Leaving Facebook

Leaving Facebook
User Rating: 3.9 (1 votes)

A friend of mine has just quit Facebook. Her last post was: “It’s not you, it’s Facebook. I tried again, but I just don’t like Facebook”.

The interesting thing about this particular person was that I’d always seen her as a Facebook enthusiast, with almost daily posts of news, photos and links, and a wide circle of friends who she interacted with via Facebook. And professionally she works in PR and corporate communications where social media are the bread and butter tools of daily life. Now she was not just using Facebook less, nor simply not using it all, but actively and very explicitly closing down her Facebook presence. And she’s not alone. Reports, and data from Facebook itself suggest that quite a few people are committing “social network suicide”. In April 2013 SocialBakers, (see for instance) taking data directly from Facebook’s API, reported that Facebook had lost nine million monthly active users (people logging in at least once during a 30-day period) in the U.S and two million in Britain. Even for Facebook, those are big numbers.

What’s going on? Well, Professor Stefan Stieger and his colleagues in the School of Psychology at the University of Vienna have just reported a study comparing a typical sample of Facebook users with a group of ex-users.

Their study looked at (some of) the differences between a group of 310 ex-users and 321 continuing users. They found that there were proportionally significantly more men in the “Quitters” group than in the “Continuing Users” group. And that Quitters were significantly older than Users (Quitters had an average age of 31, users an average age of 24). Quitters had significantly fewer “Friends” (on average 133) whereas continuing Users an average of 349 Facebook connections. However, the two groups didn’t differ in how much time they spent on Facebook, and if anything, Quitters spent more time on Facebook (1.9 hours per day) then those that were still using Facebook (1.8 hours per day).

Interesting stuff, but the researchers were more interested in why the Quitters had decided to leave Facebook. So they looked at differences between the two groups in terms of their personalities, their attitudes to the internet (“internet addiction”) and there concerns about privacy. [At this point the research gets a bit complicated, because it’s known that age and gender are related to attitudes to the internet and to privacy concerns (internet addiction lessens with age, privacy concerns increase) so to eliminate the confounding of these differences due to the age and gender differences in their groups the researchers controlled for these two variables in the rest of their analyses.]

They found that, even when they controlled for the age and gender differences between the groups, Facebook Quitters were significantly more concerned about privacy in general than were continuing users. And 48.3% of Quitters cited privacy concerns specific to Facebook as their primary reason for leaving. Consistent with this view of Quitters was that they differed significantly on one of the key Big Five personality dimensions, that of conscientiousness, from continuing users. The suggestion can be made that the “being more careful” facet of what is involved in being more conscientious is likely to make this group more sensitive to, and more likely to act on concerns about what is happening to the personal information they, and their friends, were posting to Facebook.

These findings have some important implications for internet companies like Facebook. As public concern with privacy issues, and concern about who and exactly what is being done with their personal data increase it’s likely that more and more people will be concerned enough to quit social networks. One way of thinking about this is to see the increase in concern with personal data and privacy working its way down the Conscientiousness scale: at the moment we’re seeing just the most conscientious users quitting, as privacy concerns increase, people scoring less on the conscientiousness scale will nevertheless feel a threshold has been crossed which will cause them to change their social media behaviour and become Quitters.

There’s another reason why Facebook and others should be concerned about the link that Prof. Stieger and his colleagues have found between quitting and conscientiousness, and that is the powerful link between conscientiousness and success: it turns out that of all the personality dimensions, conscientiousness is the best predictor of all sorts of success (perhaps a topic for another blog?). So it’s not just that people are quitting, but the people who are quitting are likely to be the very users that marketers are most interested in.

Stieger S, Burger C, Bohn M, & Voracek M (2013). Who commits virtual identity suicide? Differences in privacy concerns, internet addiction, and personality between Facebook users and quitters. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking, 16 (9), 629-34 PMID: 23374170