Facebook has grown (up)

Ten years ago today I joined Facebook. Then what happened? Quite a lot, it seems. As with any new, successful technology, Facebook has grown from something everybody talks about to something almost as natural to our lives as electricity.

like-1135176_640

In the beginning

To begin with, Facebook membership was for students at select colleges only, but it quickly expanded. I joined soon after Facebook opened up to overseas members. I obviously had to try out this new thing, as I was studying for my MA in Information Science at the time. I was even taking a course on “Web 2.0”, as social media/big data phenomena were dubbed at the time.

Facebook was thought of as a competitor to MySpace, but would quickly surpass it. As early as December 2007, I would reflect publicly [sic]:

fb10_1

History has obviously proved me wrong. Back then, we were all poking each other, even though nobody quite knew what it meant. We were playing games, were restricted to the “is” keyword in our status updates, and there was no Like button.

Who has the most friends?

One of the main attractions at first was amassing friends. Suddenly we had a way of staying connected to old schoolmates we hadn’t seen in years, or stalking the lives of people who were really just acquaintances whom we didn’t bother talking to for real. Adding friends became an obsession for many, myself included.

After three years, I could proudly announce:

fb10-2

Then it stagnated. Somewhat pessimistically, I would reflect one year later:

fb10-3

Today I have 828 friends. I still add new people when I meet them; meanwhile, others leave Facebook (some die), or they delete me as a friend. These days I also delete friends, and have done so with a total of 76 people whom I didn’t actually know very well.

You can learn all this by downloading your complete Facebook history, which is fun in a geeky, narcissist kind of way. Just my thing. This data also let me compile a chart of when I have added friends, which clearly shows an initial burst followed by a long, steady decline.

fb10-4

Facebook is everywhere

Meanwhile, Facebook itself has grown. In numbers: expected to reach a staggering 2 billion users this year. In revenue: to almost $18 billion in 2015. But even more importantly: in how deeply it penetrates our lives.

Everyone is staring at their phone, on the Seoul Metro, Seoul, Korea November 2010

The smartphone revolution has happened within the past ten years, and there was a time where Facebook worried about ad revenue as users shifted from desktop to mobile. Not a worry anymore. We all check Facebook on our mobile devices, wherever we are. And Facebook are making a ton of money.

In my experience, the news feed itself has become less and less interesting. Honestly, it’s full of clickbait (or fake) news, angry people, and ridiculous videos. Maybe this was always the case, but the volume has multiplied.

On the other hand, it is difficult to avoid the big blue world. Already in 2010, I mused in this blog post about what would happen if we were suddenly without Facebook.

I could check for updates less frequently, but by bailing out completely I would worry about missing important news about friends (in my phase of life, that means especially newborns and weddings), event invitations, and life in general. Not really an option.

And despite some privacy concerns and sub-par user experience, Messenger has become a de facto standard for communication.

Not just fun and games

Amid all the fun, Facebook has also lost its innocence. Any respectable business is present there, presumably interacting with customers and making money. It is also the medium of choice for many politicians, including in my home country of Denmark, but also in less democratic regions, used by jihadists, revolutionaries, and others.

32183194-b955-4167-98b9-a598c510e45eFacebook has an immense power in how it handles content, and how it doesn’t. This became apparent last year when they censored the Norwegian PM posting a historic photo from the Vietnam war.

Especially in Europe, Facebook has come under fire for allowing bullying, hate speech, and other malicious posts. So far, Germany has gone the farthest in trying to rein in the giant, but others are following suit. In an effort to win the hearts and minds of policymakers, Facebook is starting to take the battle against fake news (somewhat) seriously. In times where elections may be decided by hackers and fake news, this is serious business.

This is all a far cry from the fun and games which started it all ten years ago. I will remain a user, not because I love Facebook, but because it does offer networking opportunities to which there is no real alternative.

I might have made a good gay

What does it mean to be a man? With rising equality and changing gender roles, this is an increasingly difficult question to answer.

I was never the stereotypical male. I’ve never cherished the macho role for myself, and I’ve usually found any attempts at all-male bonding activities boring, at best. I enjoy music, cooking, and gardening. And I’ve often preferred female company, being the ‘listener’ and forming deep friendships with girls, not boys. I even attended the bachelorette party of a close friend (and no, not as a ‘hired help’).

