Commentary

Don't Believe Everything You Read -- Like That There's a Facebook Exodus

Excuse me for being a little behind, as it happens, the Times, but I just got back from Ireland to discover that that very newspaper has decided it's time to kill Facebook, just because -- from what I can tell -- it's good to be out in front of trends and be the first to the funeral .

What's particularly disturbing about the story I'm writing about, by Virginia Heffernan, is not even the speciousness of its opening assertion: "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. More articles about Facebook, the online social grid, could not command loyalty forever. If you ask around, as I did, you'll find quitters." No; the most disturbing thing about the story is its hold on the popular imagination.

Published eight days ago, around when the family was leaving the Dingle Peninsula for The Burren, it is still the third most emailed story in the entire paper. While I'd like to think it's being emailed around so that people can point out its irresponsibility, I doubt that's the case. Instead, people will use Heffernan's talk of an "exodus" as evidence that Facebook is over, and, so, like lemmings, they may find that people leave for something else.

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I suppose I should go into more detail about Heffernan's piece before continuing, so here are a few choice sound bites:

"An early faction lost faith in 2008, when Facebook's beloved Scrabble application, Scrabulous, was pulled amid copyright issues. It was suddenly clear that Facebook was not just a social club but also an expanding force on the Web, beholden to corporate interests.

"My friend Alex joined four years ago at the suggestion of 'the coolest guy on the planet,' she told me in an e-mail message. For a while, they cultivated a cool-planet online gang. But then Scrabulous was shut down, someone told her she was too old for Facebook, her teenage stepson seemed to be losing his life to it and she found the whole site crawling with mercenaries trying to sell books and movies."

"Another friend ... found that Facebook undermined his whole notion of online friendship.

"Many seem to have just lost their appetite for it: they just stopped wanting to look at other people's photos and résumés and updates, or have their own subject to scrutiny."

Um, OK, so a few people Heffernan knows have gravitated away from Facebook; maybe they also tired of eating Chinese takeout or watching "Heroes." But do these examples constitute an "exodus"? Not even close. According to statistics in Heffernan's own story, Facebook had 87.7 million unique users in July. But even that eye-popping statistic is misleading. What she neglects to say is that the site has actually grown by 30% in domestic uniques, since April of this year. That growth statistic alone, if her editor had gotten a look at it, would have altered the story, if not killed it entirely. So some people don't like Facebook. Big freakin' deal.

What's at work here, both on the part of Heffernan, and all of those people manically emailing the story to their Facebook friends, is point #5 of the column I wrote last week about what I dislike about social media:

"That many of us are hopeless slaves to social networking fashion, flitting from one hot service to another, like Carrie Bradshaw always on the hunt for a new pair of Manolos."

As a journalist, Heffernan wants to be the first to declare Facebook over, but obviously, she's jumped the gun. While most people who read this column know this, the problem, in these viral times, is that now that the gun has gone off others are now running with it, making her claims of a Facebook exodus potentially self-fulfilling.

But there's another trap that Heffernan falls into, and it's something that even the most social-networking-savvy among us occasionally falls into: we confuse how we use platforms with the platforms themselves. Basically all communications mediums -- from the spoken word to the book to the telephone to Twitter -- are platforms, and the platforms themselves, though they operate in different ways, are merely conduits.

It's wonderful that you can use a telephone to keep in touch with your ailing grandmother; the fact that it can also be used to make obscene phone calls doesn't make the telephone bad. On Facebook, you can have the extremely wonderful experience of reconnecting with people you regretted losing touch with, or you can use it to stalk people. Because that make some people understandably uncomfortable with Facebook, it doesn't mean it's worthy of a mass exodus. It's merely a platform that appeals to millions of people, but isn't right for everyone.

It's time for Heffernan, and the rest of us, to start to know better.

13 comments about "Don't Believe Everything You Read -- Like That There's a Facebook Exodus".
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  1. Rachel Dangermond from OTR Global, September 3, 2009 at 3:40 p.m.

    News has it they also found the chupacabra in Texas recently.

  2. Jon-Mikel Bailey from Wood Street, Inc., September 3, 2009 at 3:41 p.m.

    And social media is dead too. You know that right? It blows my mind when people make these rediculous assertions. Thanks for setting the record straight!

  3. Bruce Christensen from PartyWeDo, September 3, 2009 at 3:47 p.m.

    I feel left out... Never got the email...
    So I guess that I can move forward with the launch of my Facebook application. It makes me feel better to know that there will still be a few people on Facebook to play in the party.

    I think that this is a case of sour grapes at work!
    People like Heffernan are the reason why old media is seeing the Real Exodus of biblical proportions.

  4. Dave Coll, September 3, 2009 at 3:50 p.m.

    I think this is a really fantastic response to Heffernan's article. I can't believe that the Times is allowing articles with so much speculation and hearsay (that actually CONTRADICT the statistical evidence) to be published.

