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What does it mean when we need to take a break from Facebook?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Recently a friend of mine posted that she was closing her Facebook account. She isn’t sure that she will return to the land of vacation photos and passive-aggressive banter. Her decision was fueled by a few factors: concerns about privacy, non-stop requests to play Candy Crush Saga, and status updates that she perceived as inane (she doesn’t hide or filter her feed as some do). So she alerted us with a Facebook post: “I’ll miss the sonogram photos and watching your babies take their first steps,” she wrote “and your annual birthday greetings, as well as your casual digital invitations, but I’m done.” She told us that she could be reached by email or (gasp) the telephone, and noted a few other social properties that she would remain active on (Twitter made the cut). And that was it. Her digital profile was gone about 24 hours following that post.

Delving a little deeper into her departure, she revealed she really just wanted a break. It was too much: the never-ending flow of information, and the demand for information in return. Sure, you don’t have to post, but then what’s the point of participating? And if you’re only opening an account to lurk, then why bother?

She’s not the only one to feel this way. In an age where connecting via technology is a large part in our overall relationships, many adults are disengaging. A report earlier this year by from the Pew Internet & Life Project shares that 61% (n=314) of current Facebook users sampled say at some point they’ve paused their Facebook participation for a few weeks. The reasons they gave are similar to those given by my friend:

Yet, unlike my friend, these people planned to return to Facebook: 53% of surveyed Facebook users reported they intend to spend the same amount of time on the site—so they planned to come back despite the complaints they noted about overall interactions on the site. The key to understanding the dynamics of this engagement may lie in teens and young adults: Both groups have actually demonstrated decreased participation and are forecasting decreased engagement in the coming year, but maintain a presence on Facebook because they see it as an important tool for socialization and identity creation.

Additional data from Pew reveals online friendship networks match offline networks overall for older teens, and are used as a way to connect with distant connections or gain inroads to possible connections. This group also reports making use of their privacy settings to control what people see about them and actively managing their friend lists—they *will* delete people based on activity. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many young adults are taking the same approach to their Facebook accounts. They’re making connections to remain connected while managing content and overall self-presentation.

Participation on Facebook is a means of being socially present. It is a way of providing proof of socially normative behavior to a large group of people, whatever that normative behavior is for the group that you belong to. To fully participate, you have to absorb other people’s posts through Likes and comments, and share your own, even minimally, for them to Like and comment on in return.

These actions are carefully curated:

  • 57% of online teens have opted not to post something out of concerns that it would reflect badly on them in the future.
  • 59% have deleted or edited something they posted in the past.
  • 53% have deleted comments from others on their account.
  • 45% have untagged themselves from photos.

Doling out Likes and comments also helps shape the online reputation of an individual as you sync yourself to certain types of updates. This curation requires vigilance which in turn can drive a fear of missing out (FOMO), creating a cycle of needing to check in and ultimately leading to social burn-out.

Pew data suggests that while teens and young adults are pulling away from complete immersion on Facebook, they are turning to other social channels. Twitter has seen a significant gain with 24% of online teens using the service up from 16% in 2011.

Part of the reason is that teens believe there are fewer adults on Twitter, but the limitations of the platform might also offer a greater degree of freedom from reputation management, as reported in focus group sessions:

Male (age 18): “Facebook doesn’t have a limit to characters on it. So in Twitter, there’s only so much you can say. On Facebook, they say so many details of things that you don’t want to know. You’d be like, are you serious? No one really cares that much.”

There is a similar sentiment about Instagram:

Female (age 13): “I feel like over Facebook, people can say whatever they want to. They can message you. And on Instagram you can delete the comment really easily, and you don’t have to live with it, kind of. Whereas Facebook, if they say something mean, it hurts more. I don’t know why it does. And also [Instagram] it’s not public, so people tend to not come off so mean. Because all they really want is for people [to] like their photos.”

Both of these platforms potentially offer a means of a disengagement. They allow the user to build an identity and to advertise socially normative behaviors, but the user can do so behind a screen that encourages directness and leaves little room for excessive interpretation. There is no obligation to follow back or respond. These spaces operate a bit like stages where users can perform and choose whether they want to hear the responses. In this way, users can be social participants while holding themselves back just a bit.

The future of Facebook in our lives seems long-term. Facebook reports 1.11 billion monthly active users as of March 2013. That’s a lot of information being passed back and forth, a lot to absorb and respond to, and a lot to curate. As such, more people may find themselves taking a break from daily engagement with the site—sometimes you just need a break from Candy Crush Saga requests.

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Hasufin 2:24 am 06/26/2013

    I can see plenty of reasons to delete a FaceBook account; mostly the ones listed above. It can be too time-consuming, uninteresting, too exposing, There’s nothign wrong with that. No tool is perfect for everyone, and that’s a decision that each person has every right to make.

    But often – most recently just today, in fact – when someone decides to delete their account, they turn it into a moral choice; that interacting “in real life” is superior, and that choosing to do so makes them superior to those who online tools for some of their interaction. I generally roll my eyes at these people. And then ignore them, which is pretty easy because they’ve cut themselves out of most potential social interaction.

    I think, too, that it’s just a transition phase as people get used to new technology. I recall in the 80s, when answering machines were just becoming a thing, and how often the only message you’d get on one was the repeated click of someone calling over and over again, vainly hoping they’d get a real person, and then finally the whining “Well! I hate talking to a MACHINE!”
    Today, everyone has a voicemail box. If someone calls without leaving a message, then it’s either because they didn’t have anything important to talk about, or because it was too time-sensitive for a message to make sense. Would we be accepting of anyone who had a faux-moral objection to leaving a voicemail? I don’t think so.

    But we’re seeing that same dynamic with social media. It’s not the interaction we grew up with. It’s overwhelming. It doesn’t feel right. And in 20 years, those objections will have all died off.

    Link to this

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