College students propelled Facebook to popularity, and at Bowdoin, they are now experimenting with deactivation en masse.
Last Monday, Tyler Patton '12 and Ruiqi Tang '13 launched massdeactivation.blogspot.com, the site of their self-proclaimed "social experiment" that urges Bowdoin students to disable their Facebook profiles from February 8 to March 8. During this time, profiles will not be deleted but dormant, allowing students the option to resume their presence on the social network after the trial period.
According to the website, the goal of the project is not scholarly nor anti-Facebook, but simply hopes to allow students to question the role social media plays in their life by raising the question "what does it feel like to exist in the Bowdoin community without Facebook?"
Patton said the idea came to him after getting invited to a party over Facebook and thinking about what the alternative would be.
"Would you get a handmade invitation in your S.U. box?" he asked, questioning the ultra-public nature of Facebook invites.
"Facebook is very unique in the sense that it seeks to imitate human interaction more accurately than email," Patton said. "Your profile is a representation of who you are as a person."
He said that after speaking with a handful of students at Bowdoin, it became clear he was not the only one considering the scope of Facebook's influence in such a small academic and social setting.
"I got positive feedback from conversations I had, like 'Oh, this is an idea I had too,'" he added.
Patton deactivated his Facebook in September, while Tang has lived without hers for over a year.
"I don't feel like my life has changed dramatically to the extent that I feel isolated...I don't feel like I'm missing out, I have more time to spend in person with friends," said Tang.
But for many students, it is the fear of falling out of touch with one's community online and in the real world that prevents deactivation, creating the impetus for Patton and Tang's plan.
"Realistically, I will never quit Facebook because nobody else will," said Richard Nerland '12. "But if others did" participate in the mass deactivation, "I would too," he added.
In an email that updated friends on the initiative over winter break, Patton analogized the scope of the issue.
"Imagine that all Bowdoin students drove cars to class. Then one day someone says, 'Hey, wouldn't it be a lot quieter and less polluted if we all started walking?' In this case it doesn't make sense for everyone to say, 'Why don't you start walking, we'll keep driving, and we'll see if we like it better that way,'" wrote Patton. "Clearly, unless enough people stopped driving, Bowdoin would still be polluted and noisy."
Their website stresses that the hum of digital life may not be detrimental, but its effects cannot be fully felt without first attempting to tune it out.
It notes that if enough Bowdoin students participate, "it could literally be the last time for the rest of your life that you and the people around you exist without Facebook. To borrow a phrase from Jaron Lanier, Facebook may become 'locked-in' to society, much like email and cell phones have been."
With over 845 million members worldwide, Facebook announced this week that it intends to go public in May and has filed for an initial public offering with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it hopes will raise $5 billion.
While the implications of Facebook's coming responsibility to shareholders remain to be seen, Patton and Tang's website emphasizes that the business aspect of the website must ultimately be acknowledged.
"Their goal is to make money and the way they make money is by getting as many people as possible to create accounts and keep those accounts. Should a service like this be mediated through Facebook's economic incentives, marketing, advertising, etc?"
Both Patton and Tang acknowledged that while life at Bowdoin may be affected by deactivating, the hardest thing for students could be maintaining interactions with families and friends at home.
Nonetheless, with text, email, Skype and Twitter, they both stressed that "staying in touch" didn't seem like an insurmountable problem.
"The biggest difference is that I don't have access to those people who aren't my close friends...how does that change the way you perceive of them?" said Tang, categorizing the spectrum of acquaintances that fall under the blanket category of Facebook friends.
"Looking at the videos they watched on YouTube is not really called 'keeping in touch,'" said Patton.
This acknowledgement of superficial digital relationships rings true for many students.
"You can interact with people that you don't really know really easily and simply...just by "liking" their photos," said Zoe Karp '14. "It's a way of feeling like your close to lots of people and in reality you're not. I think it would help in realizing that and hopefully making more meaningful connections by actually seeing people."
Monica Das '14 plans to participate, yet addressed the challenge of maintaining contact with wider circles of relationships at home.
"I feel like I do have a lot of friends from home who belong to specific groups," she said. "People who I wouldn't really call individually but I like having group discussions with."
Other students are curious to how a break from Facebook would facilitate academic productivity, one of the primary reasons Tang cites for deleting her own profile.
"I found myself getting sucked in and was really uncomfortable with the idea that whenever I saw a computer the first thing I did was Facebook," said Tang.
"It's a huge distractor," said Elina Berglund '15, who blocked Facebook during finals week using the computer program SelfControl and said she is "highly considering" deactivation.
Patton and Tang settled on the month-long length of deactivation because "anything longer than that would be unrealistic, anything shorter would be too short to actually get used to living around other people without Facebook," said Patton.
Though rooted in the honor system, they are hoping to track student movement with pledges at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Though the trial period ends at the cusp of spring break, they plan to eventually organize informal reflections on life without the Social Network.
"Nothing too formal...people can talk about what they experienced, if their lives sucked without Facebook," said Patton. "That could be the outcome, that Facebook is improving lives."