Some would say that ‘girly’ attributes like these are kind of gay. Hence the question, would I have made a good gay?

I’m not, as you might have guessed. It’s as simple as determining that any physical attraction on my part is directed towards women. End of story. Other attributes also count in disfavour; I’m not particularly ‘metrosexual’, nor am I an avid carnival fan of any kind.

The bigger point I’m trying to make here is that the stereotypes don’t work. They don’t work for straight men, and I don’t believe they work particularly well for gay men either. I suspect that if you were not the Mardi Gras type, but more of a shy, introvert gay, these events and their role in the public imagination would have made coming out even more difficult than it was already.

During my lifetime, homosexuality has entered a new era of normalcy. One part of this is the important question of legality: a journey from being outlawed, punishable by death; to branded as disease; to grudgingly accepted; to legally recognized marriage and adoption.

Another issue is how queers are portrayed by the public. When I was growing up, making fun of gays was still OK, and while vulgar at times the jokes were essentially not yet politically incorrect. Homosexuals were the butt of many a joke (pun intended), and for sure nobody wanted to be gay (sometimes including, sadly, even those who were).

Things were slowly changing in the 90’s and 00’s, though. A classic Seinfeld episode from 1992 repeated the memorable quite “Not that there’s anything wrong with that”, illustrating how people wanted to accept, but couldn’t, yet.

Soon we would see movies with gay lead characters, but they were still defined by their sexuality, centred around being gay, instead of having an unrelated plot where some people happen to be gay, just as others happen to have red hair.

Imagine asking a redhead, “So you have red hair – what’s that like? Has it been difficult for you?” The ultimate test of normalcy is when something is no longer worth discussing. And we’re slowly getting there, at least in Denmark.

It’s not quite the same in the rest of the world, unfortunately. The second UN Human Rights Council report, released in 2015, lists a number of discriminatory practices and concludes: “the overall picture remains one of continuing, pervasive, violent abuse, harassment and discrimination affecting LGBT and intersex persons in all regions.”

For this reason, sadly, I am happy to be heterosexual. And I could add that I am also lucky to be a white male living in one of the world’s richest countries. That doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing. Let’s call an end to stereotyping and judging, shall we?

Wars of Misinformation

The presidents of Turkey and America are using the oldest trick in the book to offset their personal insecurity. And it is probably working.

pinocchio-970x545.jpg

“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.” Sun Tzu

We all recall the infamous Irqai information minister Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who blatantly and hilariously continued to deny that Saddam Hussein’s regime was coming to an end.

“There are no American infidels in Baghdad. Never!” he said. And on another occasion: “The American press is all about lies! All they tell is lies, lies and more lies!”

Fake news

Something you would expect from an enemy – but what about the sitting president in a democratic country?

Donald Trump’s attacks on the press are more than just shouting. They are a very effective example of deflating your opponents’ arguments. Fake news is a real problem, and the phenomenon might have been a contributing factor to his election. But by labelling real news as fake news, the incentive to attack fake news is diminished, because he is muddling the picture.

Who’s the terrorist now?

In Turkey, President Erdogan has just won a huge victory in securing power to himself, and limiting democratic restraints. But this has only increased his tendency to rebuke any criticism. His Nazi comparisons and name-callings have not ended. Rather he stooped as low as branding Nikolaj Villumsen, a Danish MP monitoring the election, a ‘terrorist’.

Danish PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen was quick to call out the accusation, adding to the international pressure rightfully placed on Turkey these days.

This is not child’s play

Name-calling your enemies is a classic strategy, and something informed and well-educated citizens ought to see through. Heck, it even features in children’s literature. I’ll give you two examples:

In C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, the final instalment in the Chronicles of Narnia, a monkey conspires to present a fake Aslan (the creator-Deity lion) who issues orders that destroy the nation. Our heroes discover that the fake Aslan is in fact a donkey in disguise, but before they have the chance to call the bluff, the monkey himself announces that an impostor has been found, and the real Aslan will show himself no more. Thus they have nothing to gain by showing the impostor. “She understood the devilish cunning of the enemies’ plan. By mixing a little truth with it they had made their lie far stronger.”

