy friends of mine chomping at the bit to have their school added to the approved list. I was a junior at Indiana University at the time. Had I known how much time I would waste checking my personal profile and associated news feed over the next 3,150 days I never would have joined.

The social network now basically rules online interpersonal communication. According to Facebook’s quarterly earnings report issued May 1, the site now boasts 1.11 billion monthly active users, “an increase of 23 percent year-over-year.” I know more about my Facebook friends than I would ever care to, yet, in many ways, I feel more cut off from these same people than I ever have. I recognized I had a problem with compulsive Facebook checking for quite some time. My acquisition of an iPhone and the installation of the Facebook app didn’t help quell my thirst for constant updates one bit. If I was standing in line at a store, I would, without thinking, load my app and refresh my news feed. If there was ever an idle second at home, I would find myself opening Firefox and begin typing the Facebook address before I even understood why I was doing so. And, yes, I have had intensely interesting conversations, learned valuable information and reconnected with long-lost compatriots through Facebook. It has not been a complete waste. But those moments are far outweighed by the countless instances wherein I’ve groaned out loud or cringed at something reposted or inflicted on my news feed.

How to kick my Facebook habit? Well, in China, they’ve taken an aggressive approach to the larger problem of Internet addiction: boot camps.

“Beijing’s Military General Hospital created the country’s first center in 2004,” reported Christopher S. Stewart in Wired Magazine in 2010. “It was the brainchild of Tao Ran, a military researcher and colonel in the People’s Liberation Army. ... Tao opened his camp at the edge of the city in a fortified military compound. The facility — which employed a fusion of therapy, physical training and medication — has treated more than 5,000 people to date, most of them teens.”

For a number of reasons this wasn’t an option for me, but I knew I had to do something. The final straw came when I saw one of my Facebook friends was testing a new app which would randomly delete 10 people on their friends list to see if they noticed or not. I checked their profile multiple times over the next few days to see if I was one of the unlucky 10. After about the fifth time of looking at their profile, I had had enough. If I spent all that time sleeping, meditating, reading or doing literally anything else it would have been more productive. I decided then and there to delete my account in a week’s time. I methodically backed up all my information and steeled myself for the change. Interestingly, I found there is an official-sounding name for this: “virtual identity suicide.”

“We found Facebook quitters to be significantly more cautious about their privacy, having higher Internet addiction scores and being more conscientious than Facebook users,” reads a portion of the abstract for a peer-reviewed article by Stefan Stieger, Christoph Burger, Manuel Bohn, and Martin Voracek published in February.

But just a few days before I was about to unplug from the Facebook Matrix, I found a different solution. I discovered I could convert my personal page to a public business page. This worked perfectly for me because I was mostly hanging onto Facebook so I could post links to my writing. And this way, Facebook could still perform that function. To sweeten the deal, the people I was sharing it with wouldn’t even have to be friends with me in real life. [Editor’s note: You can like my page too: www.facebook.com/robburgess.] When I converted, all my Facebook friends turned to likes. (Which is much less personal, but frankly more honest.) I don’t have a news feed as such anymore, so there’s nothing to check. It’s only been a few days since I made the switch, but I can safely say I don’t miss it at all. The only reasons I sign on now are to moderate the Tribune’s Facebook page, which I am also a manager of, and to see if anyone has liked or commented on anything I posted. And even if I still feel the impulse to check it multiple times during the day, there’s not nearly as much to see. So, I leave much sooner. It’s quite liberating.

Now, excuse me while I post this column to my Facebook page.

Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at rob.burgess@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at twitter.com/robaburg.