    She also missed some major points that would have SUPPORTED her argument. How about the dissatisfaction with revamping of the Facebook format, or the hubbub around privacy issues earlier this year (which Facebook resolved by making the site "democratic" in its decision making process).

    Scrabulous? Please.

    I also would've liked to have heard her take on the rise of baby boomers within Facebook. What other internet product have older generations flocked to? Does Old Country Buffet have a website I don't know about? They are a considerable portion of our society, slightly smaller than Gen Y, who, might I add, loves Facebook. So does Gen X for that matter. In fact, if Heffernan had found a single significant demographic of society who WASN'T active within Facebook (note: I don't count her friends as a significant demographic) this may have been an insightful article.

    Not to mention that if I had a nickel for every friend of mine who's left Facebook only to feel like a social outcast and crawl back 6 months later, I'd have upwards of $4.

    Oh, I'm sorry, is it not scientific to use my personal experience with friends and absurd analogies to conclude my article? I guess I should go write for the Times.

  5. Christopher Weakley from Virgo, September 3, 2009 at 4:02 p.m.

    I read in "News of the World" that chupacabra recently closed his Facebook account and went back to MySpace.

  6. Greg Bentley from The Inspiration Networks, September 3, 2009 at 4:07 p.m.

    It is a bit of a cost drain to take the time to pay attention to real data. ...I'm just sayin'.

  7. Susan Roane from The RoAne Group, September 3, 2009 at 5:25 p.m.

    Really found this post to be thought-provoking and illuminating especially I read the "Yes, Viriginia there is a Facebook" piece In NY TIMES. But then again, the Times was one of the venues speculating on Chelsea's wedding.

    My tweet on this and word I created apply here:
    "JournaRumorismâ„¢ a subset of Journalism, a respected profession. Chelsea Clinton's non wedding gets ink. http://tinyurl.com/l4jyom

    The greats of real, fact-checked journalism are rolling in their graves.

  8. Tim Patterson, September 3, 2009 at 5:51 p.m.

    The time I spend with Facebook, the more time I spend with...uh..Facebook. And the more people from my past I connect with. And the more I figure I'll find. Friends of friends, folks who used to pester me, uh, promote stuff to me at jobs I had 30 years ago that I haven't kept track of but wish I would have.

    Yeah, with those kinds of results and activities, I'll have to flee along with everyone else.

  9. Jeff Cole from JJC Communications LLC, September 3, 2009 at 10:37 p.m.

    To paraphrase Mark Twain: The reports of Facebook's death are premature.

    In addition maybe those in print are hoping that if they say social media is going away it will. Then everyone will go back to reading newspapers.

  10. Swag Valance from Trash, Inc., September 4, 2009 at 12:40 a.m.

    Ummm...but the exodus is inevitable. Name one pre-eminent social media platform in the past two decades that has lasted more than a few years before its eventual decline. Usenet? Message boards? Friendster? IM/chat? MySpace?

    Good luck thinking that 20 years of social media history can be chucked aside with a single Web site.

  11. Amit Klein, September 4, 2009 at 5:36 a.m.

    I read Viriginia's piece and found myself silently nodding in agreement at many of her points. I agree that her story is anecdotal, but I've found that many of my friends (myself included) are spending less time on FB and more time on Twitter. The more FB tries to become Twitter (by allowing public status updates and real-time search), the more they are going away from their core users (who joined FB to stay in touch with their "real friends"). Instead FB should focus on core communication products (why don't they have group or video chat?) and FB connect (so I don't have to register for this site). And if they wanna make money, start an app store (people will pay for MafiaWars) or really focus on taking down paypal with your FB connect-enabled payment platform.
    </rant>

  12. Les Blatt from Freelance New Media Person, September 4, 2009 at 8:47 a.m.

    The Heffernan piece was one of the dumber articles in the Times lately. Unfortunately, that's become quite a competitive position in a newspaper that used to be considered the definitive news source. Given the demonstrable exodus among Times readers, perhaps their focus is somewhat blurred.

  13. Kenneth Hittel from Ken Hittel, September 6, 2009 at 12:59 p.m.

    "...the problem, in these viral times, is that now that the gun has gone off others are now running with it, making her claims of a Facebook exodus potentially self-fulfilling."
    oh, come on, Catherine. Do you really believe that social networking in general and Facebook in particular are such fragile phenomena that they're threatened by an admittedly purely anecdotal article in the Old Gray Lady of print journalism? Jeesh. Emotionally, this reaction is on exactly the same level as Heffernan's.
    As witness this, from Les: "Given the demonstrable exodus among Times readers..." Demonstrated by "most emailed" count? Good Lord! If, or rather when, Facebook suffers a main exodus, it will assuredly be for solid reasons that have nothing to do w/ Virginia's Sunday column.

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