Doomed to become a virtual necropolis

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Facebook, the online social grid, could not command loyalty forever. If you ask around, as I did, you’ll find quitters. One person shut down her account because she disliked how nosy it made her. Another thought the scene had turned desperate. A third feared stalkers. A fourth believed his privacy was compromised. A fifth disappeared without a word.

The exodus is not evident from the site’s overall numbers. According to comScore, Facebook attracted 87.7 million unique visitors in the United States in July. But while people are still joining Facebook and compulsively visiting the site, a small but noticeable group are fleeing — some of them ostentatiously.

Leif Harmsen, once a Facebook user, now crusades against it. Having dismissed his mother’s snap judgment of the site (“Facebook is the devil”), Harmsen now passionately agrees. He says, not entirely in jest, that he considers it a repressive regime akin to North Korea, and sells T-shirts with the words “Shut Your Facebook.” What especially galls him is the commercialization and corporate regulation of personal and social life. As Facebook endeavors to be the Web’s headquarters — to compete with Google, in other words, and to make money from the information it gathers — it’s inevitable that some people would come to view it as Big Brother.

The disillusionment with Facebook has come in waves. An early faction lost faith in 2008, when Facebook’s beloved Scrabble application, Scrabulous, was pulled amid copyright issues. It was suddenly clear that Facebook was not just a social club but also an expanding force on the Web, beholden to corporate interests. A later group, Harmsen’s crowd, grew frustrated last winter when Facebook seemed to claim perpetual ownership of users’ contributions to the site. (Facebook later adjusted its membership contract, but it continues to integrate advertising, intellectual property and social life.) A third wave of dissenters appears to be bored with it, obscurely sore or just somehow creeped out.
Another friend, who didn’t want his name used, found that Facebook undermined his whole notion of online friendship. “It’s easy to think of your circle of ‘Friends’ as a coherent circle, clear and moated, when in fact the splay of overlap/network makes drip/action painting a better (visual) analogy.” Something happened to this drip painting that he won’t discuss. He said, “Postings that seem private can scatter and slip unpredictably into a sort of semipublic status.”

That friend was not the only Facebook dissenter who was reticent about specifics. Many seem to have just lost their appetite for it: They just stopped wanting to look at other people’s photos and résumés and updates, or have their own subject to scrutiny. Some ex-users seemed shaken, even heartbroken, by their breakups with Facebook. “I primarily left Facebook because I was wasting so much time on it,” my friend Caroline Harting told me by e-mail.

Julie Klam, a writer and prolific and eloquent Facebook updater, said in her own e-mail message, “I have noticed the exodus, and I kind of feel like it’s kids getting tired of a new toy.” Klam, who still posts updates to Facebook but now prefers Twitter for professional networking, added, “Facebook is good for finding people, but by now the novelty of that has worn off, and everyone’s been found.” As of a few months ago, she told me, Facebook “felt dead.”

Is Facebook doomed to someday become an online ghost town, run by zombie users who never update their pages and packs of marketers picking at the corpses of social circles they once hoped to exploit? Sad, if so. Though maybe fated, like the demise of a college clique.

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