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge is faced with the news that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has returned. In denial and/or out of fear, however, he instead launches a smear campaign against the sources, Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore, branding them as nutters and liars.

We should not fall for this. More importantly, leaders in free societies should not stoop to this level. It is a sign of weakness and fear not worthy of a leaders.

One might add: “If you want to know what a terrorist looks like, Mr. Erdogan, you should look in a mirror.”

How Swede it is…

In a little while, I will compare the King of Sweden to Donald Trump. And not in a flattering way.

trump_gustav

Hang on, wasn’t there a line in a song about him?

She had a dream about the King of Sweden // He gave her things that she was needin’

Who would have thought that Cab Calloway was being prophetic when he wrote Minnie the Moocher back in 1931?

Scandinavian socialism

Scandinavia has attracted the attention of left-leaning politicians in the U.S. for a while. The ‘social democratic’ generous welfare states inspired both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and some of their supporters.

While the attention is flattering, it is also not entirely true. In the book Debunking Utopia, Nima Sanandaji – who migrated from Iran to Sweden as a child – argues successfully that the success of Scandinavia is due more to culture and homogeneity than to generous welfare; in fact, the success of these countries was in place before the mushrooming of welfare, and was severely hampered when public spending was at its highest, in the 70s and 80s.

The threat of immigration

Furthermore, he argues that the welfare system, especially in Sweden, is under threat by heavy immigration. It is no wonder that large swaths of refugees (like Minnie the Moocher) would flock to the place where the King gives you the things you need. But immigrants actually fare and integrate better in America, where the incentive to work is higher.

In Denmark, immigration and integration of foreigners has been on the political agenda for decades. But in neighboring Sweden, the discussion was ignored, explains Sanandaji: “Being against open borders became synonymous with being a racist. […] favoring open borders was the only legitimate political view in the country.”

The only political party who attempted to raise the issue, was ignored by the political elite. As were the issues, such as crime and financial strains. Gang violence and shootouts have been significantly higher in Swedish cities than in Denmark and Norway, for instance. And more and more people have become wary of the situation.

Of course there is a case to be made for the humanitarian cause of helping people in need. But ignoring the costs – monetary, and societal – in the name of political correctness is ridiculous.

Trump and the King

So when Donald Trump mentioned problems in Sweden last week, some were quick to dismiss him as making up things again. It also didn’t help that Fox News featured as expert a ‘Swedish defence and national security advisor’ that nobody in Sweden had heard of.

But Trump-bashing aside, international media did start looking into Sweden and found that their rosy image did not hold true any longer.

And that’s when King Carl XVI Gustaf entered the debate. “Without media that works seriously and carries out good criticism of its sources, that doesn’t work,” he said. Fair enough.

But he went further than that: “It is important to present the good examples. There are so many positive developments.”

With all due respect, Your Highness, that is not within your mandate. Dictating what the media should and should not report on is exactly what Trump has been doing the last month. And while his attacks are more brash, the danger is the same. People in power should never interfere with the press, no matter their agenda.

William McRaven, a retired Navy SEAL, recently called out Trump’s attacks on the press, calling them “the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime”.

I agree. More than ever before we need a free press, with investigative reporting that highlights real issues and challenges prevailing sentiments and political correctness. In Sweden, as well as in America.

The Internet has not made us more democratic

Social media made Obama president, but also Trump. So much for digital revolution.

Everyone likes to think they are unique. That their struggles and ideas are somehow different from everyone else’s. And every generation likes to imagine that they are not just incrementally different from their parents, but the first in a new era of enlightenment.

Most of them, however, are not. The Age of Aquarius was a fad. The collapse of the Soviet Union did not give us lasting world peace. Postmodernism is an interesting label, but no more than a label (in the words of Bruno Latour, “we have never been modern”). Millenials, post-millenials, digital natives, what have you.

The internet promised to change things radically. In some ways, of course, it has. We do things differently than before, with instant access, self-service, and always-on connectivity. But the inner fabric of what makes us human, alas, has not really changed. And the results fall short of the naïve dreams of 15-20 years ago.

