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Is it time to leave Facebook?

Amid plans for a bn share offering, the social networking giant has come under fire for its controversial ‘Timeline’ feature. Two Observer writers discuss the merits of logging off for good

James Silver, writer and journalist I could blame it on the launch of Timeline (Facebook’s now mandatory reboot of users’ profile pages) or the forthcoming mega-IPO. Or even claim I was taking some high-minded stance (a social suffragette perhaps?) on how social media gnaws away at our privacy/sense of self-worth/ability to enjoy simple pleasures such as reading a book.

But in the end it was the soul-crushing ennui that led me to deactiviate my Facebook account last week. The sheer bloody listlessness logging on to the site produced in me in those final, dreary visits. “Steve listened to ‘Death of an Interior Decorator’ by Death Cab for Cutie on Spotify for Facebook.” “Bob and Sophia commented on Mark’s photo album University of Loughborough Reunion 04.” Not forgetting that other classic: “Nigel likes Cordelia’s post Me and My Cat Archie Eat a Tuna Flan.”

It’s not that I dislike social media. I know at their best these platforms can help spark the overthrow of despots, raise cash for medical research and share brilliant links. I’m a big fan of Twitter, which has become a primary news source for me. LinkdIn is a bit of an odd duck, but I can see what it’s for. But Facebook? It’s just white noise. A time sink. If you want to tell your life story, as the Timeline tagline has it, then go and write your autobiography. No one would read it. But that’s kind of my point.

Elizabeth Day, Observer writer and author For me, the key to social media is that it’s, well, social. What I value most about Facebook is the ability to keep in touch with friends, wherever in the world they find themselves. Although James is bored by the endless videos of cats eating tuna flan, I actively like being able to see the latest photo of my goddaughter in Hong Kong or having an instant messenging chat about the best way to eat panettone with my friend in Milan (thinly sliced, with a cup of tea is his take).

Perhaps it’s because I have a strange form of phone-phobia. I hate the faux cheerfulness I have to assume when I call someone; the awkward pauses; the way you can never hang up until you’ve put the next social rendezvous firmly in the diary; the anxiety that you might be boring them. The thought of Skyping, where you can actually see someone’s face, is enough to bring me out in a rash. I prefer communicating through Facebook – I like the jokes, the bonhomie and the sense that you’re part of something (especially because, as a writer, I often work from home). And if the whole tuna-flan-feline thing gets too much, the true joy of Facebook is, of course, that you can always log out.

JS Is Facebook really the best platform with which to browse photos of your goddaughter or discuss how to eat Italian fruit bread, Elizabeth? Photo and video messaging on your phone would do just as well for the first (or one of the picture sharing sites) and if you could summon up the nerve to use Skype for video calls, you could even watch each other eat a whole variety of southern European cakes. In real time. Hell, you could even live tweet it.

I take your point that you can always log off, but what about your privacy when you’re logged on? Unless you have a PhD in machine learning, you are unlikely to be able to operate Facebook’s privacy settings, which means a disgruntled ex is just a couple of clicks away from checking out his former girlfriend’s new man, and people who are “friends” – but only in a Facebook sense (ie they met once on holiday in Magaluf in 1997) – have an access-all-areas pass to each other’s Facebook back-story.

But my problem with Facebook is not so much utility as ubiquity. From the IPO filed on Wednesday, we know the platform had 845 million monthly users, and 443 million daily, by the end of 2011. The next target is one billion. In fact, from its filing statement we learn that Mark Zuckerberg has plans for global domination: “There are more than two billion global internet users… we aim to connect with them all.” (Don’t you love that insidious word, “connect”?)

When will they be satisfied? When there are only six people in Africa who haven’t connected with Facebook? When they’ve hardwired the Facebook “like” button into toddlers’ teeth?

ED I know it’s tempting to view Zuckerberg as an evil genius (especially after he wore pyjamas to a board meeting in The Social Network), but I don’t personally feel his goal to “connect” people is all that sinister.

Of course, if you choose to leave your Facebook privacy settings wide open, if you choose to befriend someone you only met once on holiday to Magaluf, and if you then compound the error by posting (or failing to detag) a photograph of yourself in a compromised state with a vodka luge, then there might be certain drawbacks.

But I don’t understand why everyone has got in such a tizz about the Timeline. It only organises the data that is already on your profile. If you want something to remain private then – here’s a handy little tip – don’t put it on the internet. On Facebook – unlike Twitter, which allows anyone to follow you – I am friends only with people I know and like. I have customised my privacy settings (truly not that difficult) so only certain of them can view my posts. Because of this, I find it a brilliant way of sharing photos, keeping in touch with lots of people in a time-effective way and using status updates for shameless self-promotion when I have a book out (Scissors Paper Stone, out now in paperback if you want to buy a copy, James).

JS Actually, I don’t buy into the “Zuckerberg equals evil, cat-caressing genius” theory. I’m merely arguing that Facebook’s plans smack of hubris. Yes, Google, Microsoft and Apple have flourished, but the evidence suggests that social networks come and go, as fashions change. Between 2005 and 2007, MySpace was the dominant player. Bebo, too, showed early promise. Friends Reunited once had 15 million users.

Facebook faces many bumps in the road, not least competition and regulatory issues, particularly over privacy. To those I would add the likelihood of new rivals appearing, seemingly from nowhere. Just a couple of years ago, few of us had heard of (games developer) Zynga or (deals site) Groupon – both titans now. As everything goes social, we can expect new, niche networking sites to emerge.

Leaving Facebook is a bit like quitting a cult: you can leave, but you’re never truly free. Yes, my account is deactivated, but my details, friends, “likes” and even those dreaded status updates are merely mothballed in some underground server farm, waiting for that moment of weakness, where I log on once more… For now my resolve is strong. But you never know when the urge to “like” pictures of household pets eating savoury snacks may strike once again.

ED I’m sure all of this is true (not least the likelihood of James logging back on for those cat videos) but the fact that Facebook might face future challenges doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the site as a user at the moment. I’m on Twitter as well but for different reasons – as you say, it’s a great way of getting the latest news developments. But Facebook performs a different role. It is more sociable – there is less pressure for constant 140-character updates and less competition over the number of followers/friends you have. Interestingly, whenever I speak to teenagers, they generally tell me they use Facebook but don’t see the point of Twitter, which suggests Zuckerberg and his henchmen will be around for a while yet. So James, if you are ever lured back to the light-blue land of “likes” and Scrabulous, I’ll be the first to request a friendship add. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds