The cult of Facebook — just see what happens when you try to leave

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March 23, 2018 7:41 pm Published by

#DeleteFacebook is trending, but will people actually do it? Even given the recent brouhaha over Cambridge Analytica’s privacy violations affecting 50 million people, that’s unlikely.

If you deactivate your account, or even just stop posting updates for a couple of weeks, Facebook FB, -3.34%    has a virtual army — your Facebook friends — who will text, email and even find you on Twitter TWTR, -0.54% asking what’s wrong and imploring you to come back. With some 2.2 billion users worldwide, it would take a tectonic shift for people to delete their photos and walk away.

Leave Facebook and some people think you have an axe to grind.

The biggest social network on the planet is stickier than most checking accounts or cable companies, psychologists say. Try to give up Facebook, and at least some people are likely to think you have an axe to grind with the world or them personally, are going through a divorce or have slipped into a deep depression. What kind of a person doesn’t have a Facebook account?

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Sure, people use Facebook to network and log into their Tinder IAC, +0.08%   account. Those left behind often take it personally, and may even have formed a co-dependent relationship with their Facebook friends, said Simon Rego, chief psychologist and Montefiore Medical Center in New York. People either send messages asking, “What’s wrong?” or, even worse, “What have I done?”

Leaving Facebook is like breaking up with all of your friends

“When you step away, you’re breaking up with everyone in your network,” he said. “Breakups don’t normally end on a good note. It’s rarely that both parties agree pleasantly that things aren’t working. People notice the absence and they want an explanation. They might be prone to wonder if you’re OK or if they’re OK. Is it something about you or is it something about me?”

People will ask, ‘What’s wrong?’ And, ‘What have I done?’

Facebook is that bar from “Cheers” or a virtual town where everyone knows your name. Why would you go somewhere else or move to LinkedIn or WhatsApp? “The primary motivation to be on Facebook is to reap the benefits of huge amounts of positive affirmation,” said Fran Walfish, a psychotherapist and author in Beverly Hills. The opposite of that, she said, is rejection.

Also see: Lonely people share too much on Facebook

“Folks reach out to inquire where you are, what’s wrong, whether you’re depressed, or if you’ve done something to them,” she said. “These cult-like members can be compared to kids who, when they don’t feel satisfied with a tablespoon of mom’s good attention, misbehave negatively in order to sustain mom’s attention. In other words, any attention is better than none, even if it’s negative.”

Announcing a forthcoming deactivation brings attention

Many people temporarily deactivate their profile — so their data remains online — rather than delete it, Walfish said. Aside from the time associated with downloading and storing photographs, deactivation seems less harsh. “Deactivating also attracts a lot of attention, albeit negative,” she said. And for those who want to make a public statement, that attention is not exactly unwelcome.

Facebook quitters are more likely to be older men.

Around one-third of Facebook users take breaks from their accounts, according to interviews of 410 current and former Facebook users carried out by researchers at Cornell University. Deactivation merely hides the account from Facebook friends, but the site retains all the data. (Facebook was not immediately available for comment.)

Also see: Facebook blocks, then allows ‘Daily News’ column about Cynthia Nixon

Facebook quitters are more likely to be men (71%), concerned about privacy and older (with an average age of 31 for quitters versus 24 for Facebook users), according to a survey of 321 Facebook users and 310 Facebook quitters carried out by the University of Vienna and published in the journal “Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking.”

Privacy violations feel less real than, say, an outbreak of E.coli

The recent revelations of privacy violations hit Facebook’s stock, but for consumers they are less tangible than, say, an E.coli outbreak in Chipotle CMG, -4.28% and the consequences may be harder to grasp. Privacy violations on Facebook or Equifax EFX, -1.51% don’t appear to create the same fear as E.coli. The latter can obviously kill you, but the former is a concept that’s more difficult to understand.

Facebook gives us a way to feel better about ourselves.

Rego said people have a fear of missing out on stuff that happens on Facebook. “Facebook has 2.2 billion monthly active users. Imagine that as a potential big party going on,” he said. FOMO for teenagers before Facebook was created in 2004 was bad enough, but missing a party on a Friday night pales in comparison to the constant hubbub on social media every single day.

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In the 1950s, the American social psychologist Leon Festinger developed the “social comparison theory,” which argues that we all have this innate drive to evaluate ourselves. “We feel good if we compare ourselves to people who may be perceived worse off than ourselves. It’s a way to indirectly feel better about life. Facebook gives you that.” The opposite, however, is also true.

Leaving Facebook can feel like turning your back on a community

But some people desert Facebook for nobler reasons. Actors Tea Leoni and Jim Carrey said they would delete their Facebook accounts after the recent allegations that an app linked to data firm Cambridge Analytica mined information from tens of millions of members. Carrey wrote: “Who are you sharing your life with? #regulatefacebook.” Leoni cited “unauthorized sharing” of information.

Social media makes us feel wanted and part of a community.

The scandal forced Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg into a mea culpa this week on CNN TWX, -1.79%   where he apologized. “This was a major breach of trust and I’m really sorry this happened,” he said. Zuckerberg said the company will review thousands of apps and create a tool for people to find out if details about their lives was shared by an app without their knowledge.

“I think it is a bridge too far to say it is a cult like atmosphere,” said Sherry Turkle, a professor in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It is a place where we have become accustomed to sharing our lives, to checking in with friends, to seeing that we are wanted, a part of things, part of a group, thought of.” It is, she said, a community.

People are now reliant on Facebook, she said. “So before we just delete, we might want to see if as activist consumers and citizens, we can think about fixing social media.”

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