I decided to read David Kirkpatrick’s book, The Facebook Effect, because I wanted to rationalize my somewhat recent decision to ignore a product that has become one of the most widely used in the world, achieved staggering valuations, etc. So here is my rambling reaction to the book, and my latest thoughts on Facebook in general:
There are reasons I want to like Facebook. I love sharing photos, reading opinions, and the little dopamine spritz that comes with any online interaction. Mark Zuckerberg even seems like a decent guy, at the very least a champion of my generation in leadership and business acumen. When I go all the way back to 1984 to compare our lives’ paths, starting with his birthday about 3 weeks before my own, it’s impossible not to be awed. Although we probably took the same spelling lessons in 4th grade, and maybe asked similar questions in high school government classes – years later while I was either underpaid or unemployed, Mark Z. was turning down multi-billion dollar offers for the company he founded.
But Facebook’s core principle of sharing everything with everyone, and in turn letting everyone I know share what they know about me with everyone else I know – I still can’t fully agree is a socially responsible or pleasant practice. Maybe it’s the introvert in me. Maybe it’s because transparency and openness don’t translate well into hierarchical organizations, which most workplaces are. Since work is sadly where I, like most 9-6 adults, do the majority of my socializing, it just doesn’t make sense to conflate the professional space with the casual, friendly mentality of ‘friending’. It was no accident that Facebook never organized its growth by expanding to corporate usage in the way it initially did at universities. I enjoyed using Facebook while I was a student, but in the world of colleagues, bosses, and board members, the share-all mentality took on a different patina.
I think one of the great things Facebook does is let people use their real identity online, an option that had been missing before. Unfortunately, identity gets stretched thin, defined too easily by relationships, associations, and Likes. Identity is a complicated construction. We aren’t just books we’ve read or bands we like. All the empty database fields in the universe couldn’t capture who I really am. I could go on about what constitutes a person’s identity, but I’m fairly certain there’s more to it than what can be captured on a profile page.
A favorite feature of Facebook, often used by its champions as an argument in its defense, is the presentation of ‘news that matters to me.’ The ‘News Feed’ as it was called when released caused a fury of opposition initially, agitating users who didn’t want their activity broadcast to everyone they knew. Since the initial outcry, a few minor policy changes have placated the chorus of dissent and everyone who continues to use the service considers the News Feed a useful part of the product.
The information you receive through your mapped relationships on the site is likely to carry significance because it’s coming from the people you’ve indicated are important to you, and not an impersonal corporation, or a profit-driven media conglomerate. Unfortunately, what this creates is the possibility of an echo chamber – you’re only going to find stories that agree with your own perspective.
Friendship, as C.S. Lewis defined it, is a conspiratorial act. To be friends with someone is to implicitly agree that it’s ‘us’ against ‘them.’ So what happens when we all become ‘us’? If everyone is friends with everyone, which is Mark Z.’s ‘openness’ philosophy taken to its logical extreme, who is left to be the ‘them’ that we check our behavior or beliefs against? In a world of truly open friendships how does the formal, technically bureaucratic process of sending ‘requests’ and ‘accepting’ people fit in? If we benefit from all being connected, as Mark Z. prophecies, why the need to draw documentary lines between the connections?
Maybe this odd conception of friendship on Facebook is one of the reasons I don’t feel awkward exposing my thoughts in blog posts, but do in Facebook status updates. With a blog, there is no expectation of friends to read or comment on my writing – this post is intended for anyone who is interested enough to seek it out, not because they know who I am, but because they’ve identified a topic I’ve written about as interesting or useful to them. Is my blog more transparent than a Facebook profile? Perhaps. Does that translate to mean Facebook is a safer, less revealing place for my online identity? No, I don’t think so.
The book describes situations like the anti-FARC uprising in Colombia and dissenting Egyptians as movements empowered by the connections created online. I think it’s great that in some places this communication tool has served an ideological purpose, but I don’t believe it’s the magical democratic bullet that some have made it out to be. The power of organization offered by Facebook can help small causes receive greater attention. But on a grand scale, the expectation of transparency seems intrusive.
The most fundamental principle of democracy, the vote, is an anonymous, private act – and designed to be that way for a reason. In essence, each ‘Like’ I create on Facebook is a kind of ‘vote’ – not for an election, but for popularity, relevancy, or brand loyalty. And each one of those ‘Likes’ – whether for Barack Obama or Coca-Cola – is an action my ‘friends’ (but for many people, anybody) can see, comment on, and either celebrate or criticize. Facebook hardly provides the curtain between voting booths that we expect when we cast our ballots.
Amid questions of Facebook’s usefulness, its violations of privacy, regulatory concerns and potential infringement on the operations of governments – the executives of companies like Sony, Microsoft, the Washington Post, and Reuters all provide quotes heaping compliments on Facebook, and the author gives these recommendations as indicators of the products credibility and usefulness for everyone. Lest we forget these corporate heads are in the business of selling targeted advertisements, a practice so enhanced by Facebook that when the company began to implement it, revenues soared and made multi-billionaires of the founders.
Since I stopped using the service a few years ago, there have been occasional twinges of nostalgia and moments of regret, when appealing people ask to ‘friend’ me or when I read about an interesting new feature release (the graph search seems to be a tremendous improvement to the site as a whole.) I’ve recently started using it again, in a very limited capacity, with the sole purpose of interacting with family members. I’m somewhat nervous that the wheels have started turning, and I will find other compelling ways I can begin to reuse the site.
My main takeaway from the book, aside from the inspiring story of its founders’ vision and dedication, and the mind-boggling numbers behind its user base and financial war chest, is that Facebook is impossible to ignore. Whether I’m personally using it or not, it is certainly going to be around for a while, and I will probably end up in the minority if I continue to play deaf dumb and blind to it. In the end, whether it’s evil or holy, enabling or destructive, its effects will be felt by everyone who uses the internet. Perhaps, and I’d be surprised if I’m the first to admit it – my biggest problem with Facebook is that I didn’t think of the damn thing myself.