Will private sharing make Facebook irrelevant one day?

In Hong Kong where I live, 98% of active Internet users are on Facebook. If you don’t have a Facebook account some people consider you a social pariah. You certainly miss many invitations to parties.

I joined Facebook in 2008, to share significant moments with my friends and co-workers. How I use the network has evolved. Over the years I’ve posted less frequently, and now I mostly consume news on it, occasionally posting a photo or two. Genuine moments, the sharing of joy at a newborn member of someone’s family, a minute of commiseration over the death of a friend’s pet, are fewer and farther between.

Last week one friend announced (on Facebook) that he was quitting Facebook for good. Separately a business associate announced he was taking a temporary break while he went home to England for the summer.

What’s going on? It might be the rise of sharing in “dark social”–messaging networks such as Snapchat, WeChat, or Whatsapp. For example, I have three Whatsapp chat groups that are more than a year old. One has 256 members, comprising fellow students from my high school year. Another is my Polytechnic year-mates, and a smaller one, my immediate family. Each group is active, in fact one of them averages over 100 messages a day. I have notifications turned off for that group so I don’t wear out my battery. A ton of sharing goes on in those groups. I use Facebook Messenger too, but most of my friends don’t use it unless they have to. (Facebook was smart to acquire Whatsapp.)

I’m also on Snapchat. Snapchat today feels like using Facebook five years ago: you only connect with your trusted network of friends or colleagues, you share genuine moments that don’t feel like humble-bragging (mostly); you are not afraid to be silly and fun. Because after 24 hours…poof! It’s gone.

For work we use Slack, a closed messaging system, for friendly social sharing we use Whatsapp or Snapchat. What do we use Facebook for? My company spends a ton of money advertising on Facebook on behalf of clients, so we knowingly take advantage of how consumers use it to stay close to brands. But what drew those consumers to Facebook in the first place was the social connection, which is gradually weakening.

Is this a threat to Facebook? If it is, what can they do? I’ll address that in another post.

5 ways to liberate yourself from smart device slavery

We are all slaves. On average we spend 3-5 hours every day looking at screens, including PC, mobile, tablet, and TV. If your work involves sitting at a desk your number is likely to be much higher.

As gatekeepers and curators of what you see, social networks do everything they can to capture your attention, by constantly introducing new formats, or seeking new screens to deliver that content. The result is a generation of smart device slaves. Sadly, I’m one of them. How do you know you’re a slave?

Addiction. We devote more and more of our available attention to consuming content, to the detriment of valuable, personal connections. Witness the archetypical Dai Tau Zuk (低頭族) out on the town, sitting silently in a restaurant, their faces lit by the faint blue glow of their phones.

Mindless multitasking. We spread our attention thinner and thinner, leading to mindless reading and viewing. Ever read something online distractedly, then suddenly realize you cannot recall a single fact?

Sleep disruption. Research has shown that prolonged phone use, especially before bed, disrupts your Circadian Rhythm and leads to poor quality sleep.

What can we do? I’m not the best at uncoupling from social, but I have smart friends that have come up with some creative ways:

Do the PhoneStack. I’ve started to do this with friends, or even colleagues when we dine out. The game goes like this: everybody stacks their phone in the middle of the table for the duration of the meal, and whomever caves and touches their phone first, has to buy the entire meal for everyone. Try it, it works like magic, and you won’t believe how easily normal conversation returns.

Limit your device time. My friends Allen and Jacco have a rule in their house: phones only in the living room before bed. No bringing phones to bed. You can set your own house rules, such as: no devices at the dinner table; no devices in the car, and so on.

Declare a “FayKay”. Announce on your social network that you are taking a break. Deactivate your account for three months, so that friends must actually call or write you to get your attention.

Declare your limited availability. Many people like me have multiple social networks, messaging and email accounts. I try to limit my use to only a few (Facebook, SnapChat, Whatsapp, Gmail), and on the platforms that I don’t check frequently, I declare in my status message my preferred networks.

We are only slaves if we allow ourselves to be. What has been most liberating, and revealing, has been the realization that all you have to do is declare your boundaries. Don’t use Facebook? Declare it and don’t apologize! Only prefer Whatsapp and don’t want to be reached on WeChat? Declare it.

Together we can embark on a mission to free ourselves and live life in the moment.