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Opting out of Facebook

sabreena peters and log.jpg

Sabreena Peters, 24, of Toronto, created a Facebook profile for the most inanimate thing she could think of -- this log of wood -- when she grew frustrated with her friends' constant discussions about the social networking site. (Courtesy of Sabreena Peters)

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The Log, whose antics can be followed on his Facebook page, is ready for his close-up. (Courtesy of Sabreena Peters)

He’s 25 years old, bisexual, and interested in friendship, a relationship, dating or networking. Add him as a friend on Facebook, the ubiquitous social networking Web site, and you’ll have access to 379 pictures of his exploits.

Oh, yes–-and he’s a log, as in piece of wood.

His name is Thelog Log, and he came into being when Sabreena Peters, 24, grew frustrated with her friends’ constant discussions about Facebook.

“I thought it would be funny to make a profile for the most inanimate thing I could think of,” said Peters, of Toronto, whose log is her cheeky commentary on the absurd and obsessive behavior Facebook members sometimes show.

Since its inception in 2004, Facebook has drawn more than 70 million users, but some of the site’s original intended patrons--college grads now in their 20s--have become alienated from and uncomfortable with the platform they and their peers helped catapult into mainstream use.

“I think Facebook advertently or inadvertently was designed to be very seductive to human beings,” said Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School, who researches health and social networks.

Christakis said that Facebook appeals to basic human nature: “People are naturally interested in social relationships, and are also naturally interested in novelty.”

“Facebook caters to both of those needs by providing a nonstop personal soap opera about the people we know directly and loosely,” Christakis said.

Facebook, whose representatives did not respond to requests for an interview, is described on the Web site as a “social utility that helps people communicate more efficiently with their friends, family and coworkers.”

The perpetually available virtual soap opera became too much for Natalie Baker, 24, who used Facebook for almost four years before removing her profile last month.

At first, the site was a fun way for Baker to keep tabs on her friends, but when Facebook became the topic of choice in real-life conversations, she felt it had gone too far.

“People aren’t living life,” said Baker, a Canadian graduate student at the London School of Economics. “Instead, they are living on Facebook.”

The Web site, which gets 65 billion page views per month, allows users to monitor both mundane and intimate aspects of other people’s lives by designating them as Facebook friends. Often, the information includes who is online at a given time, who attended someone’s birthday party, or a person’s religious or political views.

“It’s soulless, vapid and tiresome,” Baker said. “The constant access cheapens everything. Nothing is a surprise anymore. Nothing is mysterious. It takes away from the mystique of life.”

The superficiality of accessing information about so many people she wasn’t really friends with bothered Baker.

“You’re a voyeur, an exhibitionist and a creep rolled into one,” said Baker, who removed her own profile a month ago.

But for some, Facebook acts more like a free candy dispenser than an efficient communication tool, said Professor Robert Berkman, an associate professor at the New School for General Studies in New York City, who researches social media.

“You’re connected with all sorts of people all at once and you can have people follow what you’re doing,” Berkman said. “It’s an irresistible combination of being social, being a bit of a celebrity yourself and showing off.”

For Elayna Koevary, 22, of Newton, Mass., joining Facebook was a reluctant decision when she created a profile for herself in the summer of 2004.

“At first, I didn’t feel comfortable with a Web site that displayed my personal information,” Koevary, who deactivated her profile more than a year ago, said, but eventually gave in when she realized it would make life easier for communicating with her new college friends.

There’s always a trade-off, Berkman said, referring to famed media critic Neil Postman’s adage that all new technology is a Faustian bargain: it always gives us something important but it also takes away something that’s important.

“People find something good about social networking, but people also realize what they’re giving up--personal privacy, productivity or time,” Berkman said.

But after Facebook eventually allowed anyone to become a member, Koevary’s apprehension about the site grew, and as she constantly monitored the 24-hour soap opera of everyone she knew without leaving her computer screen, she decided she’d had enough.

“I wanted to feel that interactions I have and things that I know about people have been intentional and real,” Koevary said, “and not that I’ve cheated myself in life because Facebook was removing me from reality.”

Christakis does not believe that users like Koevary spell the end of social networking. Instead, he thinks that users will recognize the time-drain threat that Facebook can pose and will learn to regulate their usage.

“I see Facebook as a pastime,” Christakis said, “and not a profession.”

And like anything new, a cycle is taking place that will eventually lead to widespread acceptance of Facebook, Berkman said.

“First there’s a skepticism, then people get into it and love it, then step back, and some adjustments can be made,” Berkman said.

Yet for Peters, being on Facebook makes as much sense as having a log of wood as a pet, creating an online profile for him and bringing him to family dinners to pose in pictures with grandparents.

But even she has her limits. Peters has given herself a year, until September 2008, to maintain her log’s Facebook profile.

“Then I’ll re-evaluate and decide if it’s time to retire,” she said.

E-mail: jmf2151@columbia.edu