Facebook fatigue

Is the vast social-networking site losing its luster?

A version of this story first appeared in The New York Observer/Betabeat.

About two weeks ago, Cody Scott finally pulled the plug on Facebook. There was no big watershed moment that turned the 29-year-old off the social network.

“I just decided it was kind of taking too much time and too much of my brain,” said Scott, a Sacramento-based office technician for CalPERS.

Scott says he created a Facebook profile about three years ago as people began migrating away from MySpace. He especially liked Facebook’s clean interface—it was “a little less goth” than MySpace’s fully customizable profiles.

But Facebook started bothering him after a while. With acquaintances or conservative family members joining his friends list, he began editing himself so as not offend them. He also worried that his sense of humor would translate poorly through the electronic medium, going as far as to delete any friend’s Wall posts that had the even a remotest chance of sparking controversy.

But what bothered him most was how the site seemed to suck up all his time. Without even thinking about it, he caught himself automatically checking Facebook on his phone while sitting at the bus stop.

“It’s such a time killer,” said Scott. “There’s never a quiet moment, and if there is, I have to check Facebook to see what’s going on.”

Before finally deleting his account, Scott sent out text messages alerting the people he wanted to keep in touch with. He’s kept his Twitter account, but limits it in terms of the number of people he follows. He’s also joined Google+, Google’s full-on Facebook competitor, but hasn’t done much with it.

The Google+ launch, which Wired magazine called a “bet-the-company move,” implies that Google’s future depends on whether Facebook’s 600 million users will take to a new social network. Encouragingly for Google, the corpses of Facebook’s predecessors, often cited as cautionary tales of Web consumer fickleness, are also in the headlines: MySpace was bought for a 10th of the $327 million it sold for in 2005 just before it hit 100 million users. Hi5, once touted as the third largest social-networking site in terms of monthly unique visitors, switched gears to become a social-gaming platform. The proto-social network Friendster has relaunched with a whimper, also going down the gaming-site path; it prompts users to sign in to find their friends—with Facebook. Buzz, Google’s previous foray into social networking, fizzled out after flubbing user privacy.

One of the biggest draws of Google+ is its simple privacy settings, an area where Facebook has repeatedly dropped the ball. Google+ users can easily add people to “Circles” such as “Friends” or “Acquaintances,” and then quickly choose which Circles can see which posts, photos or links. Circles offer another layer of privacy to Facebook’s all-or-nothing friends system, where bosses and old college buddies have access to the same content.

Facebook lost more than 6 million users in May, according to a widely publicized report by Inside Facebook, which collects data on the site. That number was disputed by Facebook and other third-party researchers, who reported a net gain for the month. But the data shows that Facebook’s momentum has slowed—and the Web’s power users, as well as some teens, at least, seem to have moved on.

It all raises the question: Is Facebook dead?

“The tech-savvy crowd has grown tired of Facebook,” Jason Calacanis, dot-com publisher of the bygone Silicon Alley Reporter, wrote recently in a newsletter predicting that Google+ will be a “crushing success.” Calacanis recently surveyed an audience of techno-hipsters at the Future of Web Apps conference. The vast majority said they were using new services for things they used to do on Facebook. “I asked how many people were using Facebook more now than last year,” he wrote. “Almost no one raised their hands.”

Gordon Cieplak, 27, is co-owner of Handsome Code, a Web-development shop with the slogan “More bicycles, less social networks.” He thought Facebook was “amazing” when it first came out. “I was like, wow, it’s such an incredible user experience, and the design is so good,” he said. “I had never seen anything quite like it on the Internet.”

But gradually, the site lost its luster for him. Cieplak also came to see Facebook as an addictive time sink. (People collectively spend 700 billion minutes per month on the site, according to Facebook.) A few weeks ago, he quit in favor of Twitter and Tumblr.

“Among my friends, we all sort of loathe it,” he said. “It’s kind of the same way we loathe cars. They’ve just become part of this legacy infrastructure. Sometimes we use them, but we mostly dislike them.”

