Facebook, Neocolonialism, and the Restructuring of Global Society

Recently, I’ve been working my way through technology expert David Kirkpatrick’s account of the origins and brief history of Facebook, The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World. I highly recommend it. Consequentially, I have been thinking deeply about social networking, its influence on our everyday lives, its role in the public forum, its role as a facilitator and disseminator of knowledge and information, and its place in the future.

Many of us use Facebook on a daily basis, and some of us even utilize the site several times a day. There is, of course, a myriad of reasons for its use: Connecting with old friends. Interacting with current ones. Linking interesting news articles. Playing games. Debating theology. Sharing poetry. Killing time. Making fun of the conservative Right. Comparing the current American political administration to certain socialist regimes of the twentieth century. Facilitating parties, get-togethers, or other events. Declaring one’s attendance (or non-attendance) at the aforementioned events. Bouncing intellectual ideas off of academic peers. Reporting ones consumption of various media (movies, music, books, etc.). The reasons are as numerous as they are diversified. Personally, I use Facebook for several of the those mentioned above.

Some of us like to critique the social-networking giant, and for valid reasons. The time spent on the site by its users is ridiculously high. People admit that it is “addicting,” and many are embarrassed to admit both the number of times they sign on to the site but also the average number of hours that one spends on the site per day. In fact, Kirkpatrick writes, “research firm comScore calculated in late 2009 that the average Facebook user in the U.S.–and there are almost 110 million of them–spends six hours per month on the service.”  I’ve heard critiques–and have also issued them personally–that while Facebook addicts can’t stop meandering through the interconnected lives/pages/groups of their online communities, others are out in the world, the real world, living real lives, doing real things. Some individuals protest their dependence on the site, giving up all Facebooking for Lent in order to spend more time in their “real” relationships, as well as devoting extra hours to prayer, Bible reading, or meditation. Others use the site religiously (double-entendre intended), posting Bible verses, making public prayer requests, creating and/or joining religious “groups.” While people love Facebook, they hate it. They can’t get past the feeling that while it is a miracle of the Information Age that one is able to converse with friends they haven’t seen since high school, these online “friendships” are only partial. They are digital relationships; they are, some might claim, artificial. Some of us feel that Facebook doesn’t genuinely solve the problem of alienation, and might in fact obscure the problem; Facebook makes us feel more connected when in reality we are as isolated as ever. Is Facebook, in fact,  a mirage, a false or artificial sense of community and belonging?

It is easy to criticize Facebook. It is one of the most successful movements the world has ever seen. Mark Zuckerberg is one of the wealthiest individuals alive, and has turned down billion-dollar offers to purchase his company.  And it shows no sign of slowing down. Despite warnings of the American, democratic, and western, nature of Facebook, its international growth has fared impressively. The number of international users now far outrank those of its country of origin.

While all criticisms of Facebook, well, at least the ones that I’ve heard, are important, I think that it can be beneficial to move away from the tree and look at the broader forest. Whether we like it or not, Facebook is a movement that has changed the way the world functions, thinks, and interacts. We feel that this quasi-community, these groups of semi-friendships are only a weak model of the real thing (face-to-face meaningful relationships and dialogue), Facebook as a social network has revolutionized the way globalized individuals interact in a globalized world. While Facebook is a “distant” world, a community that is somewhat “out-there,” or separate from us–in that it procured through electronic and digital means–it directly changes the “here and now,” the “real world,” and everyday life.

Zuckerberg is unswervingly dedicated to the ideal of “radical transparency” of society, something only made possible by the growth of electronic media. Radical transparency, Kirkpatrick implies, is not necessarily a good thing. He reports a number of instances that demonstrate the ambiguity that resides between social-networking (electronic, digital) realities and “real time.” The results can be revolutionary:

  • In Columbia, Oscar Morales created an anti-FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia) Facebook group that ultimately lead to the mobilization of millions of Columbian citizens who prior to the organization of the online group had been too intimidated by the terrorist campaign activities of FARC to do anything about it.
  • On Facebook, a video of the murder of a young Iranian woman was leaked. This video later became a protest symbol of the Iranian government’s oppression of its citizens. Because of this fact, Iranian officials tried to prohibit Facebook usage, but due to the site’s popularity it was a difficult task.
  • In several foreign countries (Kirkpatrick lists Egypt and Indonesia as main examples), Facebook is leading to the destabilization of previously unchallenged structures and traditions; it is “posing challenges to long-standing repressive state institutions and practices. Facebook makes it easier for people to organize themselves.”

Thus, Facebook serves, quite literally in some instances, as the collective voice of the people. Facebook’s democratic ideals combined with Zuckerberg’s ethic of transparency blend together to allow groups of people who link together–sometimes simply by creating a simple Facebook group–to protest injustice. Yet, such a radical transparency also leads to less amiable actions on behalf of Facebook users, the posting of incriminating data:

  • A young professional at a bank was fired from his job when he took time off for “an unexpected family matter” and his supervisors later discovered pictures on Facebook from the day he asked off in which he was partying while wearing a tutu and brandishing a wand.
  • Political candidates have been slandered when embarrassing pictures posted on Facebook are made known to the public (i.e., Obama’s speechwriter Jon Favreau’s incident with the Hillary Clinton cardboard cutout).
  • In England, a prison guard was fired when his superiors discovered he was accepting friend requests from prisoners.
  • At an American high school, certain athletes in a particular Facebook photo, identified by the principal of the school, were suspended. In the picture, they held  clearly-identifiable bottles of beer. Kirkpatrick clarifies that those individuals in the picture holding red plastic cups were given the benefit of the doubt, and only issued a warning.

Through Facebook’s complex data sharing, secrets might be exposed, and privacy violated:

  • A man’s secret Christmas gift purchase for his wife (he claimed)–a 14k White Cold Diamond Eternity Ring–was broadcast across his wife’s News Feed, thus spoiling the surprise. Or planting an unneeded seed of suspicion in his wife’s mind–depending on the way one looks at it. “Who is this ring for?” she texted him.

In other instances, Facebook becomes a beneficial facilitation of economic interaction, a venue where sellers can work directly with their consumers and constituents:

  • “Mazda asked fans of its Facebook page to help it design a car for 2018. Design students from all over the world contributed ideas. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream let people tell the company what its next flavor ought to be. Each time those Mazda or Ben & Jerry’s fans write something on those pages, a message is posted on their profile that goes into friends’ News Feeds. Consumers are sending messages to their friends that benefit the marketer. That’s how the flavor program…enabled Ben & Jerry’s to increase its fans from 300,000 to a million n just six weeks.”
  • Mass Animation, a new film company, produced a film solely through contributions of Facebook users from seventeen different countries.

Sometimes, the confrontation of this democratic transparency of the global, social community with rigid traditions can be tragic:

  • “When a father in Saudi Arabia caught his daughter interacting with men on Facebook, he killed her,” Kirkpatrick reports.

Even the U.S. government is growing to realize the important significance of online social networking communities and are taking steps to be involved at that level:

  • “The State Department [has] started to pay close attention to [Facebook] groups like Young Civilians in Turkey,” a primary communications tool of young “irreverent” types that “prides itself on including Turks of all ethic groups and beliefs.”
  • “Obama so mastered digital tools that some dubbed 2008 ‘the Facebook election.’ Nick Clemons was directro of Hillary Clinton’s successful primary campaign in New Hampshire and several other states. Because of Facebook, he felt at a disadvantage. ‘On the Clinton campaign we definitely feel the difference because Obama was using these tools, he says.”
  • After the election, Facebook has continued to be used by Obama, often streaming press conferences live, and “enabling users to comment in real time with one another next to the event.”

Facebook has recently reached 500,000 million users, placing its number of constituents right up there with estimates of the number of those  that are part of the global Pentecostal movement. It has certainly “connected” us, regardless of how a cynic might describe that connection. But I have so many unanswered questions that it is frustrating: Is globalization inevitable? Does it really make for a better world? Is western, democratic weltanschauung transferable to every society? Should it be? To that effect, is Facebook simply a form of neo-colonialism? Do I really want to live in a transparent society where any item of personal information is accessible with only a email address and password, at least to those estranged acquaintances that I didn’t have the heart to deny “friendship”?

Most of us see Facebook as an innocent social-networking site where we can compete for the number of friends, talk about politics, or let the world know when our babies take their first steps through the uploading of an extensive photo album. It is exciting to be a part of something so big, something so connected, and something so international. And in many ways, that’s all it is. But at a deeper level, the short rise of Facebook from its origins in a Harvard dorm room in 2004 is as  frightening as it is exciting. If there is one thing that Kirkpatrick establishes in his compelling new study, it is that Facebook has transformed global sociality. It has transformed advertising. It has transformed democracy. It has transformed media sharing. The Facebook Effect is irreversible: it has singlehandedly restructured everyday praxis.  When was the last change that wielded so much influence? The invention of the computer? The Internet? The cell phone? The most recent changes in the ever-evolving Facebook world have to do with “Facebook places” for mobile Facebook aps, a program that functions essentially like Foursquare. While a small voice in the back of my mind cries “Orwellian!”, I know that I am not ready to part ways with Facebook, and I like the idea of being able to see where my friends are all of the time. Without it, I would feel so…unconnected.

I still haven’t enabled Facebook Places on my Android smartphone, however, and I’m not sure I will.

Note: All of the information above was taken from The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), especially pages 6, 8, 204-7, 248, 264, 273, 279, 290, 293, 295.