Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Not quite as big an about-face as Susan G. Komen?

A few months ago I deactivated my Facebook account. I spent several hours copying information from my account, such as email addresses for folks I wanted to keep in touch with but don't normally email. I sent this email to a long list of family and friends:

Hi, friends and family,

I wanted to give you a heads up, since I'm only in touch with many of you on Facebook, that I'm in the process of deactivating my account there.

My reasons are:
1) I spend much too much of my day on Facebook, and often don't feel good about how I've used the time.
2) I'm concerned about my role in Facebook's business model. My understanding is that we users are not the customers, we are the free content providers. Our desire to connect with other people and groups is exploited to get advertising in front of us, and to generate data about us that can be sold to advertisers.

If you're getting this email, I took some time to make sure I still had a way to contact you besides on Facebook, and would really like to stay in touch. Please, if you think of it, email me that awesome article, video, or picture that you posted on Facebook that you think I'd like/benefit from/be glad to see.

I received a wide range of responses. The one that stuck with me most was a friend who thought I was fighting a losing battle in trying to opt out of social networking in general (“It's how we communicate now,” he said). He also shared that he has a software configuration that allows him to use Facebook without seeing any ads.

What changed about my life when I got off Facebook? My email response time improved, and I communicated with my mom (most important person in my life not on Facebook) a lot more. I was hoping to become a more intentional consumer of news and media, and that sort of worked. I have a hard-copy subscription to the Economist, but I don't have long enough breaks in my workday to get through very much of it. I use my iPhone New York Times app, but the Top News Stories tend to be not all that much more in-depth versions of the headlines I've already heard on NPR in my car on the way to work. I'd love to have access to the “Most Emailed” articles section, but you have to pay for that.

A couple of things happened recently that helped me decide to become an active Facebook user again. I heard a Commonwealth Club of California program about “Social Networking on the Brain,” which reminded me of two important things. One, my large “Friends” list reflects one of my core competencies, namely connecting with diverse groups of people and knowing with whom to share a question or an idea. Two, from Tiffany Shlain, director of the documentary “Connected,” it's possible to adopt personal practices that can reduce the addictive, dopamine-hit habits of checking Facebook too often or finding it difficult to log off and get something done or go to bed. She and her family do a “digital sabbath”, where everything with a screen gets shut off every Friday night and stays off until Saturday night.

While the Commonwealth Club program reminded me about the benefits to me of using Facebook, it didn't address the “I'm uncomfortable with my role in FB's business model” issue. It was the news and conversations this week about Facebook's upcoming IPO that changed my position. It became clear to me that Zuckerberg&Co have never been out to maximize ad revenue at the expense of users' experience. Some pundits were disappointed with the current revenue numbers, but their highest expectations would have given Facebook a huge share of the huge media advertising market in this country. That seems not to make the list of what Facebook is trying to accomplish, and I respect them for that. I also respect them for setting up the IPO in such a way that they won't cede control to interests that will exploit their data and their users even more.

So here (there) I am. 6 days a week.