Facebook had fewer than 200 million users when Slate’s Farhad Manjoo declared it a universal good in 2009. “It’s time to drop the attitude: There is no longer any good reason to avoid Facebook,” he wrote then, accusing nonusers of harboring an “affectation” to make a “statement.” “‘I’m not on Facebook’ is the new ‘I don’t even own a TV,’” the actor Rainn Wilson wrote recently on Facebook, a comment 792 people liked.

Why did Sacramentan Cody Scott finally pull the plug on Facebook? The social-networking site was taking up way too much of his time.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Losing ground with youth?

While founder Mark Zuckerberg coded the site originally as a Harvard University student-only network, Facebook opened its doors to anyone with a college email address before eventually welcoming anyone over 13 years old. Not wanting to miss out on a whole segment of potential marketing, even blue-chip corporations scrambled to create their own pages. Before long, Facebook users could “Like” the latest Coca-Cola promotion—giving that company loads of free advertising.

But Facebook’s recent growth has been skewing in favor of older users. In September, Internet marketing firm Flowtown said the average Facebook user is 38 years old and that across the board, older users were flocking to social-networking sites like Twitter and LinkedIn.

Suddenly teens and young adults, those groups who flock early to the newest Web toys, were suddenly getting friend requests from their parents and grandparents.

Recent reports show Facebook beginning to lose ground with younger crowds. Last year, gaming site Roiworld surveyed 600 teens who spend two or more hours online each day. They found that one in five with a Facebook account no longer visit the site or are using it less. The reasons?

Social-media news site Mashable wrote: “Of the group that are saying goodbye to Facebook, 45 percent have lost interest, 16 percent are leaving because their parents are there, 14 percent say there are ‘too many adults/older people’ and 13 percent are concerned about the privacy of their personal information.”

In June, Forbes contributor David Martin explained, “Many kids have great, honest, trusting relationships with their parents. But when it comes to your personal social graph, at some point during the teen years you realize that you need your space—and Facebook is taking that space away from American kids by serving up access to their thoughts, comments, photos and friends … to their parents.”

UC Davis’ Andy Jones, who teaches English and serves as academic associate director of Academic Technology Services, points out that as teenage Facebook users get older, they face other risks besides parents stumbling across risqué late-night party photos.

“When they get to college, then students are told stories about how their postings, and especially their photographs, are going to keep them from getting jobs,” said Jones, and that school administrators warn them of Facebook as a kind of digital permanent record.

Jones hosts the weekly KDVS program Dr. Andy’s Poetry and Technology Hour, and recently published a book chapter on teaching with Twitter. He said that young people are spending less time on computers, more time communicating on their cellphones, and are gravitating towards sites like Twitter, partly because texting and Twitter offer more private or anonymous forms of communication than Facebook.

“When we say that ‘Facebook is dead,’ that speaks in part to the faddish nature of these different communication technologies,” said Jones. “When I was a kid, pen pals were really cool.”

For his part, Jones believes Facebook nonetheless remains in a good position because as younger people grow older, they will want to share photographs and information as they start their own families.

Sacramento state worker Ryan Garcia quit Facebook last November when he realized the site was diminishing his face-to-face encounters with friends.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Soul sucking, eye rolling

It’s no surprise that Facebook suffers no shortage of critics.

The anti-Facebook cohort cites a range of reasons, philosophical and psychological, for quitting Facebook. “It is a system designed to not make you feel good; it’s designed to make you click more and go deeper into the hole,” said Cody Brown, 23, who co-founded a Web startup called Nerd Collider. “It can be totally soul sucking. They also have something like 52 reasons to send you email.”

David Shapiro, a pseudonymous blogger, 22, quit Facebook after about six months on the site. “Facebook is this massive social experiment that is totally untested and could be [messing] with people’s self images more than anything in decades,” he said.

Of course, it could just be in vogue to pick on the most popular kid on the social-media block. In fact, a whole Web niche has sprung up for those who love to hate the site. Lamebook posts screen grabs of Facebook’s best-of-the-worst eye-rolling status updates, public breakups and family meltdowns; the Tumblr blog SFTU, Parents mocks oversharing Facebook moms and dads who post pictures of their toddler’s soiled diapers.

The most common refrain, though, is that Facebook is no longer relevant when there are shinier toys to play with.

