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The great Facebook exodus has begun

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There is a great migration afoot. Millions of people are leaving Facebook for greener, newer, shinier pastures: Instagram, smartphone chat apps, Path—or they're just sick of social networking altogether.

Data from independent traffics firm Social Bakers and reported in The Guardian shows that Facebook isn't just shedding users—the ones its keeping are spending less and less time on the site. Traffic in the United States fell four percent over the past month, with Facebook losing 6 million users. That trend was consistent across international borders: In the U.K., the world's largest social network lost 1.4 million users, a 4.5 percent decrease.

In December, American Facebook users logged an astonishing 121 minutes on the platform—but by February that had fallen to 115 minutes, according to ComScore.

The seductive pull of that little red notification light just isn't what it used to be.

Even Facebook's good news hints at fundamental problems: The company is growing in countries like India and Brazil, where its absorbing millions of new users every month. That's because those are the countries in which Facebook really can grow. It's already reached saturation point in Europe and North America. Everyone who might sign up for Facebook already has, and teens are increasingly attracted to other flashier, simpler networking services, like Instagram and SnapChat.

To please shareholders, Facebook needs to increase its profit margin, which means it's got to squeeze ever more money out of its slowly dwindling userbase. That means bigger ads, as evidenced by the much-hyped redesign in February. But it also means monetizing features that used to be free. Want to message someone you don't know? Better cough up $1 (or more if it's a celebrity like Salman Rushdie or Dane Cook, which will run you $15).

If you manage a Facebook page, you need to dish out cash just to reach your legitimate subscribers. Every time the Daily Dot posts to our own Facebook page, we're greeted with a big blue tab that invites us to "boost" our post for a cool $50.

To get more money, Facebook needs to annoy you. And the more Facebook annoys you, the more likely you'll jump ship—just like the 7.4 million who did last month.

Update: In a blog post, Social Bakers CEO Jon Rezab has suggested his company's data should not be used to come to broad conclusions about Facebook traffic. The data is a rough estimate based on Facebook's ad tool, Rezab said.

He provided little clarification beyond those points, however. How vague are the numbers? How much of a margin of error is there? Why publish the numbers at all if they can't be used for meaningful conclusions? Rezab didn't respond to these questions on Twitter. He did suggest that there was a difference between data Social Bakers publishes for free and that which it puts behind a paywall—a contention that he shortly contradicted when he announced that, following his company's spat with The Guardian, the data in question would move behind a paywall. With that move, one has to wonder if Rezab's hand-wringing has less to do with the accuracy of his numbers than with the fact his company's name has suddenly featured prominently in negative articles about Facebook, a company on which his entire business depends.

Indeed, data from at least four other sources back up The Guardian's claim: Web analytics firms Alexa and Quantcast both show a traffic drop for Facebook over the past few months, as does data from both Jefferies Bank and Nielsen

Illustration by Jason Reed