Do we need to be wary of Facebook?

Facebook was founded on 4th February 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg and his Harvard roommates and has since proved to be one of the most successful enterprises in modern history. In January 2014, market estimates valued Facebook at over $130 billion while Zuckerberg’s net worth is estimated at $28.5 billion as of March 2014. What started out as a network for University students in the United States now has over 1 billion members of all ages worldwide. Facebook’s story is quite remarkable. The social media website has come to be a massive part of the modern lifestyle and in years to come we could well be referred to as “the Facebook generation.” Undoubtedly, the success and popularity of Facebook is extraordinary but whether it is a good thing is a different matter.

Before I begin, let me just make the point that Facebook isn’t the only successful social media website and there are many others. For instance, Twitter has also come to be extremely influential. Nevertheless, this piece mainly focuses on Facebook. Maybe it is a stretch to say that Facebook has changed the world but it has certainly made its mark. Facebook has created a global network whereby communication is easy and free. It has rekindled old friendships and makes the prospect of friendships drifting apart less likely. We all know how easy it is to lose contact with people, even people we like, but Facebook makes that less likely to happen. Facebook allows us to share our experiences with friends whether that be wedding photographs or your thoughts on today’s football fixtures, the choice is yours. Facebook has become a hub of social activity online. In a metaphorical sense, it has made the world a smaller place. Facebook is one of many websites where ideas and information are spread with ease and this is certainly a positive phenomenon; the Arab Spring is a prime example of how important the spread of information can be.

Despite the brilliance of Facebook as a social hub, there are several irritating aspects of the culture that has emerged around it. To take one example, my Facebook “news feed” seems constantly clogged up by pictures from the “Lad Bible” and it’s really annoying. This is a Facebook page I have never visited and never “liked” and yet, simply because friends of mine “like” the page, pictures from it are constantly appearing on my “news feed”. A more serious flaw in Facebook culture is how addictive it is. Every day we refer to Facebook at some point, so much so that it has become second nature to us. For example, when waiting for a train we often pass the time by scouring Facebook pages on our mobile phones and don’t even realise we’re doing it. When you stop to think about it, it’s really quite bizarre and future generations would be right to characterise this generation as one obsessed with social media. “Facebook stalking” is quite a common phrase used in modern terminology whereby people “stalk” other Facebook users and can gather a remarkably accurate view of their daily lives. When you think about it, Facebook presents a window into how we live and that really is a disturbing thought.

There are other elements of the Facebook culture that sit rather uncomfortably with some observers. Indeed, the concept of Facebook would not be completely alien to George Orwell’s world in 1984. The cyber-society that Facebook has created is unprecedented in human history and in many respects that is a good thing. However, when I first signed up to Facebook I was gripped by the feeling that I was sacrificing my privacy. Depending on how you see it, Facebook is intrusive and perhaps it is getting more intrusive. When I log on now, pictures of people I have never met or even seen before appear on my “news feed” because a friend of mine has commented on the photograph. In “groups” on Facebook not only can you see comments made by people but also who has “seen” such comments and the same is true of Facebook chat. Most of the time this simply passes me by but on reflection, the connotations of this are really quite unsettling. The Orwellian analogy now seems a bit closer to home. The thought of “Big Brother” scouring through the Facebook archives is an unpleasant one but one that doesn’t seem entirely beyond the realms of possibility. You might say that this view is a bit extreme. Indeed, we live in a modern democracy not a dictatorship. Facebook is only a website and certainly not run by a government. Nevertheless it is important to be wary of just how influential it has become and appreciate the importance of information in modern culture.