Two-year-old Petey Rojas, son of Peter Rojas, a founder of the popular gadget blog Engadget and the gadgets question-and-answer site Gdgt, is not on Facebook. But he has a Twitter account waiting for him when he comes of age. His mother updates @PeteyRojas with quotes from the toddler (“You know my friend Caleb? He’s dangerous!”) and a mix of links; it has 247 followers. “It’s more like a placeholder, in the same way that I own URLs for him,” Mr. Rojas said. “I always tell people, if you have a child, you should buy the domain name as soon as you decide what the name is.”

But he hasn’t reserved www.facebook.com/peteyrojas. “By the time they’re old enough to use Facebook—13, technically—will they even care at that point? Will Facebook even be something that people care about?” he asked.

He quit the network himself a year ago.

UC Davis’ Andy Jones is quick to point out the faddish nature of different communication technologies.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Breaking up (is hard to do)

Some users stick with the site of out professional necessity. Sacramento music promoter Michael Flanagan joined the site to use as a networking tool. But he knows perfectly well that for most users, himself included, getting event invites is pretty much useless.

“Just because you get an event on Facebook, chances are you don’t even click on it, and its click link gets ignored, and then the event passes and you had no idea that it came and went,” said Flanagan, who says he’s curbed his interaction with Facebook over the past couple of months.

He found that as the site has grown, it became so littered with spam and bad links that the news feed was “not even a worthwhile tool at that point to try to stay up on what was in.”

Facebook fatigue among early adopters won’t necessarily spread to mainstream users, but it might—social networks are, after all, social.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, having won an Oscar for The Social Network, recently announced he was through with the site. “I have a lot of opinions about social media that make me sound like a grumpy old man sitting on the porch yelling at kids,” he said during a panel at the Cannes Film Festival.

Some former users are even ditching social networks to become more social.

Like others, Sacramentan Ryan Garcia, an analyst for the state of California, quit Facebook when he realized the site was eating into his face-to-face interactions.

“If I was at dinner or having a conversation with somebody, I might pull out my phone and see what’s going on on Facebook,” said Garcia, 30.

He deleted his Facebook account in November. But with so many of his friends relying solely on the site for planning parties and hangouts, it’s taken a while to find ways to stay in the loop. His wife, Samantha, has kept her account open and occasionally shares updates with him.

“I kind of still feel like I’m working on getting better about actually calling people and, you know, going out and seeing people,” said Garcia, “whereas before with Facebook, it was kind of a crutch, if you will, to rely on that for knowing anything and everything that was going on with my friends at any moment.”

Still, there’s always the chance he could return to Facebook. After all, back when he had a MySpace account, he deleted his profile only to start another one a little while later.

“I don’t know if that will happen with Facebook for me,” said Garcia. “But it’s certainly something I’m cognizant of and remember happening with MySpace when that used to be all the rage.”

Facebook itself seems worried about being ditched judging by the hoops users have to jump through in order to leave.

If you’d like your account “permanently deleted with no option for recovery” (these words are in bold), you must submit a form. This takes you to a page warning that your profile will be permanently deleted with no option for recovery, and tells you to click “submit” if you’re sure, implying that this click will instantly and irrevocably destroy your Facebook profile. Actually, it opens a verification page with a password prompt and spam test. If you pass, a window pops up: “Your account has been deactivated from the site and will be permanently deleted within 14 days. If you log into your account within the next 14 days, you will have the option to cancel your request.” Then Facebook sends you an email with a link to cancel the request.

The delete option is buried, though, under the option to “deactivate,” which merely freezes and hides a profile, “just in case you want to come back to Facebook at some point.” When you deactivate, a page comes up with the heading, “Are you sure you want to deactivate your account?” above pictures of your friends with captions: “Mark will miss you.” “Alejandro will miss you.” “Vanessa will miss you.”

“When I deleted my account, I had this Swedish intern that I was in love with,” declared freelance Web designer Michael Romanowicz, 29. “She was so cool. And Facebook must have recognized that I had viewed her profile over and over again. Facebook was like, ‘If you close your account, these people will miss you.’ I was like, this is fucking hilarious.”

Romanowicz ran into the Swede recently, by coincidence, at a bar. “We danced for a little bit,” he remembered. “It was a good close to that small love affair.”