2014 was a mixed year for the unavoidable behemoth that is Facebook, celebrating its 11th birthday on the 3rd February. On the one hand, they acquired WhatsApp and Oculus VR, the latter of whom’s eponymous Oculus Rift is a virtual reality headset and at least looks to be worth paying attention to in the near future. On the other, they forked out $19bn for a glorified messenger app and $2bn for an emergent tech that they risk making toxic to the developer community that sustains it by association, now that it seems owned by ‘The Man’ and not the cool outsider tech that caused so many to rush to support it. They may have ended the year sitting pretty on an Alexa website popularity rank of 2, just under google.com, and around 1.23bn active monthly users, but growth is slowing and word of mouth is that the all-important teen demographic are starting to drift towards alternatives such as Snapchat, which Facebook tried, unsuccessfully, to buy for $3bn last year. They’ve done a poor job breaking into the huge Chinese and Russian markets, and revelations this year about Facebook’s complicity in NSA snooping, amongst other things, have dented the belief in benevolent Father Facebook.
Anyone who has seen The Social Network can skip this paragraph, but for anyone who hasn’t (and would like to be spared) read on for an abridged history of Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg, Harvard sophomore, writes Facemash in 2003, a program that collates (hacked) photos of his fellow students and compares them, inviting the user to vote for the hotter of the two. One inexplicably-avoided expulsion later and he produces [thefacebook] in 2004, a Harvard-only precursor to the Facebook we know and tolerate today. Three Harvard seniors accuse Zuckerberg of stealing their ideas and initiate a lawsuit that won’t be settled until 2008. Zuckerberg assembles a crack team of nerds and expands to universities beyond Harvard within a month. In mid-2004, Sean Parker (co-founder of Napster) joins the crew and the 2005-renamed Facebook begins slurping up investments. In late 2006, Facebook is fully opened to the public. More legal trouble ensues as co-founder Eduardo Saverin and Zuckerberg sue each other, settling out of court in deals covered in non-disclosure contracts. In 2012, Facebook stock goes public and breaks a bunch of initial valuation and trading volume records, ending up as a bit of a disappointment by the end of the day’s closing.
That’s all well and good, but I will leave the trials and tribulations of Facebook, Inc. for the domain of business students to analyse; my experience of A-Level Business Studies has put me firmly out of that camp. The social side of things is more interesting. I described Facebook as unavoidable in the first line, and I didn’t mean it lightly. I know of only one person who doesn’t have a Facebook account, and even then there still exists one in their name that is managed by a group of their friends (it’s not pretty). I’ve met people who can only access their Facebook accounts via or internet cafés, and my Chinese flatmates all had accounts in no time. It’s so ubiquitous that, much as Google and Photoshop before it, it’s now a verb in both the Macmillan and Urban dictionaries, and it’s now acceptable to use “friend” as a verb and “like” as a noun. The prescriptivists must be tearing their hair out. With such penetration, how has Facebook changed things over the past decade, and more importantly, has it been for the best?
There’s no denying that Facebook is a massively useful tool for staying in touch with people across vast distances, physical or otherwise. Through it, I keep in touch with everyone; family in America, Norwegians met in the Netherlands and friends from home now part of the uni diaspora. With the creation of an encrypted onion access point last October, coinciding with an unblocking of Tor access, Facebook can also be a potential field for organising events under oppressive regimes (think of how instrumental the media touts Twitter, et al. were in 2010’s Arab Spring) and whistleblowing (Snowden, Manning, etc.). Facebook’s certainly doing its bit to make the world a whole lot smaller, in the best way possible.
However, with any yin comes yang, and Facebook has caveats in droves. Though Facebook makes it possible to stay in touch with people far and wide, email’s been doing that since 1971. Though the Tor support was nice of them, but slip-ups such as Snowden’s revelations that Facebook were in bed with GCHQ and the NSA, Facebook’s decision to take down Russian protest events at the behest of the Kremlin, the drag queen-angering real name policy and the emotional contagion study suggest that perhaps Facebook shouldn’t be trusted with anything more sensitive than a relationship update or photo of food. Though Zuckerberg may have signed the Giving Pledge, he sticks everything in Dublin to avoid tax.
There are also effects that Facebook’s existence is having on people’s ability to socialise, which are either worrying or alarmist, based on your persuasion. Young people slowly losing the ability to communicate face-to-face may fall more into the latter category, but people losing jobs due to an unfortunately-tagged photo is a very real issue; for example, the teacher from Georgia who was fired after a parental complaint about a photo of her with a glass of wine. It’s a fine illustration of Seinfeld’s Worlds Collide Theory, but there’s now no easy way to keep them separate.
So, Facebook. It’s certainly a mixed bag: a useful tool for keeping in touch, but only the current favourite in a long line of such tools; a place for businesses to seem down-to-earth to consumers, but end up buying artificial likes; a site that generates year-in-review videos for new year’s, then includes photos of people’s late loved one’s. However, with care (and a load of browser extensions), it can certainly be suffered through until the Next Big Thing comes along.