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While celebrities quit Facebook, others say they feel trapped in it

A study concluded that the average Facebook user would require more than $1,000 in exchange for deactivating their account for one year.

SAN FRANCISCO — Some well-known people said this week they were deleting their Facebook accounts: pioneering tech journalist Walt Mossberg, author and law professor Tim Wu and singer and actress Cher, who was re-upping a vow she made in March.

America, though, doesn’t appear to be joining in lockstep. Nor does the rest of the world.

The decision whether to quit the world’s biggest social network is playing out online and off, after a series of scandals around the company, and it is illustrating a sharp divide between those who have the luxury to do without Facebook and others who, whether they like it or not, consider Facebook — and its other services Instagram and WhatsApp — to be essential.

In interviews and on social media, an array of people said they haven’t deleted their accounts because they either see genuine value in Facebook or they feel trapped on the service. That is despite their concerns about the company, ranging from what some call its toxic political discussions to feelings of envy or insecurity from seeing curated details of others’ lives.

Image: Facebook
Some well-known people said this week they were deleting their Facebook accounts.ymgerman / Getty Images

Facebook users said they do not see a ready alternative to some of what it offers, like keeping in touch with childhood friends and distant family members, or finding out about nearby events.

“There are some folks who have the privilege of quitting, and some folks who don’t,” said Jessica González, deputy director of Free Press, a nonprofit that scrutinizes the media including internet firms such as Facebook.

González said she was close to quitting Facebook, but wasn’t ready to do so yet. She said there has been a lively debate among activists who believe the company is abusing society by mishandling personal information and disseminating false news stories, but who also rely on Facebook to reach an audience, raise money or organize events.

“It’s unwise for us to diminish our power by deleting a platform when that may be the only platform to connect with folks to go out and take action,” she said. “We need to meet people where they are.”

A study published in April found that individuals with higher incomes reported they were slightly more likely to have deactivated their Facebook account or considered doing so.

Lehigh University computer scientist Eric Baumer, who wrote the study, said that people with higher incomes may be more aware that deactivation is an option, or may have less need for the “social capital” that networking websites may provide.

“Facebook, rather than acting as a democratizer, may be perpetuating existing social inequalities,” Baumer wrote.

Celebrities including actor and comedian Will Ferrell and billionaire tech baron Elon Musk have quit Facebook after a series of scandals have rocked the company the past two years.

Facebook has been blamed for the viral spread of fake news around the world, its failure to detect Russian operatives who used the network to try to sway the 2016 U.S. election and the mishandling of personal data, including information that ended up in the hands of political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.

The attorney general for Washington, D.C., sued Facebook on Wednesday over its data practices. Shares in the company closed on Friday down 43 percent from their all-time high.

Others, though, have chosen to focus on the upside of the social network.

“Today via Facebook, I found out about a support group for a very sick friend--via FB is how people are getting in touch to show support,” Steven Sinofsky, a venture capitalist, wrote on Twitter.

“In all the talk about FB, a reminder that it offers something that otherwise has no other readily available solution,” he added. His firm, Andreessen Horowitz, was an early Facebook investor.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said that he designed Facebook to be indispensable, comparing the social network to a utility as if it provided running water. “Building a network and building relationships is one of the most core things that people do, and that is an enduring utility that people need; that is not a fad,” he told Recode in July.

It continues to add features designed to keep people around, such as tools to make Facebook groups more useful, especially for people who run them, and a dating service. Some parts of its business, such as a network that places ads elsewhere online, make Facebook even harder to avoid.

“Facebook is constantly looking for more reasons for people to be locked into Facebook,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a University of Virginia media studies professor and author of “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy.”

A study published this month sought to put a dollar value on the free social network. It concluded that the average Facebook user would require more than $1,000 in exchange for deactivating their account for one year.

"For lower-income people in this country, but also for poor people around the world, the tools that Facebook owns are in many ways the internet."

Outside the United States, Facebook and its WhatsApp service can be even more influential as a hub for shopping or news — sometimes with deadly consequences. Facebook subsidizes internet access in poor areas through a program called Free Basics.

“For lower-income people in this country, but also for poor people around the world, the tools that Facebook owns are in many ways the internet,” said Henry Fernandez, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Though he has criticized Facebook’s record on human rights, Fernandez said he maintains Facebook and WhatsApp accounts to stay in touch with friends.

American users are more valuable for Facebook because advertisers want their attention. Last quarter, Facebook earned $27.61 per U.S. and Canadian user, compared to $8.82 per European user and $2.67 per Asia-Pacific user.

Silicon Valley has a word, “sticky,” for a service that people can’t tear themselves away from, although the lack of a direct competitor in social media also leads to the accusation that Facebook is a monopoly.

“Silicon Valley companies have created competition-free zones. We have to change that,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, a civil rights group.

Zuckerberg has said that Facebook has various competitors, such as Apple for messaging and YouTube for video consumption.

Color of Change has criticized Facebook for not policing hate groups more aggressively, but Robinson said Facebook is also a necessity that needs fixing. He’s still on the service, and he compared people who delete their accounts to parents who flee certain school districts without doing anything to help.

“It’s like people opting out of bad schools. Some people are still going to be there and can’t opt out,” he said.

But privileged people who quit social media may themselves be providing an indispensable service by demonstrating what a life without it is like, Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and author of the book, “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,” wrote in the Guardian this year.

“The primary value of a boycott in this case is not mere protest to damage Facebook, but to invent what life can be like today without the social network,” he said.