With an IPO on the horizon and a record number of users, the social network has a lot going for it. Maybe too much for its own good.
FORTUNE — When Facebook finally goes public it’ll be a big moment for Silicon Valley, not only because it may be the biggest tech IPO ever but also because it will validate the social network’s staggering growth to date. When I joined, it was a barebones college-only online community where we could talk about courses, dorm life, and stalk that one hot classmate in East Asian History. Now it’s the Internet site people spend the most time on, with 800 million active users from ages 13 up uploading 250 milion photos a day.
In the U.S., the average user spends eight hours a month on Facebook; the self-admitted addict I am likely clocks that much in a week. To quote myself, Facebook eventually became “a way of life — a heady, nonstop road I’ve traveled along for years, where street signs are replaced with dynamic real-time news feeds, and my fragile ego can be crushed or swelled with pride depending on the number of people who deign to like or, even better, comment on my posts.” Heck, for many Facebook practically is the Internet.
I used to “Like” statuses hoping friends returned the favor, retouch “Photos of Me” before they went up, untag those that didn’t portray me in a petroleum-slathered, soft light. (For the most part, I still do.) Worst of all, I spent hours crawling “Friends You May Know,” building up a legion of 1,325 friends and 11,370 subscribers. Some of these people really are friends. Some are people I may have come across at work, gone to school with, dated or wished I’d dated. Others still are likely Fortune readers, to whom I am grateful. So it’s safe to say Facebook awakened and armed a narcissistic beast in me.
Then a few months ago, my relationship with Facebook hit bottom. The compulsion to log on reached a point where I checked Facebook incessantly at home, on the train, and at work. When for some reason I couldn’t sign on, I became frustrated. It was only when I found myself refreshing the News Feed on my phone between crunches at the gym that I realized the extent of my addiction. Would it be a big deal if I waited until afterwards to check? Well, of course not. But try telling that to me as I cursed my phone reception atop the sit-up bench.
I like to think there’s a reason for that incident beyond a mild case of “gym rage.” The way Facebook is structured now, you feel like if you don’t dip your toes into the social network’s stream of information for a second here, a minute there, you will miss out. The dashboard, once a study in relative simplicity, vaguely resembles a busy screen from World of Warcraft. The News Feed breaks up updates by Top and Recent Stories, a distinction I’ve never needed. And the live ticker chronicles the minute moves of friends as they happen, which sounds great in theory, but is more a visual distraction in practice.
Privacy wasn’t an issue (for me) until lately. Facebook’s charm once lay in the feeling of exclusivity it projected, a closed off virtual playground open only to a smallish group of friends where I could communicate without second thought. Now when I do so, I edit myself. To some extent, my profile and updates are visible to extended family, colleagues, professional connections, and a large number of others, so I post rather benign messages, images and links aimed at the largest common denominator. Sure, I could create different groups of Facebook friends and select who can and can’t see my updates, but organizing and maintaining those groups is too much work.
Ever-increasing Facebook partnerships means I need to be careful about the content I consume. Because I naively clicked on an online Washington Post story a Facebook friend read, all the stories I read from that outlet are automatically broadcast. With other apps like Spotify, Facebook integration is mandatory, meaning half the time,
I enter a “Private Session” so others can’t see which songs I’m listening to. And while I get that targeted advertising can be a win-win for marketers and consumers, I don’t know whether to be amused or uncomfortable with recurring “Sponsored Stories” like the one to your right. (For the record, Facebook, I neither like guys with tattoos nor cedar enzyme baths.)
Facebook has also given rise to user etiquette unique to the social network — and not all of it’s good. The same way behavior in the movie theater has gone downhill — cell phones ringing, people chattering mid-scene — I’m noticing some users becoming less polite. People bug me if I don’t “Like” something they put up. (“Dude, ‘Like’ it!”) Others expect me to know what they’ve been up to because we’re Facebook friends. (Well, you saw on Facebook… right?”) And because Facebook nurses our propensity for immediate gratification, we expect things to happen even more quickly there than in real life. Wrote one friend un-ironically on another’s wall: ”Why haven’t you poked me back yet? It’s been 20 minutes!”
That may be why several current and former users I’ve spoken with continue to steer clear of Facebook, deactivate their accounts, or ratchet down their usage. The evolving Facebook experience has either turned them off or the social network increasingly drew them away from the real world, breeding a false sense of intimacy where following friends and family on Facebook displaced deeper, quality interactions with them.
Of course, all of this is the result of Facebook’s genius and I won’t be deactivating my profile any time soon. But, I will try using it less. I’ve invested so much in my Facebook profile, spent countless hours building it up with friends, photos, links and status updates, that the idea of unplugging seems like the less attractive option. As I try to find a happy medium between gym checks and deactivating, I’ll remind myself of Facebook’s virtues. That it connects me with old friends. That it does expose me, through equal parts social recommendation and serendipity, to new bits of information. When really at the core of it, whether I’ll say so, I still want to be liked, however fleeting the online equivalent of that may be.
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