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The Would-Be Facebook Refugee’s Dilemma

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Dan Yoder is leaving Facebook, and implores us to “join him.” He has almost a dozen reasons why. Some of them are even good reasons. He’s not alone. And more and more of us, disenchanted, disenfranchised Facebookers know it.

But here’s the rub, Dan. A lot of us can’t just decide to “leave” without having somewhere to go. That’s because Facebook has become not just an extension of our offline networks, but to some extent, a space in which our virtual identities live – our most important semi-imagined community. The decision to leave such sites is usually agonizing and isolating, because we are deeply committed to what Facebook has to offer, even as many of us abhor on principle what Facebook is becoming. You offer us not a chance at diasporic exile, Dan, but rather a path to online death. We seek instead a better life.

In short, Facebook is like a beloved national homeland poisoned by a corrupt and unyielding government. As in real life, a few people like Dan will respond to such a situation by ritual suicide. Others will choose to exercise voice and or soldier on with resigned loyalty to life under the boot. But in real life, a significant number of people choose to defect, to flee. That’s different from just “deleting” yourself. And to do that, you have to have somewhere to go.

Plenty of us would choose such an exile from the dictatorship of Facebook were there a welcoming neighbor nearby to which we could escape with our friends and families. The latter is crucial: since the “space” of social networking sites is constituted both by the platform and by one’s social network, we need a way to convince people in our Facebook networks to join us in exodus. That requires a social networking utility as cool and functional as Facebook, with none of its privacy-violating nonsense. Not just any country, but a country where we and our friends would actually want to go.

What’s out there? Until recently I couldn’t care less. This weekend I hit my tipping point and poked around a bit on a few other social networking sites. Linked-in is too boring. Friendster is too fluffy. Zorpia is too creepy. GaiaOnline is too surreal plus no short-haired bitch avatars.

But I remain intrigued by a few others. Bebo’s not half bad. Very cool, very versatile, painless to try out, and privacy is its middle name. (But the friend-finder is a bit clunky.) And then there’s MyPirate.net which (while the metaphor appeals to those of us yearning to breathe free of our Facebook overlords) might need a little more time before it reaches its potential.

But I am likeliest to leave Facebook for Orkut – it’s simple, clean, functional and linked right through your Google account. The site needs to be just a little cooler, a little more like Buzz without the direct email interface. (Better yet how about all that plus you rename Orkut “Buzz”?) But most importantly, the site needs to be marketed as trendy enough that I could convince my FB community to jump ship with me.

In short, Orkut would easily be the next Facebook if Google got serious about harnessing the Facebook Refugee market. Maybe they’ll do just this now that so many of Google’s own engineers are joining the exodus. After all they need somewhere to go and just like any community-in-exile it’s in their interest to incentivize people to join them. And unlike the rest of us, they also have the skill and capacity to do just that. Snap to, boys. And don’t be evil, like Facebook.

Meantime, we huddled Facebook masses – those of us with no intention of taking our lives – continue to seek other, fairer shores with stuff we want plus respect for civil liberties. If you’ve heard tell of such lands, please leave word in comments.

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