Some ditch social networks to reclaim time, privacy
By Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY
Facebook reports that it has 400 million active users worldwide. Make that 399,999,999. Laura LeNoir is done.
"I feel better, I feel lighter, I got my privacy back," says LeNoir, 42, an office manager at an educational software company in Birmingham, Ala., who logged off a few weeks ago. "People say, 'You'll be back.' But I read more, walk the dogs more. I'll be fine."
As the social networking train gathers momentum, some riders are getting off.
Their reasons run the gamut from being besieged by online "friends" who aren't really friends to lingering concerns over where their messages and photos might materialize. If there's a common theme to their exodus, it's the nagging sense that a time-sucking habit was taking the "real" out of life.
"When I first closed my Facebook account, I felt disconnected from the world and missed the constant updates," says Leanna Fry, 32, of Provo, Utah, who is teaching English in Erzurum, Turkey. She signed off after feeling harassed by strangers. "But I've discovered I don't have to know what hundreds of people are doing. Now I have more time for people who really matter in my life."
Even super-connected celebrities are bolting. Disney pop siren Miley Cyrus quit Twitter last fall, followed by British singer Lily Allen. Both women said the site was proving a distraction from their relationships. Allen signed off with "I am a neo-Luddite, goodbye."
That desire to unplug has made an unexpected success out of websites such as Web 2.0 Suicide Machine and Seppukoo (a play on the Japanese word for "suicide"), free sites that automate and turbocharge the otherwise laborious manual process of scrapping your online self.
Even tens of thousands of dropouts represent a fallen leaf in the forest of social networkers happily updating their status/thoughts/whereabouts at this very moment.
Facebook dominates that landscape, according to The Nielsen Co. It drew more than 110 million unique visitors in the USA in December, double its 2008 numbers. MySpace was second with nearly 60 million, a 17% drop from the previous year. Twitter pulled in nearly 20 million, and sites such as Classmates and LinkedIn had about 10 million.
Youth still rules in this domain. About 65% of kids 12 to 17 (and 37% of adults ages 18 and up) use a social networking site, according to the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. "For many, the time and energy spent putting content up means it's hard to leave," says Amanda Lenhart, Pew senior research specialist.
That said, the 24/7 tech addiction is causing even diehard social site fans to set limits, says Genevieve Bell, a cultural anthropologist with Intel. In a recent survey on mobile-device etiquette, Bell found that 69% said checking e-mail and sending texts in the company of others was unacceptable.
"This always-on lifestyle is being pushed as desirable, (but) there's a deeply rooted human need to have downtime," says Bell, director of user experience at Intel's Digital Home Group. "Perhaps tuning out of social networking is just a way of recalibrating that need for downtime."
Her recent interviews with users reveal that for some the ideal vacation spot is one without Web access. "We're starting to ask, how does all of this (technology) truly fit into our lives?" she says.