Ulanoff: Facebook's Death Spiral Has Begun

Facebook's long, slow, and, for some, sad decline into oblivion has begun.

A recent report from The New York Times stated that the company is going to try to make it easier for members to get off the service. This is a clear indication that the social network's days in the sun are numbered.

I've never tried to get off Facebook, so I had no idea how difficult it is for members to walk away from the clubby social network.

Apparently, you can stop visiting — I've done so for long periods of time — but removing your profile is another matter entirely.

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Now, however, Facebook will make it easier. You can send an e-mail to the staff and they'll do the cleanup. Too bad we can't get them to add a big "erase me" button.

I can understand that some people might accidentally use that button, and even regret doing so a few days after the fateful decision.

For that, I suggest Facebook create a one-month grace period where you can actually bring your account back to life by sending Facebook an e-mail and some identifying info to prove that you're you.

I bet, however, that once people are out of Facebook, they'll stay out, having moved on to some other online fad.

To understand the gravity of Facebook's decision and of the coverage of it, we need to recall the halcyon days of America Online.

AOL was once online's fastest-growing community. Removing yourself from it, however, was a gauntlet-like trial that most people gave up on halfway through.

Eventually, AOL agreed to make it much easier for people to cancel their AOL accounts. These days, few people talk about how many members AOL has, and I'm certain the number shrinks every day.

Facebook is different from AOL in many ways, but it's also the same in that its success depends on eyeballs.

Since it's free, it must use partnerships and ads to drive revenue. In order to be successful, it has to prove that as many people as possible have viewed the ads and used the tools.

It also charges for things like "gifts" that one Facebook user can give to another, but I doubt those prove very lucrative.

A 'Privacy Trainwreck'

Lately, the news about Facebook has been more negative than positive.

Aside from the New York Times story, there have been major missteps by the company concerning privacy issues.

In 2006, Facebook implemented "feeds" — a feature that one blog, Danah.org, referenced as a "privacy trainwreck."

The blog's writer, Danah Boyd, was talking about Facebook's habit of advertising every action you take to everyone else in your "friends" network.

I know I hate that feature. I do little on the site, so my "friends" usually don't see much from me, but my profile is filled with mindless information about what people are saying, which friends they're making, what games they've played and so on.

The company's Beacon service, which let ad partners deliver tracking information to Facebook even when users were signed out from the service, was a full-scale disaster for the company.

I think people may have been too hard on Facebook for that last fiasco.

Yes, the technology was a bad idea for consumers, but for Facebook, leveraging its audience is the only way to grow the business.

Since Facebook doesn't — and likely never will — charge for the service, it's forced to try to use the massive scale of its user base to generate revenue organically.

That means gaining a better understanding of what users are doing on the Web, so that Facebook and its partners can deliver more targeted and contextual information to users on and off the Facebook network.

But privacy trumps all other issues, and if a feature invades user privacy in any way, that feature will be shorter-lived than a fly with a cold.

There's another similarity with AOL. Both services use tricks to appear bigger.

AOL once blanketed the universe with sign-up discs to help protect against the massive (in the millions) subscriber-base churn it saw every quarter.

Facebook, too, uses all sorts of tricks to make the service seem more active and chummy than it really is.

Take those annoying games we're all always being challenged to play. Every week I get two or three requests saying "so and so" has challenged you to "the Movie Quiz: Identify the Actresses Without Their Makeup."

When I first saw these requests, I thought, "Oh, that person thought of me. That's kind of nice; I should play the game."

So I'd go take the stupid quiz, get 100 percent correct, and then be on my way.

Well, not exactly on my way. At the end of the quiz, Facebook encourages you to challenge all your friends to take the quiz.

The list is pre-checked, so you have to "deselect all" to avoid sending out a mass-mailing invitation.

My guess is that none of my Facebook friends actually thought of me when they took their quizzes. They simply forgot to opt out.

Even after you unselect your friends, Facebook asks you again to challenge everyone (you can't see your score without choosing to skip this step).

In other instances, Facebook will create an infinite loop of friendliness where there really isn't any.

I've had a couple of "pokes" on my page for ages. Someone poked me, I poked them back, and that should be the end of it.

But the initial poke remains on my page, so I'm never sure if this is a new poke or a remnant.

It's also hard to delete things like mail, so old messages stick around as if they're fresh. Everything seems more active than it really is.

If all of this doesn't concern Facebook fans, it should.

Any site that needs to resort to creating the illusion of life is clearly heading to a place where this is none.

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