Are we burning out on Facebook?

U.S. user numbers plummeted last month for the social networking site

Could it be that Americans are starting to grow a bit weary of Facebook, which has captivated much of our attention and free time?

That just might be the case, according to numbers released by Inside Facebook, a site that tracks Facebook usage. Inside Facebook reported this week that Facebook's growth dropped dramatically between May and June.

The social networking site only picked up 320,800 new users in the U.S. in June, according to Inside Facebook. That might sound like a lot -- until you compare it with the number of new U.S. users the site grabbed in May: 7.8 million. That follows news in March that Facebook replaced Google as the most-visited Web site in the U.S. for a full week.

The tracking site also noted that fewer current users in Facebook's prime age category of 18 to 44 were active on the site last month, though it didn't offer any specific numbers.

"Yes, people could be getting burned out," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group. "Social networking is here to stay, but we are likely getting toward the end of the first big wave of it. New technology and practices tend to come in waves that have peaks and valleys.

"It feels like we are near [the end of] a peak at the moment. Social networking requires a substantial time commitment and the rewards are largely intangible, which means people can grow tired of the offerings and find other things they would rather do," Enderle said.

The privacy hubbub that reared its ugly head again in a big way couldn't have helped Facebook. The company has been hit with sharing of user information with other Web sites. That move caused an uproar among users and prompted a handful of U.S. senators to send an open letter calling on Facebook to amend its privacy policies.

Facebook responded in late May with the release of a set of simpler privacy controls. And many users were placated for a time. But Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stirred up the debate anew at a conference in early June.

And then later last month, 10 privacy groups wrote an open letter to Zuckerberg, asking for changes to the popular social networking site that will give users more control over their data.

Enderle said the privacy flap must be adding to this new apparent hesitance to join Facebook or, for those who are already members, to use it actively. But that's not the whole story.

"That may be part of it, but my sense is that it is largely fatigue and that the rewards from the service are not sufficient to sustain the effort to maintain it," he added.

"Facebook is not in trouble yet," Enderle said. "But if something else emerges to address the social need that Facebook has addressed -- much like Facebook did with MySpace -- this would indicate that large numbers of their base would be willing to move. And that does put them at risk."

Speculation spread around the Web last month that Google Inc. is building a would-be Facebook rival called Google Me. The rumor started to fly after Digg founder Kevin Rose posted a tweet saying, "Ok, umm, huge rumor: Google to launch facebook competitor very soon 'Google Me,' very credible source."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at  @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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