I am on a Facebook diet. I have been since January 1.
It is rare for me to stick to a new year's resolution, but this one has remained mainly because I am actually enjoying it.
Since joining the social network back in 2007, I have been both a prolific user and staunch supporter of Facebook. While I may not be one of the UK's most obsessed users, who reportedly spend up to eight hours a day checking their news feeds, I would estimate that before the diet I was looking at Facebook between ten and twenty times per day. So what made me decide to cut down?
In May last year Facebook made its market debut, with an IPO which valued the company at $104.2 billion. In the months that preceded and followed, Zuckerberg rolled out a range of new advertising and revenue-generating initiatives, which - I think - have significantly diminished the day-to-day experience of using Facebook.
Advertising is now everywhere: alongside your photos, in the right-hand column, and - most intrusively of all - as sponsored stories within your newsfeed proper. Advertisements have been rolled out particularly aggressively within the mobile app, where sponsored news stories generally remain within the top five stories of the news feed all day long.
In June 2012, Facebook unveiled its 'promote posts' option. Originally this meant that businesses could pay to have their news updates appear prominently in their followers' news feeds. By October, however, the 'promote' feature was extended to individual accounts, meaning that sharing photos, links and status updates with your friends was now, potentially, a financial transaction. As of this month, users can now also pay to promote their friends' posts, which seems the most unclear innovation of the lot. (Why would I want to pay to promote something my friend has posted?)
The promote feature has not been popular, but Facebook shows no signs of abandoning it. Many users have reported that their news feeds are becoming decreasingly interesting and useful, and various solutions have been devised to try to get full access to the news feed again, unfiltered by Facebook's ideas about what you might or might not want to see.
In writing this piece I contacted Facebook for comment. Their representative drew my attention to a number of articles on how the 'promote posts' feature works, including this piece from TechCrunch and this feature from a Facebook engineer. At the bottom of both articles though, commenters have piled in to express the same concerns I have. In spite of Facebook's assurances, many users feel they simply aren't getting the information they want through their news feed.
Many of the commenters ask why Facebook doesn't just stop trying to filter the news feed so that there is an option for users to see everything their friends post. I put this to Facebook because it seems a logical solution to the problem, and they sent me this useful link which acts as a 'firehose' of everything your friends post. In the face of all the criticism, it seems strange to me that they don't make this link more obvious and prominent.
Last year numerous studies were done into the psychological impacts of social networking. Not all of them struck me as entirely scientific, but the question of whether Facebook makes us happier or less happy is worthy of investigation. The poverty of my news feed, combined with the creeping influence of advertising and my decreasing enjoyment of using the service all contributed to my decision to make a change.
Rather than just quitting though, I have gone on a diet. Facebook still offers a number of services that I enjoy. It is a place where old friends and new can get in touch with me simply by searching for my name. It is a platform where I can see friends' photos and get updates from pages I follow (when they arrive).
Being on a Facebook diet means I get these services the way I want them. I now check Facebook on my computer once every day or two, and I no longer use the main Facebook mobile app at all. Instead I have downloaded the Facebook Messenger app which is simply your Facebook inbox without the newsfeed or notifications. And crucially: no advertising... yet.
I have also synced my personal calendar with my Facebook account so I can keep track of my friends' birthdays. And checking into the site once a day or so means I don't miss out on important events.
For me, Facebook has become a less interesting place over the past year as many of my friends have left the service or diminished their use. People leaving, I believe, has come as a direct corollary of the changes Facebook has instituted. Fewer interesting posts from fewer interesting people makes the experience less enjoyable. So why keep coming back?
I, for one, am on a diet.