Happy Independence Day! Continuing an age-old tradition, we patriotic Americans spent the weekend stuffing our faces with hot dogs, staring at firework explosions in the sky and spending a little quality time with family and friends, all to celebrate the day this country declared its independence.
But, over the past week, I’ve been celebrating my own unique brand of independence: independence from Facebook.
To understand what I’m talking about, you have to know a little back story, most importantly that I’m finally back on Facebook after having deactivated my account for a couple months.
“Wow,” I remember thinking after reactivating. “Has it really only been two months?”
Total disconnection, a dark cloud of nonexistence, separation from the closest family and loved ones, the fog of not knowing when or where or why you’ll meet your friends, an unfortunate lack of happy drunk chats with long lost elementary school buddies at two in the morning and all for what?
It almost sounds as aimlessly destructive as country-tearing tornadoes and tsunamis, but it was only the act of abstaining from the most popular social network in the world, now with somewhere north of 700 million members.
So, why did I do it? Just to be a self-righteous Luddite? Hardly.
It’s not that I don’t like Facebook, and I’m definitely not somebody who “doesn’t get it.” I love social networking. In fact, prior to deactivation, I was undoubtedly one of the most prolific Facebookers out of all my friends and family. Every day, I’d be posting links to cool articles and videos and churning out silly status updates that usually managed to rack up a good number of comments and Likes. I was also the first to take advantage of the new Groups feature, creating one for music lovers and one for poets; both are still pretty active today, more than a half a year after they were first made.
Eventually, however, it dawned on me how much time I was spending on the site. It had to be more than the 4.5 hours spent by the average user each month. “Facebook fatigue,” they’re calling it, and I experienced all the symptoms: endless procrastination, an up-spike in friend stalking and a general feeling of boredom and tiredness. And so I left, wondering what it would be like on the other side of social media death.
(Although, it wasn’t really a proper death. Deactivation is kind of like deleting your account, except that nothing goes away permanently. It’s just a way of saying, “Facebook, we need a break.”)
I would be lying if I said I suffered no withdrawals. Over the first couple days, whenever the moment seemed right, muscles in my fingers would naturally push my cursor toward the little Facebook link on my bookmarks toolbar. I would wonder what people were sharing with our exclusive music group I mentioned above, or I’d want to post a link and not be able to.
After two days, I didn’t care anymore. The bizarre texts and calls from a couple friends (and my mom), demanding “what happened?!”, gradually subsided, and Facebook slipped from my mind. For two months, I was off The Social Network, and I hardly even noticed. Sure, I missed out on a million wall posts for my birthday, but many of my closest loved ones just texted or called me instead. Similarly, I could no longer start random chats online with a lot of people, but I made up for it with phone and text.
As I noted earlier, I’m back on Facebook now, and my reasons for returning are slightly less cloudy than my reasons for ever leaving in the first place. One thing that made me want to go back, for example, was the ease with which I can register and sign on to third-party sites with Facebook Connect. But beyond that, the fact remains that Facebook is a very powerful social communications tool. Throwing it away just seemed silly.
All that said, things are different now. I’m more conscious of my social media usage, and I’m still not quite sure that Facebook is the end-all for being social online. In fact, I’m fairly certain it isn’t. Just look at the excitement building behind Google+--even a week later and with a limited social graph--and you can see just how precarious Facebook’s dominance really is. Oh, and look at Myspace; it too was once thought to be the end of social networking, pushing 200 million active users, and last week it sold for a tiny fraction of Facebook’s valuation.
Social networks are fickle because people are fickle. We might fall in love with a kind of food and we’ll eat at the same restaurant every week for a year, before suddenly deciding that we couldn’t possibly the stomach the place ever again. Or think of parties, defined at their most basic as social gatherings. Facebook is the most popular party on the entire planet, for now, but even the best parties have to end sometime.
And when the Facebook party ends, there will without a doubt be someone else there to pick up the beat. Twitter? Tumblr? Foursquare? Probably not. My bet is on Google+. All the early tech adopters might love it because it weds the private nature of Facebook with the public nature of Twitter, or maybe because it lays attractive design over a data-driven (Google) approach to social.
On the other hand, I’m wagering a firm bet that many will continue to thirst for Google+ invites because it’s the next cool social Web party. So far, it doesn’t seem like just another doomed Buzz or Wave: this is the real thing. All those skeptics who say it looks and acts just like Facebook are totally right, which is why it will be easy to make converts easily. That’s 90% of the battle, the other 10% is adding in a “oh it’s cooler, it’s got Circles and Hangouts!”
In the end, all of this makes me smile wide because it means that no company can get too comfortable hosting all our personal data. Competition is nice when it comes to products like laptops and soda pop, but when it comes to services supplementing our photos, our thoughts and our very lives, competition is essential.
What I’m really trying to express is a big fat “Happy Independence Day!” The new “give me liberty or give me death” is “let me control my data on the Web or see your social network die.” Here’s to “the social network,” always evolving, ungraspable and never privately owned.