Dylani Shea ended her virtual life after coming home late one night from a part-time bartending job to find a customer had tracked her down on Facebook.
"Customers looking me up on Facebook and sending me messages is totally weird," said the second-year York University student. "I decided I didn't really want myself out there for just anyone to be able to contact me. I didn't want to be part of it any more."
Ms. Shea ended a five-year infatuation with social networking in January by deactivating a Facebook account that linked her to nearly 1,000 friends. She is one of the latest recruits to a small but determined movement of once-committed Internet gadflies who are redefining their relationship with social media to protect their privacy. Some are pulling out completely - sometimes with the help of social media "suicide" programs - while others are simply creating new accounts under pseudonyms with smaller networks of close friends.
The nascent backlash is aimed primarily at Facebook, which boasts more than 400 million active users. Other social media sites such as Twitter and MySpace do not disclose membership details, but experts believe their networks are significantly smaller.
The paradox of Facebook's meteoric rise as a free-form Internet meeting place is that the more it grows, the more its members have begun to feel vulnerable to prying strangers and businesses, which are drawn to a gold mine of demographic data for targeting products and services. Underlining the anxiety, regulators and privacy groups are starting to sound the alarm.
Canada's Privacy Commissioner led the charge last year by pushing Facebook to tighten its privacy settings. In December, 10 U.S. privacy groups filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, calling for an investigation into Facebook's new privacy setting defaults, claiming they improperly encourage members to publicly expose data.
A Toronto-based spokeswoman for Facebook said its members "rely on us to protect their data and enforce the privacy decisions they've made on Facebook. We take this trust seriously and work aggressively to protect it."
A cottage industry of performance artists and other Internet rebels has tapped into social media paranoia by launching such websites as Web 2.0 Suicide Machine and seppukoo.com (a play on the ritual samurai suicide). The services allow users to activate a series of software codes that enter their social media accounts and eliminate all posted images and text.
A spokesman for Italy-based seppukkoo.com said 22,000 Facebook users have activated its program. The website of Rotterdam-based Web 2.0 Suicide says users have cut ties to 230,000 friends and erased 391,000 tweets.
Facebook blocked both sites from accessing member accounts in late December, however. A spokeswoman said the programs violated company policies that restrict outsiders from using members' login information. After Facebook sent letters threatening legal action, both sites pulled the plug on their applications.
The suicide machines may have been stopped, but Facebook is still grappling with its members' privacy fears.
"The initial excitement is wearing off," said Hal Niedzviecki, a Toronto author and documentary maker and early social-media enthusiast. He once posted comments about his work, family and daughter several times a day to more than 2,700 friends on Facebook and Twitter. He did it to draw attention to his work, but he has grown uncomfortable with the constant exposure.
"You get the sense that you're someone else's entertainment. Your life is a product and that to me is a frightening idea."
Mr. Niedzviecki still uses social media to update his friends on his work, but he is much more circumspect about revealing personal details. "That takes the fun out of it in a major way."
Amir sam Nakhjavani, an employee with KYO Home Inc., said he deactivated his Facebook account last year because he grew weary of the daily flood of personal information that was shared by his network of more than 500, mostly peripheral, friends.
"I was having access to information about people's lives that I wasn't necessarily close to so there was kind of a disconnect between my relationship with these people in real life and the amount of information I had about them. It was kind of jarring."