Exiled from Facebook: How I lost a couple thousand friends in an instant
December 26, 2012 by Bill Palmer
by Bill Palmer
Twas the night before Christmas and all through my Facebook page, nothing was stirring… because it had just vanished before my eyes. While I was reading other people’s status updates and carrying on conversations with a few friends, Facebook logged me out and has yet to allow me to log back in. Various attempts to verify my account have resulted in strange error messages, and after two days of trying, it appears my account is just gone. According to what I’m told, my account shows up as a blank page now. But rather than merely being an unfortunate Christmas Eve lump of coal, this odd experience has offered me some surprising insight into the human condition, particularly as it relates to our digitally connected world.
First came the emails. Then the tweets. Then, the next morning, the texts and phone calls. Each person’s reaction has been different from the last. Some old friends assumed I had quit Facebook and deleted my account, and wanted to know how to keep in touch with me going forward. Others thought I had blocked them, and were concerned at what they might have done to offend me. Still others assumed that I “accidentally” junked my account on purpose, so as to start over with a smaller group of friends. That’s when I realized that my real problem wasn’t going to be how to reconnect with 1892 people that I’d become Facebook friends with since joining in 2007. The problem was that so many of them were under the false impression that I’d ditched them on purpose, and in many instances I had no way of informing them otherwise…
My friends on Facebook are an assorted collection of my current real world friends, my extended family, my old friends from school, my former coworkers, my industry contacts that I only know professionally, friends of friends that I’ve gotten to know exclusively through Facebook, and other interesting people I’ve encountered along the way. Many of them have nothing in common beyond the fact that they know me. I’ve long found it fascinating that I could post a status update and receive comments on it from my cousin, the president of a tech company startup, the publicist for a pop star, and the girl who used to sit next to me in algebra class – made all the more interesting when their comments lead them to start interacting with each other.
Except that unique concoction of people all just went away, in a poof of twenty-first century glitchiness which left me feeling oddly cut off from the world on a personal level even as I was surrounded by family and friends on Christmas. Rather than waiting weeks or possibly forever to somehow cajole Facebook into giving me my account back (if my account still even existed in their databases), I started a new account. At first I only added the friends I’d been conversing with just before the implosion, to let them know I hadn’t bailed on them. Then I added the family and close friends who I knew would immediately wonder where my account went. With each friend request, I sent along a note explaining what had happened. I stopped including that note after it caused one family member to mistakenly believe that my new account was some kind of phony scam…
So far I’ve tracked down several hundred out of the couple thousand people who I’d been severed from. Most of them have accepted the request without hesitation, but many of them have then posted messages of confusion on my wall as to what just happened. Did I get angry at them, block them, and then change my mind? Did I throw a tantrum and delete my entire account? None of the above. But I don’t blame anyone for wondering just what really happened here. I’m still wondering myself.
I’ve long joked that Facebook is run by three kids and a monkey, and that as a company it lacks the infrastructure, sophistication, or understanding of its responsibilities when it comes to just how much we’ve come to rely on it. Thank goodness I’ve never been the type to snap a photo directly within the Facebook app and upload it, which would mean I’d have no other copy of that photo besides the one I posted. I haven’t lost any pictures that I don’t have stored locally. And when I post an update that ends up feeling more like a dissertation, I’ve always copy-pasted it into a word processor so I could keep it if I ever needed to reference my own words. All I’ve really lost is my most straight ahead form of communication with the people who I very much want in my life but perhaps never bothered to ask for their telephone number, or email, or any other method of contacting them. It’s only now that I realize how thoroughly and exclusively I’ve relied on Facebook for building my personal and professional networks. As a company, Facebook is not up to the task of playing that role. And yet it’s still the only social network that really matters.
I posted a message on Twitter with a link to my new Facebook account, so that anyone who follows me in both places could find me. Only a few responded, and one of them was only to make a joke about Facebook being irrelevant. That was the best reminder yet of how cut off and irrelevant Twitter has become as a social network, and don’t get me wrong, I was on Twitter before I was ever on Facebook. But Twitter no longer really matters except as a broadcasting tool. And the failure of Google+ was a reminder of why Facebook is social networking: everyone I know is there, and most of them are there exclusively, and other networks don’t matter because no one I know is there.
So as I continue to build out my new Facebook page and hope to gradually reconnect with everyone I’ve connected with there in the past five years, I’m left to realize that it’s on us to each be the custodians of our Facebook network. I’m the guy who has automatic hard drive backups taking place 24/7, and yet it never occurred to me that I needed to back up my list of Facebook friends. If the three kids and a monkey who run things aren’t going to take responsibility for that task, then I am. Each time I add a new Facebook friend, I’ll add their names and pages to a database on my computer, complete with whatever other contact information they have on their page – just in case I ever lose them all again.
In the end I’m reminded of two things. We’re still in the very primitive early stages of the digital life, with a long way to go before this new paradigm of living manages to stabilize itself. And regardless of any other details involved, in the end it’s the people that matter most.
Update: shortly after this article got picked up in some prominent places, my Facebook account was magically reinstated. Moral of the story: if you publicly refer to the Facebook staff as “three kids and a monkey” it just might embarrass them into fixing your account