I’m not on Facebook and I don’t want to kill anyone.
But James Holmes, the Aurora shooter who murdered 12 people and injured another 58, and Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway last year, were also not users of the world’s largest social networking site. So does that make me weird, or somehow like them?
A German magazine used Holmes and Breivik to support the idea that “people who aren’t on social networking sites are ‘suspicious’,” the Daily Mail reported yesterday. Not having a Facebook is like not having an identity, and we flock to social media to regain trust, Daniel Trottier, who researches attitudes toward surveillance on social media, told me. If you’re not on Facebook, who are you?
“There’s this notion if you have nothing to hide, you should have no reason to not be made visible through social media,” he told me. “We assume that if you’re not on Facebook, you have a terrible secret or something.” Since my motivations for abstaining from Facebook aren’t about disengaging from the world — but because I like the combination of my other social networks better — my lack of Facebook presence doesn’t suggest I’m withdrawn or antisocial. Holmes and Breivik, on the other hand, were largely untraceable — save for Holmes’ Adult Friend Finder account and the Facebook page Breivik set up just five days before his attack, in some sort of “conscious effort to construct a public persona.”
Still, says Trottier, “It’s gotten to the point where it monopolizes so much of social life, we assume people are on it, and it becomes a bit of a concern when you aren’t.” This doesn’t imply that everyone who’s not on Facebook is a potential serial killer — there are still about six billion of us not on Facebook — but it’s strange enough to warrant justification for anyone that’s not on Facebook. The statement: “Yeah, I don’t have Facebook” is generally followed by disbelief, bewilderment or a brief interrogation.
It wasn’t always like this. I used to really enjoy Facebook. I remember anxiously waiting for my college email address, when being on Facebook was a privilege and a right of passage upon entering college. (Before Facebook let anyone join.) Then the floodgates opened to everyone, my mom joined, Facebook changed its design and features about 129038120 times, and much of its appeal was lost. Once Facebook was everywhere, I didn’t want it to be anywhere near me — and that’s exactly what makes not being on it so abnormal.
“The point at which it became so normalized, that’s when not being on Facebook became weird,” Trottier told me. “When Facebook first came out people compared it to Myspace or Friendster, but at a certain point we started comparing it to things like email or SMS. It kind of became a higher order way of communication.” Facebook chat or messages were often easier than text or email (at least when you were near a computer) because you didn’t have to look anything up. Everyone was right there. It became the first order of screening for potential dates, prospective employees or roommates — linking your Facebook profile to things, from music services to apartment rentals, is often a prerequisite for gaining access, or proving you’re a real person.
Without Facebook, it’s as if we don’t exist.
The elusiveness and unstalkability of non-Facebookers is arguably what makes people so weary — “a sign that you’re abnormal and dysfunctional, or even dangerous,” exclaims the Daily Mail. The supposed similarities between James Holmes and Anders Behring Breivik go beyond blank stares and sinister smiles; their complete lack of online presence fascinate and frighten us because we don’t know anything about them. Who were their friends? What’d they like to do? Without Facebook, there aren’t as many clues to help us understand the most important question: Why did they do it? It’s true that you can pretend to be someone else entirely on Facebook, but at least you’re someone.