What started as an online student directory aimed at ranking women by their looks quickly grew into the world's most popular social media platform. But as DW's Courtney Tenz argues, we might be happier Facebook free.
Facebook was still in its infancy when I came to Germany from the US in 2005. A lecturer at university, over the previous year I'd heard my students talking about the website as a place to keep up with their friends away at other colleges. But I brushed it off as something only the young would do. And who really wanted to keep in touch with their high school friends when their lives were just getting started?
My, how times have changed.
Fifteen years after the platform got its start in a Harvard dorm room as an online student directory, Facebook now clocks more than 2.3 billion users worldwide (including, as of 2018, an estimated 116 million fake accounts and 255 million duplicates).
If I wanted to, I could likely connect with any one of the more than 1,000 students I roamed my high school's corridors with. I could find my long-lost pen pal from Sri Lanka, or the Swedish girl I once shared a hostel room with in the south of France.
The question I keep asking myself, though, is: Do I want to?
Do I really want to see if that boy I had a crush on in fifth grade has aged well? Do I really want to be invited to a closed group where I can purchase a pair of cheap-yet-overpriced patterned leggings from my cousin? What's more: Do I want these people to keep up with me?
Maybe, in this way, I really have adopted a German attitude towards social media, relationships and privacy.
Read more: Facebook: dismantling an internet superstar
Real life vs. Fakebook friends
When I first logged on to Facebook at the end of 2005, I used it solely as a way to keep up-to-date with my classmates from graduate school. I didn't look for people I knew from my past, connecting with people from my hometown thousands of miles away or reaching out to former coworkers to hear where their careers were taking them.
And for those first few years in Germany, I couldn't find anyone I knew personally on the platform. They were all registered on Studi.VZ, a Germany-wide student directory that resembled something like a yearbook: photo, name, age, school, year of graduation.
To me, Facebook served as a clear divider between the world I lived in here in Germany, my real life, and the one I'd left behind in the US. Through Facebook, I could keep up with the goings-on back home while leading my boring, everyday life grabbing coffee or meeting for book club with other people — in person.
When the Germans I knew finally did join, I could hardly find them, as they did it with strange nicknames: Al Exa; Thor Sten; Ann E. Bodey. Or they logged in under their own names and then posted nothing — not even a picture. So much for Facebook's "real name only" policy
On the other side of the Atlantic, my relatives flocked to Facebook, bombarding anyone whose acquaintance they may have made in recent years with wedding videos and birth photos, cryptically announcing breakups and makeups with the click of a button, posting memes more revealing of their personality than any joke told around the dinner table.
As Mark Zuckerberg himself has noted, we "have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people." Things that I would have previously thought unthinkable — like telling strangers which pub you're going to later or posting selfies while you're sick — have become so commonplace as to be mundane.
While the jury is still out as to whether that level of sharing is a good thing (though many would argue it isn't, especially for young children), Facebook has become, for many, more than just a sharing platform. As Kalev Leetaru, a Senior Fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security wrote in Forbes, "In some countries, Facebook has become the internet itself, its walled gardens effectively defining the limits of access."
"Facebook," he writes, "has become so integrated into our lives, so intertwined with how we keep in touch, follow the news, get business and governmental updates and conduct our lives, that it has passed the point of no return: we simply cannot leave it no matter how much we would like."
That's quite a shift from the throwaway "hot or not" ranking website that started it all. But is it true? Is it really impossible to #deletefacebook?
It isn't, at least, for the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who recently announced she was closing her popular account. And it wasn't for me, several years ago, when I deactivated and logged off for good.
While my reasons for leaving the platform are personal, they center around the concerns that many people voice when it comes to both privacy and to the artificial aspects of these social media connections.
Now, if I want someone to know I'm getting married or having a baby, I have to write them a personal e-mail or letter or even — gasp — pick up the much-dreaded telephone.
If I want my friends to see what I ate for dinner on the sixth night of my stay in Bangkok, I have to subject them to a good old-fashioned slideshow. And though I may be missing out on news from Aric in Argentina, it's just as well that our acquaintanceship has faded away, as real relationships take work. Communication.
That doesn't necessarily mean meeting up in person. But is it really social to type into a void and expect that everyone you've ever met is listening?
And who knows? Deleting Facebook might actually do you some good. In a study titled The Welfare Effects of Social Media, researchers from NYU and Stanford found that logging off for 30 days led to greater well-being, measured subjectively. Those who logged off for the study reported they spent more time with friends and family and were less agitated when it came to their attention span.
If that small bit of happiness we glean from keeping in touch with long-distance friends and family is at the same time keeping us distracted and making us depressed, are we sure the trade-off is worth it?