Facebook Is Like a Credit Card and That’s Why It’s Here to Stay
For much of the Thanksgiving weekend, I was surrounded by friends and family who have either abandoned Facebook or who never joined it in the first place.
It’s not that they haven’t heard of Facebook, or that they doubt its potential to be useful. Instead, it typically came down to a fundamental concern about sharing their personal information and a fear that it would turn into a distraction that eats away too much of their time.
My girlfriend, who is active on other social networks, abandoned Facebook earlier this year largely because she felt uncomfortable with the idea of the company using her personal information for marketing purposes. Her father, a lawyer, has held off from joining Facebook in part because he, like others in his profession, has concerns about sharing information publicly. Likewise, my parents have avoided the social network because of a general discomfort about sharing personal information online with others.
They may seem like a rare breed given how ubiquitous Facebook has become, but a significant chunk of those living in the U.S. still do not have Facebook accounts. There were 166 million registered users on Facebook in the U.S. as of October, a little more than half the total number of people living in the country. If you factor out the 24% of the country that is under the age of 18, that still suggests nearly a quarter of adults don’t have Facebook.
Listening to my loved ones explain their reasons for not being on Facebook, I was reminded of another story told at several previous family gatherings. My grandfather, a small business owner born a year before the Great Depression, refused to get a credit card for most of his life. Like others in his generation, he remembered when banks started to introduce credit cards in the 1950s. He never completely trusted the financial institutions behind them and was always paranoid that someone might be able to use the card to get ahold of some of his personal information. Plus, he preferred to pay for things with the money he had rather than money he didn’t. He used checks to pay doctors and repairmen, and cash to pay for everything else.
Hearing that someone didn’t have a credit card in the 1990s was as surprising as finding out today that someone lives without a Facebook account. But the primary reasons for holding out, in my experience, are noticeably similar: concerns about sensitive information getting out there and a fear of impulse spending. In the case of a credit card, consumers often note it enables them to be more frivolous with how they spend their money. In the case of Facebook, many of my friends complain that it enables them to be more frivolous in how they spend their time.
However, just as not having a credit card can make one’s financial life much more complicated, not having Facebook can make one’s online and social life more difficult. My girlfriend has only been off Facebook for about six months and she’s already considering whether to get back on it. She’s tired of missing out on invitations to events and not being able to make use of social discovery features on services like Spotify, which require a Facebook account.
That’s a very different reason for being on the social network than when I joined in late 2004. Back then, the incentive to join Facebook was actually the cool factor. The number of users on the site was still in the thousands and only students from select universities could sign up, giving it an air of exclusivity. Now, the incentive to join Facebook is increasingly a matter of necessity.
Facebook has become a kind of currency for the digital world, not unlike credit cards. A growing number of websites and apps require a Facebook account to use –- or at least to get — the full experience. And just as not having a credit history may hurt your chances when being considered for big purchases like a house or car, not having a Facebook profile may raise red flags when being evaluated by new acquaintances, potential roommates or even recruiters for jobs.
Facebook isn’t a chair or a cake — as the company has suggested in its first-ever advertising campaign — it’s a credit card. That may not have quite the same positive ring to it, but it’s arguably a better message to send investors as it speaks to the strength of the company’s business model in the long run. The bigger the downside to leaving Facebook, the less likely it is to suffer the same fate as MySpace — even if it takes away its users’ voting rights or starts to bombard users with ads.
There will always be those who abstain from Facebook just as there are still people who abstain from having bank accounts and credit cards. We might even dub them the “unbooked.” But over time, the drawbacks will likely outweigh the benefits of staying off the social network. Even my grandfather eventually got a credit card when he started going on more vacations abroad in his retirement. His concerns never completely went away, he just accepted that it was less of a risk to have a travel card than carry wads of cash abroad.