Even avid fans admit to intermittent misgivings about living so much of their lives in public. In May, almost 6 million users in the U.S. deactivated their accounts. When the Pew Internet & American Life Project surveyed 895 technology experts recently, almost all of them — while celebrating the benefits — acknowledged significant costs to...
FOR MORE than a month, Alice Redona eyed the large calendar on her kitchen wall. It was lined in slashes, marking the days until she could return from a self-imposed exile and sign on to Facebook again. Questions about the doings of friends and family nagged at her — the daily updates about children, trips abroad and personal triumphs that had become integral to Redona’s life. But other than a brief, one-click relapse after the earthquake in Japan, Redona kept her vow: 40 days’ abstention from the social-networking site that was consuming her life.
“It’s kind of an experiment,” she said on Day One. “I’ve talked to other people who’ve given up Facebook altogether — just deactivated their accounts — and they are so much happier without it in their lives.”
Beyond the hours lost each day to following the twists and turns of other peoples’ personal histories, Redona had more immediate concerns: She had become so engrossed with the site that one afternoon she ignored the suspicious silence in the room where her 2-year-old daughter was playing, and an hour later found the little girl standing in the middle of a flooded kitchen, the floor stained with blotches of colored construction paper.
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“That was sort of an ah-hah moment,” Redona says now. “It made me wonder if Facebook was making me an inattentive parent.”
Still, not until the pastor at her church suggested abstaining for Lent did Redona finally walk away — at least for 40 days, which in Facebook terms might as well be forever.
Those who never opened an account, or barely use the one they have, will find the notion of such intense absorption a mystery. But Redona is no outlier. A Seattle physician recalled his amazement upon landing at Sea-Tac airport recently and watching everyone around him log in: “People used to pull out their cellphones after a plane ride; I did. I called my wife. But the last time I flew in from New York, everyone around me checked their Facebook accounts.”
Last year, the Pew Internet & American Life Project announced that about half of all Americans use a social-networking site — a whopping leap from just 8 percent when the social-networking site debuted in 2005 — and the vast majority of them are on Facebook. Worldwide, there are nearly 700 million users. For them, the advantages are undeniable: infinite opportunities to network; and an ability to keep up with friends and family thousands of miles away, for free.
Yet even avid fans admit to intermittent misgivings about living so much of their lives in public. In May, almost 6 million users in the U.S. deactivated their accounts. Indeed, when Pew surveyed 895 technology experts recently, almost all of them — while celebrating the benefits — acknowledged significant costs to social networking.
“Social networking encourages people to have a greater number of much shallower friendships,” says Gervase Markham, a programmer for the Mozilla Foundation. “I know what 15 of my friends had for breakfast, but I don’t know whether any of them is struggling with major life issues. If this trend continues, people in 2020 will have hundreds of acquaintances but very few friends.”
Less sophisticated types may not understand all the ramifications of living through an electronic identity, but they know addiction when they feel it: There are Facebook users who publicly announce when they’ve left work for the day, then note their arrival at home an hour later — compelled to document their every waking movement, while monitoring those of everyone else.
THE WHOLE thing began to exhaust Jordan Lindstrom.
As manager of the Bastyr University website, Lindstrom, 29, came of age during the Internet boom and could fairly be categorized as part of the Facebook generation. Yet he has avoided the social-networking site for the better part of a year. Initially, the time commitment bothered him; with legions of Facebook friends, he suddenly had dozens of emails to answer when he got home at night. Then came the creepy sense that many of these “friends” were people Lindstrom had never met.
“It’s a fake interaction, and that’s just not appealing. But I was doing it anyway,” he says. “Going down rabbit holes of other peoples’ lives that I otherwise would not be interested in — things you end up following that you don’t really want to.”
What finally soured Lindstrom for good was the realization that many of his fellow users also disliked Facebook. And continued to participate anyway. (A 2010 survey by the American Customer Satisfaction Index showed that Facebook scored in the bottom 5 percent of all private-sector firms, alongside airline companies, and at a level equivalent to the IRS.)
“People see Facebook sort of like you would the utility company, as something you don’t actually like but can’t really survive without, like electricity,” Lindstrom explains. “And for some, it’s where they get a sense of value, knowing how many responses their posts generated. It just seems really taxing.”
That sense of burden, of having to keep up to date with Facebook’s constant demands — particularly regarding privacy settings — troubled Genji Terasaki so much that he deactivated his account. A physician at Harborview Medical Center, Terasaki is no technophobe. But he began to feel it was impossible to stay on top of all the ways Facebook was using his personal information.
“I read that Facebook has the capability of tracking what you buy on other sites, and I thought, if they can do that, they can probably do a lot of things,” he says, referring to the site’s Beacon program, which was disabled last year after users complained. “The privacy thing scared me. It just felt wrong. Nobody likes to be spied on.”
At the same time, Terasaki grew increasingly squeamish that personal information about people he’d never met was turning up on his news feed. “It was disturbing,” he says.
Sure, he could check and recheck his own privacy filters, managing with more precision exactly which “friends” would be able to view which posts. (A growing number of users have begun to do a “super-logoff” for this very reason, deactivating their accounts each time they leave the site — which prevents anyone from posting on your “Wall” or identifying you in photos — then reactivating each time they get back on.)
