Farewell Facebook, and Good Riddance

PHOTO:  The Facebook Inc. Logo

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If you haven't noticed, there's currently a mass exodus from Facebook taking place. In the past three months there's been a drop among users in the United States, and an even more considerable dip among users in the United Kingdom.

And the herds that are deviating from the most popular social networking website don't fall into one particular demographic either. It's not just adults leaving, but teens as well. If teens don't find the site cool anymore, you know there's an issue.

Facebook has taken note, warning investors in its annual report of teens' new preference for Instagram, which Facebook owns but still derives no revenue from. But otherwise it seems unconcerned. The biggest change rolling out in the next week is a new look for the newsfeed, set to debut on March 7.

As of this story's publication, it's been more than three months since I deactivated my own Facebook account. I did it on January 1st, and at the time it wasn't to make some grand gesture but simply because I'd grown tired of it.

Then I realized I wasn't alone. For some reason several of my friends and acquaintances used the start of 2013 as a new beginning.

But why now?

The shift toward a Facebook-free life has been mounting gradually. Perhaps it began when the once private company went public last spring. Some speculated the move would lead to an overhaul of the entire site: more updates, more ads, new regulations.

Then there are the privacy clauses, which are constantly changing.

But the reasons people are fleeing the social network may go deeper than that. Facebook, it turns out, has a strong effect on its users' lives and emotions.

Facebook makes us feel badly about ourselves.

A new study conducted by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Catalina Toma and Cornell University professor Jeffrey Hancock examined social networks. Facebook, they found, "is not just about checking out photos and updates from friends, but more about checking up on how others view you."

What we want when others view us, they learned, is praise. It's gratifying when people "Like" and/or comment on your new profile photo. The problem is that, when they don't grace you with "Likes" or comments, it makes you feel less valuable.

Facebook makes us envious.

Reuters reporter Belinda Goldsmith published a story regarding a study conducted by two German universities that concluded Facebook makes us want what others have. As a result, we feel less content with our own lives. "Researchers found that one in three people felt worse after visiting the site and more dissatisfied with their lives, while people who browsed without contributing were affected the most," Goldsmith said.

"We were surprised by how many people have a negative experience from Facebook, with envy leaving them feeling lonely, frustrated or angry," researcher Hanna Krasnova from the Institute of Information Systems at Berlin's Humboldt University told Reuters.

Facebook makes us sad.

Because Facebook users project a perfectly crafted image of what they think their life should be, others viewing those nicely cropped photos of happiness end up overestimating how good the lives of others really are. Their own lives don't measure up as a result.

In 2011, Stanford University conducted a study led by Alex Jordan, who was at the time a Ph.D. student in Stanford's psychology department. The study, titled "Misery Has More Company Than People Think: Underestimating the Prevalence of Others' Negative Emotions," found that "subjects consistently underestimated how dejected others were–and likely wound up feeling more dejected as a result."

"They were convinced that everyone else was leading a perfect life," Jordan told Slate.

Facebook is a tedious distraction.

More often than not, Facebook acts as a distraction and not a tool to "reconnect." In fact, it's estimated to be costing the U.S. economy billions.

Constantly checking Facebook is an addictive habit, and one that is hard to break. We check our smart-phones every six-and-a-half minutes, and part of the reason why is that we're always refreshing our Facebook pages.

It's hard to overestimate the site's addictiveness. Alexia Tate, a friend of a friend who I'm connected to on Facebook, took a break from the site for 40 days during Lent last year. When she came back, she noticed that she'd become more of a Facebook fiend than ever. "Kind of like smoking," she wrote in an email.

On Facebook, we are no longer just users, we are data.

Author and CNN contributor Douglas Rushkoff recently terminated his Facebook account because he felt the site was turning him into a commodity.

"Facebook has never been merely a social platform. Rather, it exploits our social interactions the way a Tupperware party does. Facebook does not exist to help us make friends, but to turn our network of connections, brand preferences and activities over time -- our 'social graphs' -- into money for others," Rushkoff said.

Not only does Facebook see us as dollar bills, it may even be charging us to make the content we share visible. New York Times writer Nick Bilton wrote this week about a puzzling drop in "likes" and "shares" of his work among his Facebook followers. When he experimented with Facebook's feature that allows people to promote articles if they pay a couple of bucks, he realized what the issue was.

"To my surprise, I saw a 1,000 percent increase in the interaction on a link I posted, which had 130 likes and 30 reshares in just a few hours. It seems as if Facebook is not only promoting my links on news feeds when I pay for them, but also possibly suppressing the ones I do not pay for," Bilton wrote.

Another off-putting concept is Facebook's new "Graph Search," which it plans to launch in the near future. The feature, as Search Engine Watch states, is supposed to let "users search for data on more than 1 billion Facebook users. However, Facebook wants to leverage all the data they have on all their members to help you find more connections."

Having all of our data easily searchable and sorted (what we watch, read, where we live, where we want to travel, what gym we go to, etc, etc) makes us even easier targets for advertisers. It's like a very detailed census of all Facebook users. In other words, Facebook is figuring out how to better exploit its users' online lives.

And what if this data were compromised? Someone(s) hacked Facebook just last month. Imagine if all of your most precious memories and photos were instantly exposed in ways you didn't want them exposed—that is, in some manner beyond the exhibitionism of the site. Or what if they were just erased.

Facebook may create more connections, but they're shallow connections.

What's the point of being connected with people we normally wouldn't be connected with, like friends from elementary school, the dude at Trader Joe's, fellow zombie enthusiasts? These Facebook "friends" aren't even really friends. Neither does Facebook create more genuine friendships. A study released in 2011 found that, in the past 25 years, Americans have become more isolated. Despite having large quantities of Facebook "friends," people in fact have fewer close friends in real life.

At first the idea behind reconnecting was fun. Reuniting with people from the past was a great thrill. You catch up, exchange stories, relive old times. And then what? Then they're just there, looking at your every move, "Liking" every moment of your life. (Or not "Liking" them and making you feel depressed about it.)

There are friends of friends that I've met once, and yet I know what they do all day. I know what they had for lunch because they checked in at Chili's. I know they were at Target because they shared a 20 percent discount coupon to Tide detergent.

Sure you can hide these people from your newsfeed. So why add them in the first place? You'll end up hiding almost all of your contacts.

Facebook encourages oversharing.

The site makes it effortless to put everything out there, so we constantly overshare. Some users don't bother (or perhaps don't care) about who sees what, or if friends of friends see their wedding photos or baby sonograms. But sharing what should be special moments with people we've never met, or barely know, diminishes the event itself and could perhaps even damage relationships.

Ultimately, Facebook is changing the human race. People think, speak and live in status updates. We have become short spurts of witty commentary. It's becoming increasingly difficult to truly connect with a person, rather than just their online character. We are all becoming narcissists.

"We've become accustomed to a new way of being 'alone together'…We have gotten used to the idea of being in a tribe of one, loyal to our own party," wrote M.I.T. professor and psychologist Sherry Turkle in the New York Times.

Since leaving Facebook, I actually speak to people on the subway platform or at the coffee shop instead of commenting online to a digital proxy of a person that may or may not exist.

I didn't leave Facebook because I hate my Facebook contacts. But I would rather hug them in person than "Poke" them. I prefer to laugh out loud than LOL. I'm happier emailing someone directly instead of commenting on their status update.

I already spend too much time on the internet working, paying bills, shopping, downloading.

Will I go back to Facebook? Who knows, but the odds actually aren't in my favor. According to the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of those who take a break from the site end up going back. I, however, intend to be in that strong minority that, once gone, stays gone.

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