BUT SOCIAL IRRELEVANCE WAS ALMOST EXACTLY what I had in mind. Already by this time I was using Facebook only as I would have once used a phone book: to look people up. And now I meant to leave behind not just my high school but my whole world. In a week’s time I would cross the country to join an intentional community in a Manhattan-shaped crevice in the mountains two hours northwest of Death Valley. For the next two years phone calls and Internet access would be unreliable afterthoughts involving various combinations of radio and satellite links, all of them outdated and some of them not fully legal. The population of my home-to-be: fifty. What could Facebook possibly do for me there?
AS A KID I READ AND REREAD MADELEINE L’ENGLE’S novel A Wrinkle in Time, in which space-and-time-travel is possible through a five-dimensional construct called a tesseract. We never get a good explanation of this fifth dimension, but the geometry is elegant even so. A tesseract folds the relativistic fabric of spacetime so that otherwise
distant points are brought close enough to “tesser” between them. In one early scene, Charles Wallace, the novel’s precocious five-year-old hero, sits on his living-room floor blithely explaining a plainly three-dimensional model of a tesseract to anyone who will listen.
I LEFT FOR CALIFORNIA TWO AND A HALF YEARS AGO. Our desert valley was less cut off from the outside world than I’d originally expected—indeed, I spent whole months there cobbling together new communications equipment out of spare parts and eBay salvage—and only my hubris had let me think that I wouldn’t keep up with at least some of my high-school friends. Still, our isolation in the desert was real, and so was the intimacy it engendered within our community.
When I came back east last summer I knew I’d have to make some sort of technological reentry too. I’d already started carrying an iPhone, and I was at least passingly familiar with Spotify. Returning to Facebook seemed like the natural next step, a way of becoming visible again. I was right—so I was surprised when I lasted not quite three hours.
From the home page’s undying siren-song—SIGN UP: IT’S FREE AND ALWAYS WILL BE—it began auspiciously enough. All Facebook needed from me were my first and last name, a password, my date of birth, my assent to their terms of service, and my e-mail address. Here I made my fatal mistake. I was so sure of my clean slate that by force of habit my fingers tapped out the same e-mail address I’d used with my high-school account, the address I’d kept all along. I clicked the bright green SIGN UP button and settled into my long-accustomed wait for the next page to load—only here, back in civilization, there was no such wait. I was presented immediately with my brand-new profile, about as empty as the one I’d left behind twenty-four months ago and if possible even shinier. So far so good.
By way of dipping a toe back into these social waters I searched for my sister and sent her a friend request, which she accepted immediately. The first test of social relevance: passed.
But my relief was short-lived. When I returned to the home page I was alarmed to discover that it was no longer so empty. My sister and I had gone to the same high school and known many of the same people, a couple hundred of whom Facebook now listed prominently as “people you may know.” Uh-uh.
And then the messages began popping up. The first was from my sister, who was pleasantly surprised to find me back online. The next few, from that handful of friends I’d kept up with by other means, were much the same. But the rest—a veritable deluge—were from people I hadn’t spoken to or in most cases thought about since the day before I’d last been on Facebook: graduation day itself. The guy I sat next to for years in the orchestra’s cello section. A fellow editor of the literary magazine. That girl from AP European History. Almost to a one they asked the same question, no less impossible for being perfectly reasonable: how was it? and what was I doing next?
I understood and reciprocated their curiosity; I was even flattered by it. They had all left home too, but I had fallen off the face of the earth. And now they wanted to tesser me back.
Instead I quit—again. I had nothing to delete this time, and by now there was an easier way: a big red button marked DELETE MY ACCOUNT.
NOTWITHSTANDING FACEBOOK’S UBIQUITY—OR MAYBE because of it—there are some trendily philosophical reasons for fleeing Mark Zuckerberg’s fiefdom. Conterculture, anti-commercialism, neo-Luddism: take your pick. I’ve flirted aggressively with several of these ideas, and on some level I still agree with their principles.
But this second retreat, especially, was not about principles. It wasn’t theoretical: it was personal, even visceral. It was about desires.
Tools take on the intentions of their creators; a well-made tool fits those desires like a glove. Facebook is up-front about the desires it channels: CONNECT AND SHARE WITH THE PEOPLE IN YOUR LIFE, blares the home page. Mark Zuckerberg wants to tesser. He’s clearly not alone. It’s an admirable impulse.
But it’s not the only one. In the two years since I’d last used Facebook I’d hardly teleported halfway across the cosmos. But I had lived a very different life, and it had taken me far away not just geographically. Distance implies a border, and borders enclose a world. I want to believe you get more than one, if you’ve ever spent much time in more than one place. Here Facebook was offering to collapse the distance and trample the boundaries that defined not just the worlds I’d left behind but also the one in which I now found myself, and I wasn’t about to let it. I didn’t want to tesser.
—graphic by Madeline Butler YH Staff