Could We Be Outgrowing Facebook?

My faith in adult society got a little boost the past weekend when I read that a growing number of people are becoming disillusioned with Facebook and are discontinuing their affiliation, or at least their frequent visits, to the site.

Not that Facebook, or its conceptual offspring Twitter, are in any immediate danger of extinction. The numbers of both networks are still climbing. But as Virginia Heffernan reported in the Sunday Times Magazine, there's a growing number of people who are becoming disenchanted with Facebook--and in some cases the whole idea of the Facebook--for a number of reasons.

For some, it's concerns about privacy. Facebook isn't just a friendly neighborhood park; the company profits from the information it collects on users. There were many who objected, in early 2008, to the fact that the site was holding onto profile information even when people closed down their accounts. Not to mention the "oops" when Facebook decided to let everyone in a user's circle know about other internet purchases a user made. There were also some who turned away after the kerfluffle over Facebook's assertion, last February, that it owned the copyright to all content on the site, and some who object to having their personal activity so closely monitored by some large, unseen entity.

But what intrigued me about the group Heffernan interviewed was the number who were simply tiring of checking in on other people's lives all the time, investing in connections that felt more like stalking or distant newsletters instead of direct one-on-one friendship, and a growing unease about how they're spending, or wasting, their time.

I find these growing sentiments reassuring because of an assessment a friend of mine made last spring about the social-network frenzy of Facebook and Twitter. A friend, it should be noted, whose entire job revolves around the development of new technology in Silicon Valley. But both of those technologies, he said, were really geared toward the needs and interests of teenagers and young people. Twitter, after all, evolved from cell phone texting, which nobody does anywhere near as impressively, or frequently, as the under-20 crowd. And Facebook was started by college students as a kind of snide "pig book" to put various students' photos together and allow people to weigh in on who was "hotter." It evolved into a college networking site, and expanded from there. But, still.

2077892948_656f5f96a9_m.jpgThe tasks that Facebook and Twitter enhance ... staying connected with as large a group as possible, staying up-to-the-minute informed about what everyone in the social world you care about is doing, and in the process keeping track of where you fit in the social hierarchy of it all ... have been a primary focus of teenagers since time immemorial. Forty years ago, there were gossip cliques by the school lockers and fights over who got to use the family phone to keep up with the latest social status news. All Facebook and Twitter do is give teenagers additional tools to accomplish one of their prime developmental tasks: figuring out how to define themselves in relation to, and as distinct from, the rest of their peers, and exploring a wide variety of social connections within that group.

So in that context, texting, Facebook and Twitter are all terrific developments that, among other things, certainly free up the family phone. The puzzling thing is why they've been so popular among people who are supposed to be a bit beyond that stage. At some point in our development, we're supposed to let go of that obsessive focus on what everyone else is doing in order to focus on our own work and achievements. We're supposed to mature into valuing fewer but more meaningful friendships over the herd social groups we favored as teenagers. And hopefully, we're supposed to get busy enough with more significant contributions to family, community and the world to either care about, or have time for, the movements and chatter of people we're not that deeply connected to. As free time becomes more limited, choices have to be made. And there's a trade-off: to go deep, you can't go as broad.

There are certainly valuable uses for Facebook, even in the 30-something and beyond set. Most of my friends who have teenagers have joined so they have a better awareness of the technology and world their children are experiencing ... and to help them keep track of what's going on in their children's lives. And for older people who can't get out as much, social networking sites offer a way to stay connected with the world, and to keep loneliness at bay. Not to mention their appeal to marketers, who see a way to reach large groups of people (and especially the all-important young demographic) with a sales message in a fairly easy manner.

So the sites have their uses. But using them to compensate for the loneliness of old age, track your kids, or sell a product, is different than being giddy about them--or being addicted to them--for their own sake. And that's the part that's perplexed me about their growing use and popularity among the over-30 set. When teenagers are texting or twittering inane comments during class, they're being difficult, but age-appropriate. When Senators are twittering inane comments during major policy speeches, there's something slightly askew.

But perhaps the fascination with both sites is just a product of our innately curious and exploratory natures. When my sister and I, at ages 15 and 17, bought lacrosse sticks (boys', because we couldn't locate girls'), I remember the way my dad was drawn almost irresistibly toward the back yard where we were trying them out. He watched from the back window, then the open door, then the grass at the foot of the steps. We could feel how much he was itching to have a go at it, even though he'd never held a lacrosse stick in his life. When we finally offered him a turn, he lit up like a Christmas tree and laughed out loud at the novelty of the play. He had a blast with it. But he didn't have the need to play as long as my sister and I did. He tried it, had fun, and then moved on to the other tasks and activities of his day.

The kids come up with something new, and we can't help but want to try it out. But with different life and developmental tasks demanding our focus and time, we don't, or at least we shouldn't, stay as obsessed with it as they are--whether the "it" is the hula hoop, skateboarding, hanging out at the mall ... or a passionate attachment to Facebook or Twitter.

Is that natural dissipation of interest coming to pass with the social networking sites, as well? Hard to say. But if Heffernan's subjects are any guide, it may be ... until, of course, the next exciting new fad, fashion, techno-gizmo, or toy comes to town. 

(Photos: Flicker User Jacob Bøtter and avlxyz)