But Terasaki, father of a 2-year-old, did not want to spend his free time monitoring Facebook. In a burst of disgust, the doctor checked a few boxes, clicked through a few options and in two minutes it was all over. He had dumped the social network.
Gone were the daily updates from family. Silenced were the anecdotes about far-flung friends. Terasaki breathed a sigh of relief. “You take the good with the bad,” he says. “My problem is, I’m not sure I understand what all of the bad actually is.”
Tima Chansanchai, a communications consultant and social-networking expert, acknowledges this frustration: Facebook demands a certain level of technical commitment. If you are not prepared to actively manage your privacy settings, she says, then you shouldn’t be on it.
But Chansanchai is one of those true believers who think they can’t live without the site. She has 1,100 “friends” there, about half of whom are professional contacts, and has come to accept that this mash-up of personal and professional connections means being OK with some future client perusing her vacation photos — and making judgments accordingly.
“Facebook, to me, is a reflection of my life,” Chansanchai says, echoing the I’ve-got-nothing-to-hide rationale embraced by those who live their lives online. “And I love the feedback. I have to admit, I love the feedback.”
Her experience is a frank admission that part of Facebook’s attraction is its use as a personal billboard. Members, in essence, create a running narrative of their lives, a reality channel on which they are the 24-hour star.
This aspect was irresistibly seductive to Derek Wing, a former broadcaster and self-described “attention whore.” His fascination with the look-at-me quality of Facebook became so strong, and so time-consuming, that Wing was relieved to undergo a six-week forced separation while traveling last spring:
“I have to say, it was very freeing. I was more productive in my life, though at first I definitely experienced withdrawal.”
Wing was so much happier, in fact, that he considered quitting completely. But like every other person interviewed for this piece, he could not cut the cord. The potential upside, in terms of networking and connections, trumped any day-to-day discomforts.
“It’s sort of a necessary evil for me,” he says. “Facebook is now my main source of communication — surpassing the telephone, email or even face-to-face contact. But it is addictive. Hours will go by and I’ll think, what did I just do?”
Facebook also leaves many users vulnerable to ghosts from the past, simply because the site makes it so easy for any such ghost to find you. Wing recalled the wife of an Iraq war soldier whom he had interviewed for television years ago on the East Coast. She contacted him via Facebook to comment on baby pictures he’d posted. There was nothing frightening or improper about her communication, and the two exchanged a flurry of polite emails. But Wing was unnerved by how easily his past life could insert itself into the present day.
“Facebook is this Pandora’s box,” he says. “It can be whatever you want, but it’s very difficult to control the flow of information.”
It is also, he notes, the “ultimate comparison tool.” You’ll ogle photos from a friend’s recent climb up Mount St. Helens, or their trip to Tuscany. But you will not see the way they look at 3 a.m., cleaning up a vomiting baby.
AROUND PUGET Sound, spiritual leaders are beginning to take note, urging followers to reject the obsessive self-focus and disengage from life online. Several members of a Seattle meditation group recently divorced from Facebook en masse. And in her reflections before Lent, the pastoral coordinator at St. Catherine of Siena, Victoria Ries, urged parishioners to do the same.
“American culture is pretty individualistic, and we tend to be pretty narcissistic,” Ries says. “Facebook is a symptom of that. It’s just looking at others and others kind of looking at you, but no real connection.”
Her comments could have been written expressly for Dale Wampler, who was creating a Facebook page for his new real-estate business on a recent Wednesday afternoon and trying to ignore the gnawing sense that he was engaged in something he didn’t entirely approve of.
“I remember thinking, ‘This will be a fad,’ ” Wampler says. “But it has become a necessary evil for networking, which means saying ‘Happy Birthday’ to people I don’t really know. It’s funny how your standards for friendship change on Facebook.”
His business partner, Roger Steiner, nodded. Both had resisted joining for years, and Steiner still envies friends who never signed up. Yet for all his misgivings — no more Facebooking while drunk, he swears — Steiner, 42, has not deactivated.
“I never loved the idea of being out there for all the world to see because I consider myself a fairly private person. And now, people I wasn’t even friends with in high school are all of a sudden, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ ” he says. “I’m thinking, ‘Hey, I wasn’t friends with you 25 years ago.’ But I don’t like to be rude.”
So he clicks “confirm” to accept them as “friends,” then promptly blocks their access.
A distaste for such machinations was what impelled Terasaki, the Harborview physician, to deactivate his page, though even he stopped short of deleting it altogether (a notoriously difficult process requiring absolute commitment and technical savvy beyond that of most casual users). Unknown to Terasaki, however, his cyber-network lived on.
A year after his Facebook deactivation — when Terasaki’s wife finally tired of his peering over her shoulder while she typed notes to their friends — the doctor reluctantly agreed to sign back on.
Stunned, he found that all his old posts were there, as were updates from his “friends” and a raft of suggestions to make new ones. “It’s as if you never left,” he says.
Terasaki hadn’t actually killed his online self. He had merely sent it into hibernation. His electronic identity, for better or worse, was intact.
Claudia Rowe is a Seattle freelance writer. Erika Schultz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.