The week of April 5, 2015

How I gamed Facebook and conquered my FOMO

By Nico Lang

Someone once told me that the real shame of only getting to live one life is that you’re forced to live it as yourself. As a child, I was determined to find a way out of that conundrum. Other kids used their prayers to wish for a Barbie dream house or an Easy-Bake Oven, but I only wanted one thing: to switch bodies with literally anyone else. At night I would stay up silently pleading with God (or whomever happened to be listening) to put me in one of those body-switch comedies so I could see the world through someone else’s eyes. It wasn’t that I didn’t like my life; I just didn’t want to have to live it all the time.

I never got my Freaky Friday moment, so I had to watch my classmates live the lives I so desperately wanted. I was a loner, the kid who got invited to birthday parties only when someone’s mother didn’t want me to feel left out. Some kids had friends; I had my Walkman and an Agatha Christie book at the back of the bus. Until high school, I had no idea people even hung out together on weekend nights (especially without their parents) because I’d never been invited.

My freshman year, my family finally got our first real computer, which introduced AOL chatrooms, Xanga, and Myspace, the inner sanctum of teen culture. Hanging out online with total strangers allowed me to experiment with this thing called “friendship,” as well as the beginnings of a new era of FOMO: a catchy abbreviation for the fear that everyone is hanging out without you.

While Xanga became a pivotal focal point of my eventual friend group in high school, my college friends warned me that it was nothing like Facebook. “What’s Facebook?” I asked my friend Amanda, a first-year at Loyola University in Chicago who was worldly to me because she had a long-term boyfriend, knew Spanish, and got to go on the train alone. She smiled like an older sister who knew you were too young to learn about the birds and the bees just yet: “Just wait. You’ll see.”

Her coy statement promised me the freedom that college life offered, and I was desperate for it. When I followed her to Chicago (don’t worry, it wasn’t a Felicity thing) and enrolled in a local art school, the first thing I did after hanging up my Smiths posters was sign up for a Facebook account. I started obsessively adding everyone I met at freshman orientation, as well as the people who kept their doors open in our dorm to meet and greet with the other residents. This girl I met is a model who claims to have hooked up with Jamie Foxx. Cool! Requested. The poetry major across the hall from me likes Buffalo ‘66 and let me drink some of her $5 strawberry wine. Generous! Click. This guy is studying photography and plays the guitar. His band was in a commercial! Friendship accepted.

Some of my dormmates called this behavior “friend collecting.”

I added theatre majors, people who made their own tattoos, and the 50-year-old guy who looked like a young Werner Herzog; he lived four floors below me and everyone said he was so rad for never giving up on school. If you held a gun to my head, I couldn’t tell you his name, but he had all the requirements I was looking for in a Facebook friend: He had a pulse. Some of my dormmates called this behavior “friend collecting.” I didn’t see the problem. After a lifetime of missing out on parties I didn’t even know existed, I wasn’t going to get it wrong again. If something was happening, I was going to know about it.

Of course, you don’t make friends through hoarding data on your peer group like the NSA. Instead what you get through friend collecting is to watch everyone live their lives behind a monitor. As Facebook slowly branched out to allow status updates and timelines, it became easier and easier to be a wallflower. Most people have Internet porn, but I got off on other peoples’ lives, spending hours rummaging through their vacation photos or salivating over how many likes their status from last April got. Matt Spiegelman called Easter “Zombie Jesus Day.” God, he’s so funny. Why didn’t I think of that?

Someone once told me that if you’re ever feeling depressed, think about all the people who must be masturbating to you on Facebook. But as a person who has (metaphorically) been on the other end of that erotic divide, that advice is the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.

There’s an old cliché that you never feel as alone when you’re lonely in a crowded room. Those people have never had a Facebook account. I spent most of my 20s watching everyone else get married or have babies or eat painstakingly curated food—all viewed through a tasteful Valencia tint. To me, there was no real life. There was only what you did for the status update, in order to make everyone around you subtly feel bad.

Instead of unplugging altogether, I decided it was time to finally hold myself accountable for how I use Facebook.

