Pune-based law student Arjun Khera, 24, broke many a Facebook stalker’s heart in April when he announced his decision to quit the network one fine afternoon on his status message. “Guys, I’m deleting my Facebook account. Please send me all your email and phone details,” he said. Almost immediately, there was an explosion of concern in his notification window. Why was the effervescent and popular part-time actor and full-time Facebook enthusiast committing Facebook suicide? “What happenedddddd?” (sic) “Everything ok, dude?”
“It was eating into my life,” Khera says. “I was always logged on, always leaving or commenting on status messages, waiting a few minutes to see if there had been any responses to my comments, and comment some more. I didn’t go out for a walk any more, didn’t get photographs developed because I was only too busy seeing them on Facebook.” Khera signed up for his account in July 2007.
Then, it was the one platform through which he could locate and reconnect with all his long-lost friends. He loved the fact that he could have a pictorial chronicle of his life; that he could “compare friends”, find out if indeed he was a glass of wine (and not a pint of beer) and fit a Shakespearean insult to his current mood. “With time, I got tired of those lame quizzes. I got sick of what it was doing to my time. I hated how it trivialized communication,” he says.
Khera is part of a growing cult of social networking “refuseniks”. Although figures for sites such as MySpace, Orkut, Facebook and Twitter show an overall increase, some recent statistics suggest that not everyone wants to socialize this way. According to a study by TechCrunch Europe, the number of visitors to MySpace, UK, halved in just six months, from “just under 10 million at the start of the year to around 5 million as of the end of June 2010”, leading to a round of layoffs at its London office. “It would appear to show a pretty staggering decline,” says the report, released on 6 July.
The privacy factor
Environmental researcher Maddipatla Rajshekhar, 33, alumnus of the University of Sussex, UK, used Facebook to keep in touch with former classmates. On 31 May, however, along with the 30,000-odd people who had had enough of Facebook changing its privacy policies, he quit. “It was getting increasingly intrusive. Its latest feature let me see what some of my friends said on the walls of their friends—(who were) complete strangers to me,” he said.
Although the Quit Facebook group wasn’t a success in numerical terms (30,000 isn’t even close to a drop in the 450-million ocean), it successfully sent a message to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who held a press conference in the last week of May on new privacy policies and changes.
A May report brought out by the Pew Centre for Internet and American Life Project (of the Pew Research Centre, Washington, DC) finds that social media plays a “central role” in building one’s online identity. Quite naturally, privacy becomes a big issue. “Many users are learning and refining their approach as they go—changing privacy settings on profiles, customizing who can see certain updates and deleting unwanted information about them that appears online,” says the report. Interestingly, it also finds that young adults are more likely than older users to restrict what information is available and to whom, contrary to popular perception.
The next level
Privacy is not the refuseniks’ only issue, however. What social networking does to actual relationships is another, as Khera notes. Mumbai-based social worker Maya Ganesh, 35, too got tired of the constant blurring between friends and acquaintances, and having to constantly update her “limited” lists. “I regularly ignored friend requests but there were some requests not easy to ignore, especially some work connections. I also wanted a break from all the hectic ‘social activity’ that Facebook is about,” she says of her three-year-old account, which she abandoned in May.
Ganesh had reached what Sunil Abraham, executive director, Center for Internet and Society, Bangalore, refers to as the end of the “hype cycle”. All technology goes through a standard process, says Abraham: People get hooked to it, then get tired of it, and it disappears. “Some tend to be sticky and last longer; the particular advantage of social networking sites like Facebook, Orkut and MySpace is that they bring a critical mass of community to individual users. It’s now difficult for people to get off a network simply because all their friends are on it,” he says.
Conversely, though, he cites Harvard-based social networking researcher Danah Boyd, who says the reducing exclusivity quotient has also put many people off. “Parents getting online also... acts as a self-censorship mechanism,” Abraham adds.
Most of the people who have deleted their accounts are happy with the way their non-virtual life now takes centre stage. Khera enjoys sitting at home and doing nothing; Ganesh says she doesn’t miss being out of the loop. It may take a bit more effort to share holiday photographs or write an email every time you feel the need to connect; but as Rajshekhar says, “Anything for not losing touch, anything for richer conversations.”
Varuni Khosla contributed to this story.