How to flee the Facebook frenzy

Want a short respite from Facebook? A clean break? Here's what to do.

Marcellus Hall

With more than half a billion members and 900 million community pages, Facebook offers a world of online distractions. Yet for all the social network's virtues – family photos, enthusiast groups, and an inexhaustible stream of friend updates – Facebook still exudes the faint odor of its potential ills – privacy concerns, replacing human interactions with digital small talk, and an incessant stream of I-don't-really-know-you updates.

Many campaigns have called for users to outright delete their accounts. "For a lot of people, quitting Facebook revolves around privacy," says "This is a legitimate concern, but we also think the privacy issue is just the symptom of a larger set of issues." The website claims 37,700 members have committed to quit, though there's no way to confirm signatories actually bit the bullet. And the group's rallying page on Facebook reports 8,499 "like" this campaign, but everyone in that tally is still an active Facebook user.

For most people, deleting a Facebook account is the nuclear option. The site is often more fun than it is troubling – more convenient than annoying. Still, if you're not totally happy, here are some ways to mitigate Facebook's frustrations – such as how to put your account on ice, how to block certain annoying users, and how to see exactly how much dirt Facebook has on you.

Take a break: In late August, pastor Kerry Shook in Woodlands, Texas, lit up the blogosphere with his call for a "Facebook Fast." Take a 24-hour break from regular online life, he said, and reflect on what really matters. Mr. Shook's no technophobe. He has a healthy following on both Facebook and Twitter and updates those accounts regularly. But for one day, he said, "write a handwritten letter or card and mail it. Meet up with a friend for a face-to-face conversation."

If you're looking for a longer-term vacation from Facebook, the social network offers a way to shelve your account without tossing all the hard work you've put in over the years.

"Deactivating" an account saves your friends lists, photos, and profile information but keeps them completely hidden from other users.

The process only takes a few clicks. From Facebook, cruise to your Account tab in the top right corner and click on Account Settings. Then, choose the bottom option, Deactivate Account. After a goofy appeal for you to stay, Facebook asks why you decided to leave and whether you want to message any friends that "will miss you."

Your regular name and password will still work and you can sign in again at any time to restore the account – or delete it forever.

Hide from the hyper: Plenty of Facebook users have at least one "friend" who's a little too active: a college acquaintance who posts hourly pap or a distant cousin who thinks all of your updates deserve a response from her.

You could remove these people from your friends list. Facebook will not notify them of your severed ties. You will no longer show up on their friends list, however, which might make for an awkward conversation once they realize you're gone.

A cleaner option is to hide their status updates. When you roll the cursor over a message on Facebook, a little X appears in the top corner. Clicking on it gives you two options. First, you can "Hide" all messages from that person. You'll still be "friends" but their updates won't clutter up your home page. Or, you can "Mark as Spam," which removes that single message and alerts Facebook to keep an eye on that person. Again, Facebook will not notify the other person of either action.

What if you want to hide your status updates from certain friends? Next time you type in a public message, check out the lock icon just left of the "Share" button. This feature lets you direct your broadcasts, either by targeting specific people or avoiding others. Clicking through the pop-up menu, you can also save lists, such as "family," "college buddies," or "everybody but you-know-who."

Discover what Facebook knows: With continuing concern over its privacy standards, Facebook recently rolled out an easy way to learn everything that the social network has collected on you. Members can download every message, picture, profile item, friend list, and event – basically every meaningful action you've ever taken on Facebook.

This personal encyclopedia entry comes as a single, giant Zip file.

Critics have demanded such a feature for years, arguing that the company has made it too easy for advertisers to collect information on users while making it difficult for its own members to see what's available.

To download this data dump, click on the Account tab at the top of each Facebook page, then choose Account Settings. From there, look for "Download Your Information." (Facebook is distributing this feature piecemeal, so if the option isn't available, check back in a few days.)

Once you've asked for the download, Facebook will comb its site and alert you when the Zip file is ready. This process can take up to a few hours, depending on how prolific you've been online. Finally, the site will ask for your password again, to ensure someone else isn't intruding on your information.

Theoretically, the feature would also make it easy for unhappy users to ditch Facebook and move all their information over to a new social network.

Go nuclear: If these controls aren't enough, perhaps it's time to quit cold turkey.

Facebook makes it pretty easy to walk away forever. Click on "Help" in the bottom right corner of any Facebook page. Look for "How do I permanently delete my account?" which is the top frequently asked question. Near the bottom of the explanation lies a link to formally request deletion. Fill out the form, and you're free.

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