During a particularly low period, I dated a guy for the relationship status: I met him while canvassing for a local grassroots organization, and he was genial, had all of his teeth, and didn’t say anything overtly racist. He would do just fine—even if he was a trust fund kid with a weed problem and we spent half of our relationship avoiding his dealer. I wanted to have what everyone else was having, and I did: My life was finally as dysfunctional and fucked up as everyone else’s. I dumped him after six weeks.

I often joke with colleagues that it’s easier to get hit by a bus than make a meaningful connection with someone as an adult. I tried to game the Internet to help me make friends in the real world: I joined two book clubs on and used Scruff, a Grindr-like hookup app for hairy dudes and hipsters, as a potential friend pool. I accidentally met my current boyfriend on it, but the only potential friends I met were a guy who looked exactly like Vincent Van Gogh and a potential Instagram photographer.

The problem isn’t that these quirks didn’t automatically qualify people for friendship the way they had when I started college. It was that I was so busy trying to get invited to the party that I didn’t look up from my cellphone to enjoy the one I was attending.

There was a simple fix for that: Last year, I decided to take a six-month hiatus from Facebook, an experiment that I later realized was less about having healthy Internet habits than proving to everyone around me what healthy Internet habits I was having. I was still performing, but in a different way. Instead of unplugging altogether, I decided it was time to finally hold myself accountable for how I use Facebook. In December, I uninstalled the Facebook app from my iPhone and asked my boyfriend to block my phone’s Internet browser. I also switched over my Facebook profile to a Fan Page, which makes your account functionally useless. You can’t message anyone unless they reach out to you first, and you don’t have a Timeline to see what your friends are up to. All you have is yourself.

In my own private cyberspace, no one can hear me scream.

Of course, I rigged Facebook to suit my own needs: I figured out that the site lets Page users message people if you try to delete your account, as a last-ditch effort to get you to stay. Don’t leave, the site begs you. Look at all of these people who will miss you! I bookmarked that page in case of emergencies or large meteors, where my ability to send a Facebook message to my aunt Teresa may mean the difference between conflagrant apocalypse and salvation. I also have a dummy account that I use to creep on the site’s list of Trending Topics, in case I’m asked to write about whatever Lena Dunham is doing wrong today, but without friends, Facebook is like a ghost town. It’s eerie but freeing, like a better, purer version of the site. This is the Facebook I was looking for all along but didn’t know I needed, a social network without the social. In my own private cyberspace, no one can hear me scream.

I kept my two book clubs (A Passage to India was surprisingly good), but I added a Buddhist temple in and a church in the Bronx to the equation. It’s two hours away from my apartment in Crown Heights and I’m an atheist these days, but people do much crazier things in New York to make friends. After the service last Sunday, I sat by myself reading a copy of Fahrenheit 451 when another member of the congregation moved over to my table. She shares a name with a PBS program and is thinking about driving all the way out to California to help her sister move. We debated the amount of time it would take to get a U-Haul all the way to Los Angeles before realizing we have tiny computers in our pockets that answer those questions for us.

I asked her to look up the information for me because I didn’t have my iPhone on me. I left it in my backpack. She marveled at this information, as if the idea of someone not being connected to their cellular device at all times was like seeing a bear in a tutu ride a unicycle. I explained that I’d been dialing back my Internet use as part of an ongoing resolution to be less plugged in all the time. “I’m trying this new thing where I’m not always on Facebook,” I said. “I can tell that about you,” she nodded. “People are always distracted. You don’t look that way. You look… peaceful.” She kept trying to put words to her assertion, but I stopped her and thanked her. I knew what she meant, and it was the nicest thing I had heard in years.

A long time ago, a performer I know from Chicago gave me a piece of life advice I didn’t realize was advice. In between cigarettes, she shrugged off success, “Y’know, there will always be someone with a play opening up somewhere.” Yeah, thanks for reminding me! I thought to myself. Now I have to go home and write a hit musical! While her brief comment was an age-old reminder that the grass is greener in someone else’s Instagram filter, I think there’s an important, if subtle, message about the problem with wanting what other people have: It’ll never be enough. Sure, your Facebook friend might be on Broadway now, but if you had his life, your other Facebook friends would still have a book deal and a new baby.

Eventually, you’ll be that person with the play opening. If you want anyone to show up, it’s best to try not to hate everyone else for being happy. The real consolation is that they’re likely pretending as much as you are.

Illustration by J. Longo