When TIME’s Person of the Year was announced for 2010, it’s fair to say many people around the world didn’t know who the recipient was. This isn’t because the 2010 Person of the Year was unimportant or irrelevant, but because he was one of the few creators who share the curious curse of being less well-known than their creation. Mark Zuckerberg is the founder and creator of Facebook, a name much more recognizable than his own.
Few innovations can claim to have inspired such radical change as Facebook has.
Facebook, of course, wasn’t the first of its kind; similar social networking sites had existed before. As a nomadic internationalist who has lived on three continents and in various different countries, I witnessed the rise of a few of these in different places. In Iran, like much of South Asia and for some reason Brazil, it was “Orkut.” In Malaysia and Southeast Asia, it was “Friendster.” In Britain and a lot of different countries, it used to be “Hi5.” But Facebook surpassed all these to become a truly global network.
Facebook now has more than 500 million accounts (and growing) and has become somewhat of a fixture in the lives of many of these millions.
It has also, inevitably, led to a lot of discussions and appraisals. Let’s look at some criticisms leveled against Facebook.
First up is the assertion that Facebook is eroding our privacy.
Don’t we have the choice to put on Facebook what we want to be fairly public or shared with others? What is all this fuss about privacy, then? That maybe governments or other unwanted organisations will access our accounts? They already have the potential to access a lot of info on and off of Facebook. I understand the demand that our personal information be kept safe from states and corporations, but how is that a criticism against Facebook?
I, for one, believe that Facebook should be praised for eroding some of this obsessive “privacy” that is, in reality, reflective of a atomized view of the self that has put so much distance between us and our fellow citizens. All this panic, all this fear about interacting with more people and making bonds between them has just made us more alienated from each other. This is especially true in a North American context, where, I am afraid to let my fellow Canadians know, urban life is practically non-existent. Whatever happened to public spaces where thousands of people can be close to each other every day, without worrying so much about “privacy”?
The second criticism that I usually hear is that Facebook has created a “fake” or “virtual” world and, as a result, people interact less in “real life.” This one seems slightly more plausible. After all, it is not hard to observe that, for many people alienated from our society, the Internet has become a way out; they can spend endless hours at home behind their computers, never truly going through the process of meeting people in real life.
But, when we look at the issue more broadly, this criticism is at best naïve and not a new one in any case. Facebook has made it easier for me to get to know people whom I had previously met in “real life.” Also, it has made it possible for me to be in touch with dozens of my friends all over the world, which would have been impossible otherwise. A few months ago when I visited Britain, all I had to do was to post a status about being there and a swarm of my old friends and classmates contacted back, asking me to come out for a drink. You see, we went on to have drinks in real life with the aid of Facebook. (Much less amusing, though, was my grandmother, online from Iran, complaining about me not visiting some distant relative in Birmingham.)
Facebook has also been used as a strong tool for organizing and mobilization. This, and the problematic nature of some Internet “activism,” is an issue broader than the scope of this article. But can anybody who’s ever done organizing deny that Facebook has made their lives easier? Canadians remember well the mass protests organized against the prorogation of Parliament by the Conservative government that started on Facebook. The most fundamental contribution of Facebook was that it enabled tens of thousands of people to interact with one another and see how their ideas were shared with thousands of others all over the country. This happened right in a public sphere called Facebook.
In the capitalist society in which we live, connecting with people around us is hard because of the emphasis on being singular and individualistic. Online public spheres like Facebook have made it easier to break through these barriers. This is, of course, not enough. More urgently, in this society of private malls and gated communities, we need urban public spheres beyond the Internet. Finally, when we radically alter the foundations of society so that production happens for need and not for profit, social harmony will rise to unprecedented heights and information-sharing tools like Facebook will be put to much better uses.
Meanwhile, feel free to “stalk” me on Facebook. I don’t mind.
Arash Azizi is a member of the U of T New Democrats executive and a co-chair of the Marxist Discussion Club.