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Tiring of Facebook Fatigue

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The we-love-it we-hate-it news cycle. Just a few months after we've splattered the media with pieces about how great something is, we turn around and report on how sick of it everyone has become. We're like a tabloid that features a rail-thin starlet on our cover, headlines screaming, "Friends Fear for her Health," and a few issues later ridicule her in a photo where's she's bloated and eating a chili dog. We just can't seem to make up our minds.

In the last few weeks, the chili dog du jour seems to be Facebook Fatigue. In The New York Times Magazine, Virginia Heffernan's August 26th "The Medium" column, "Facebook Exodus," prompted a big reaction when, after she acknowledged that the site garnered "87.7 million unique visitors in the United States in July," she noted a "small but noticeable group" is quitting the social media behemoth, leading it to possibly someday become an "online ghost town." Some publications responded by noting the anecdotal quality of the piece (in which she cited a handful of people) in the face of Facebook's huge, and increasing, numbers.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Bernstein, in the Wall Street Journal, wrote a less dire, more personal piece on why she's experiencing the "fatigue" and how Facebook can affect friendships. Instead of concluding that some people's frustrations with it means the End of Social Media, she offers suggestions to "improve our interactions," starting with paying attention to our own online behavior.

I think a lot of Bernstein's points are valid. I have friends who've quit or cut down on Facebook for a variety of reasons, like Heffernan's. And of course I know there are people who've always hated Facebook and always will. As much as I appreciate social media, I too have things I tire of--my biggest recent pet peeves: the cry-for-attention status update ("Joe Smith needs you to send him good thoughts"...followed by 16 "what's wrong??" comments from friends and no response from Joe), and people using hashtags for their children. Like Bernstein, I'm also a bit dismayed at the poor communication skills on display: I have a friend who recently wrote in a status update something like, "I have 276 Facebook friends, but I like odd numbers, so one of you has got to go." Should I feel special, do you think, that he didn't pick me?

But for those of us who haven't quit yet and don't really want to, I don't think we have much to fear from these social media death notices. A chart of the Facebook fatigue stories on Google News since 2006 goes up and down so evenly, it looks like a dully predictable roller coaster. The peak occurred in February 2008--eons ago by online standards--when Facebook had approximately one-fifth of the users it has now. Twitter, too, has had its backlash stories--even, like Facebook, its backlash sites--and perhaps in a few weeks we'll see another group of them.

This isn't to say that either of these online phenomena will last forever. Far from it. It's just that the popular-thing-death-trend story is as steadily popular as the popular thing. My own anecdote here: when you search Twitter fatigue on Google News, because "twitter" is a fairly common word, stories pop up from as early as 1860. In a Times piece from August 2, 1876, an unnamed writer describes the New Yorkers who go out of town in summer and, after the "fatigue" of travel and a change of scenery return wonderfully refreshed. Then again, those who stay home are also fortunate because, when the weather is good at least, they wake to the "twitter of the morning sparrows" as "delicious breezes" waft in from the North and East Rivers. We will always, it seems, change our passions with the temperature of the moment.