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When you’re not on Facebook but ‘It was on Facebook’

For better or worse, the Facebook “status update” has become the defacto method for sharing news — but many have left the platform.

Liz Duffy, in her St. Davids home, posted on Facebook to let people know about the death of her father (pictured on her desk). Later she realized there were still many people who didn't know.
Liz Duffy, in her St. Davids home, posted on Facebook to let people know about the death of her father (pictured on her desk). Later she realized there were still many people who didn't know.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

The classic philosophical riddle is, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

What if you post something on Facebook when no one is there to read it? Has the news really been shared?

Certainly, in the early days of Facebook, people uploaded vacation selfies, commented on pet photos and announced life changes with a status update, and the majority of American adults were there to see it – roughly 68 percent of them, according to a recent Pew research study.

But Facebook is always changing. Like much of the internet, Facebook has more ads, more videos, more politics, more algorithms. For these and many other reasons, more people are deleting the app or at least decreasing their engagement with Facebook.

And there’s the disconnect.

Liz Duffy of Radnor recently used the site to let friends know her 92-year-old father had died. “It was very helpful in getting the word out to a lot of people quickly,” she says. “But there were people I would have heard from and didn’t. And that’s when I realized I never told them.”

On the other end, people who have scaled back their Facebook activity or deleted their accounts are often missing the “updates” that family and friends might have shared with them personally in the past.

Indeed, the days of spreading the news door to door of a new baby in the neighborhood, or using a phone chain to let the extended family know someone is in the hospital, are likely things of the past. For better or worse, the Facebook “status update” has become the defacto method for sharing news, with implications for how we interact with one another.

“It happens all the time,” says Tom Lowy of Wayne. “A relative on my in-laws side died and I didn’t know it. And my wife – who has a different feed than I do – said, ‘It was on Facebook.’ ”

According to a 2018 Pew research study, 74 percent of adult Facebook users in the U.S. changed their Facebook habits in the last 12 months – 42 percent say they have taken a break from checking the platform for several weeks or more; 26 percent say they have deleted the app from their phones; and 54 percent say they have changed their privacy settings on Facebook.

But more often, the assumption is that everyone is still on, and that everyone sees everything their friends post. Even Lowy’s 85-year-old mother and 90-year-old father chide him for missing things. “My parents think that everyone sees everything that they see on Facebook. Like it’s just one big feed.”

Jabin White, a father of two in Villanova who works in digital publishing, was a pretty heavy Facebook user when he joined 10 years ago, and he still has more than 600 “friends.” Some of his roommates from college were commenting back and forth when he noticed one of his closest friends wasn’t participating. “And I only noticed because we were busting his chops and he wasn’t defending himself,” he says. “I texted his wife, and she said he hadn’t been on Facebook in years. I was a little embarrassed how long it took me to notice.”

And it’s not just the missed messages that have White concerned. He worries about the effects of the technology itself.

“Facebook has changed the way we think about how we communicate with the world,” White says. “I probably communicate with people much less than I used to. And I don’t feel guilty about it, because Facebook is training my brain to think I’m keeping up with people just because I commented on their beach photo last summer.”

“We’re not communicating as human beings, we’re just broadcasting,” he says. “We are missing out on the work and rewards of responding to another in joy or grief. And the worst part is that we don’t realize we are missing out on it.”

Daniel Post Senning, spokesman for the Emily Post Institute, encourages people to see today’s shifting engagement with social media as a moment to examine how we maintain relationships.

“It’s a real opportunity to take those relationships back and manage them in ways that feel really personal,” he says. “It’s important to think about matching the medium with the message. A ‘like’ or a smiley face on Facebook to honor a new baby does not compare to a card with your handwriting that someone can physically hold.”

Mikala Morrow gave up Facebook and all other social media for five months last year as part of a class on substance abuse and addiction she was taking for her master’s in counseling at Villanova.

“At first, it felt really good to be out of the loop. It let me focus on my career and I was much more present,” she says. “But I had to keep reminding people that I wasn’t on and they needed to send me a separate text to include me in things.”

She was happy to be offline for all the anxiety-producing updates of classmates getting job offers, but she missed seeing photos of her cousin’s new baby because they were posted only on social media. Morrow stepped back into social media gradually and ultimately deleted her Instagram account and left Facebook off her phone.

“I’m much more mindful of what I’m looking at and what I’m posting,” she says. “The whole process taught me to recognize that the people I care about and who care about me made the effort to update me outside of social media. Others didn’t.”