“I’m more scared about coming off Facebook than I am of staying on it”

It’s a normal Wednesday evening and I’m eating a meal with friends. “Are you coming out tonight?” one of them asks between mouthfuls. Unable to remember if we had discussed going out that evening, I shrug my shoulders, confused. “Oh it’s the quiz down the bar, remember?” I shake my head. I don’t. “There was an event on Facebook for it this morning. Everyone’s going.” The phrase ringing in my ears, I turn back towards my food. Everyone’s going.

I had spent two days attempting to see what life was like without Facebook, and for two days I had felt constantly out of the loop, missing out on a spontaneous trip for coffee and only finding out about events like this at the very last minute. After all, everyone had assumed that I would see things online.

Living without Facebook for just two days showed me that the site has become an integral part of our social lives and an all-but-necessary component of living at university. In a world where people constantly message on Facebook Messenger, organise college activities on JCR Facebook pages, and promote events online, Facebook’s omnipresence is almost impossible to escape. Since its foundation in 2004 the website has become a global platform with over 2.2 billion monthly users, permeating our social lives and becoming a necessary tool for modern interaction.

I had spent two days attempting to see what life was like without Facebook, and for two days I had felt constantly out of the loop

Recent news stories have, however, highlighted a more sinister side to the social media site. Facebook and data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica are currently embroiled in a dispute over the harvesting of personal data. It has been alleged that the data of over 50 million users has been harvested without their explicit consent, after a quiz that was publicised on Facebook in 2014 took the data not only of the user but also of their online friends. Allegations blame the firms for using this data to potentially influence the outcome of the US 2016 presidential election. Such stories lead us to begin questioning the role of Facebook in our day-to-day lives.

My daily routine at university is kept in check by the omnipresent spectre of the online giant: when I wake up I reach for my phone to scroll through the latest Oxfess posts, tag a friend in a meme and skim through the group chats on Messenger. I check my news feed when I’m procrastinating from work, find out the evening meal in hall from the JCR Facebook page and message friends to organise social events on Messenger. Many events that I attend (from balls to club nights) are regulated by Facebook: by clicking ’going’ or ‘interested’ online, I find out when ticket releases are and get directed to similar events that I may like. The societies that I am part of are primarily organised through the site and without it my social life at university would definitely suffer. Even though I have only been on Facebook for six years, I can’t imagine my life without it. My investigation of 93 Oxford undergraduates revealed that I am not alone.

Over 70% of students spend more than an hour per day on Facebook, with around 10% admitting to spending more than three hours of their day on the website. Such figures highlight the predominance of Facebook in our culture, especially in order to alleviate day-to-day boredom: 87% of students use it for procrastination. Although this proved to be the most common use of the website, many students actually resented this fact, noting that they would be more productive if they did not have Facebook and wishing that they spent less time scrolling through memes.

My investigation showed that students considered Facebook to be much more important in their university life than their home life: 86% said that Facebook was quite or very important at university whereas only 67% answered that it was quite or very important outside of university. Students noted that “most events are not publicised enough beyond Facebook” and “I wouldn’t know what was going on without Facebook”. As 80% of Oxford students use the website in order to keep up to date with JCR notices, it has become the predominant networking site for us to use.

As we can see, Facebook has become an important part of our culture and it impacts university students to a large extent. With successful meme pages such as Oxlove and Oxfess, it is unsurprising that Oxford students spend so much time on the website. In a university where many social events occur in colleges and necessary notices are distributed by JCRs, Facebook has become more than a website for watching cat videos and stalking your best friend’s new crush. It has become a social necessity that is used for the organisation of much college-based student life.

One of the largest benefits is Facebook Messenger, a widely used messaging platform which allows users to send and receive messages to people without knowing their phone number. The ability to see who is online and find out when friends have read your messages is highly attractive, and 93% of students said that the service was important for their social lives. The fact that “everybody uses it” leads students to believe that they would be isolated without Messenger as they may not hear about important social events. Although WhatsApp and Snapchat were common alternatives, Facebook Messenger has become the only messaging service that many students use.

Facebook has become a social necessity, an omnipresent force and an essential aspect to being part of a college community.

Speaking to friends just ten years older than myself highlighted that this is a generational characteristic. Although other generations use Facebook, they find Messenger much less appealing: “Nobody my age uses Facebook messenger…I wouldn’t even consider using it.” In many regards our generation is much different from the ones that came before us: we have lived our entire lives surrounded by the Internet, unable to get by without it. Subscribing to social media and online websites from an early age, we have known little else and our generation more than others will be followed by the online ghosts of their younger selves for many years to come.

Growing up surrounded by technology may have made us less concerned about our online traces. Despite recent news stories concerning data leaks and personal privacy, many students have not changed their online behaviour or their opinions about Facebook. Reasons for this range, but a number have always been sceptical about the firm. “Did we ever think that our data was well protected and in good hands?” one student questioned, and another responded saying, “Let’s face it, we all knew that our data was being used anyway”. Yet although many students have not changed their online practices, some have been made more wary of what they disclose, becoming more likely to delete friends that they aren’t as close to.

The main reason for our continued use of Facebook when so many others are becoming more sceptical of the site is because it is paramount for our social lives. Many students noted that “It’s too deeply ingrained in student life to get rid of it,” but are unwilling to challenge the status quo. As one student said, “I am concerned about my privacy but not enough to stop using it”. Without Facebook we feel disconnected, isolated and worried that we are missing out. In a socially connected world, it is becoming increasingly important to stay up to date, whatever the cost. Even amidst issues of privacy and data mining, students still remain faithful to a site that many actually dislike. One student noted: “I wish I didn’t have to use Facebook for student life because the unnecessary parts can be so distracting.”

Even if we moved away from Facebook, another social media platform would take its place. As one student said, they “would be happy to use another platform if everyone was on it”. The fact that much of this investigation was carried out over Facebook due to a lack of feasible alternatives for reaching the student body highlights the extent of Facebook’s stronghold on our lives. Facebook has become a social necessity, an omnipresent force and an essential aspect to being part of a college community. Even if we were to move away from Facebook itself, something similar would simply take its place.

As a generation we crave interconnectivity and we are willing to pay the price. Whether we like it or not, Facebook has become the easiest tool for accessing such a connected life and its predominance makes it the best form of communication around. Regardless of the actions of such technology companies, students are too caught up fitting in with the rest of the crowd to change their patterns of website use. When Facebook is less integral to our day-to-day living then our online behaviour may change, but for now, in a climate where our university social lives are regulated on the site, Facebook is definitely here to stay.