'Facebook scares me': One man explains how his use of a social-networking website spun out of control

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The Independent Online

I woke up one morning with fear in my bones, because the first thing I wanted to do wasn't to have a cup of tea – but check my Facebook," recalls one recovering social-networking enthusiast, Sam Devito-French.

Rather like heroin use, the first heady days of Facebook membership can be lost in a hazy love affair with inboxes full of "friend" requests and flirtatious messages ("pokes"). But like many addictions, it can leave you slumped on a mattress with nothing but your laptop, a few mouldy coffee cups and a sense of exhaustion, fear, and self-loathing. "I gave up when I realised that I didn't need a social network to have a fulfilling life – I'd much rather meet up with someone over a pint," says 27-year-old Sam.

He, is one of a growing tribe of Facebook "refuseniks", disillusioned with the seductive charms of the popular site, which has claimed 24 million screen-slaves worldwide since its conception by a couple of spotty (now-billionaire) college students in 2004. So popular has the site become that in the past six months' membership has risen at 19 times the rate of MySpace, surging 523 per cent to 3.2 million.

Like many Facebook users, Sam was cynical at first and joined on the premise of boosting his freelance photography career, but soon the hypnotic screen revealed a side to his character that would have best remained hidden. "I'm ashamed to say it, but Facebook turned me into an Internet stalker. I'd broken up with my girlfriend a couple of months earlier, I was tempted by morbid curiosity, expecting to find a photo of her with someone else. It was a frightening experience."

Sam also got caught in the grip of Facebook's virtual popularity contest. "I became obsessed with how many friends I had. I accepted people's "friendships" because it would add to my figure – not because I wanted them to be my friend."

But Facebook "friendliness" is no substitute for genuine friendship, says Professor Ray Pahl, co-author of Rethinking Friendship, and only leaves us feeling dissatisfied. He believes Facebook is a form of immaturity, "It's not a real social network," he says, "it mimics the playground insecurities of primary school kids piling up best friends to find their social niche. When people grow up and settle down, they realise that real friendship isn't about turning on the computer – it requires real effort and taking the rough with the smooth."

Like compulsively stuffing your face with chocolate éclairs while aimlessly flicking through the latest issue of Heat, Facebook cleverly taps into the modern desire for "continual surface stimulation", says psychologist Derek Draper. "There is something about our culture that pushes us towards activities that are hypnotically shallow, rather than committing to something more profoundly."

Sam agrees: "You join Facebook on the pretence that you want to stay in touch with people, but it just becomes a gap-filler. I would find myself endlessly refreshing my page out of boredom. Eventually I would find myself trawling through my list of friends and realising there were only a few people I wanted to talk to. I got quite angry with the whole thing."

Sinister, exciting, addictive, irritating – whatever our relationship to the online networking phenomenon, it now performs an important social function for a large portion of the 15 to 35 demographic. But the real question is whether it will vanish in a puff of its own hype, or prove to be the tip of a virtual iceberg? A recent YouGov survey found that only 50 per cent of people questioned said they would still be using Facebook in five years, compared with 94 per cent who said they would still use Google, suggesting that it is more likely to be driven by changes in fashion.

Safely disentangled from his virtual friendship web, Sam says he now appreciates "hearing people's voices" or "bumping into old friends accidentally". "Isn't life more interesting that way? I am no longer an avatar – it actually requires some effort to be my friend. Writing on people's walls and checking out their photos doesn't add up to friendship." www.horsemouth.co.uk

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