Social media doesn’t make people better

Everyone his own editor, was the promise. Blogging was the tool that gave common people a voice (I was one of them). Finally, the though monopoly of established media was challenged. And for oppressed people, here was the way out; the means to breaking the power of their authorities.

There were many flaws in this dream. First of all, there is a reason that so few people were previously represented in the media: The rest were simply not worth listening to. As it turns out, bigots and complainers are still bigots and complainers, and now they are annoying more than just their families and friends.

Secondly, not all people have good intentions. Instead of spurring utopia, the ‘digital revolution’ has brought out both good and bad in people. Just like every technological development before it. Protesters in the Arab Spring used social media. So does Al Qaeda and ISIS. New ways of congregating also means new ways of monitoring. The Great Firewall of China has been quite successful in making sure the rise of digital media did not jeopardize the power of the ruling elite.

As any early joiner of Facebook will remember, what used to be a place to meet your friends has now become a giant marketplace where more or less dubious brands compete for your attention. Savvy (young) users flee to the refuge of alternatives such as Snapchat, but it is only a matter of time before companies will all come there as well, repeating the process.

Finally, anywhere people gather, so will would-be criminals. The greater the potential, the more hackers, spammers, phishers, fake news publishers, and worse. Raise security, and their means will grow more sophisticated to match the challenge. Just like superheroes spawn super-villains (illustrated perfectly by Batman).

Have you thanked your editor today?

What the world needs now, more than ever before, is good editors. There are ideas which are not worth promoting, and individuals whose rants should not so easily be given an audience.

Social media have ‘democratized’ mainly in the sense that we can avoid views we disagree with, encouraged by algorithms that favor more of the same. Fake news have exploited this trend. And by playing to the lowest denominator of clicks and likes means that the media have outplayed their role of challenging people in power and become just as partisan as the politicians themselves.

Governments taking control of the media used to be a big cause of worry, but the dilemma may have become a moot point. If Donald Trump preaches to the choir on Twitter and discredits any critical questions from mainstream media, he circumvents the dilemma. He doesn’t need to shut down the independent media, like Putin and Erdogan have done. He can bypass them altogether and undermine their role and trust without any formal actions against them.

The only way to stop this destruction would be to close down Twitter entirely. Which is probably not going to happen. One thing that history has taught us is that we cannot turn back time.

How do you explain hygge?

Hygge is everywhere these days. The English-speaking world has embraced this Danish/Scandinavian concept with a fervour. So when a friend of mine, who writes for an Australian magazine, told me she was doing a piece on hygge, I was not entirely surprised. She wanted input from a real Danish person, and I was only happy to oblige.

These are her questions, and my answers:

Is hygge a real thing in Denmark, or is it just something made up by marketers who tell us it’s from Denmark?

Hygge is definitely real. The trouble with defining it is that for us Danes it’s ubiquitous. Just as fish cannot see water, we don’t really ponder the meaning of hygge until we have to explain it to a foreigner.

If it’s a real thing, what is your opinion of it?

Although difficult to define, it is something that sets us apart. Not that other people don’t know how to have a good time, but they probably do so less vigorously. A common joke is that Danes wouldn’t be any good in war; we would stop to sit down and eat way too often.

Do you “practise” it? And if yes, how and why? If no, why not?

Paradoxically for the marketers, real hygge is not about buying stuff. The marketing version is, at best, 50% true. It’s more about being in the moment. You set the scene for that moment with anything you like. Any combination of mood lighting, background music, entertainment, some form of comfort food (or drink), and good company. Indoors or outdoors. We tend to stay inside a lot because of the climate, but in my opinion a traditional Aussie barbecue would in fact qualify.

Finally, how do you pronounce the word?

The difficult part as a native English speaker is the first vowel, which doesn’t exist in English. If you know other languages, however, you’ll find it’s the same sound as in German süss, French tu, or Mandarin yuan. The double g is hard, as in goat, and the final e is an unstressed vowel, like the second syllable in Brisbane. Now you try.

I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but I hope my contribution will help the readers understand some of the ups and downs. Danish readers may find more thoughts (in Danish) in this post from 2011.

The End of Politics

America finally had its anti-establishment political breakthrough.

U.S. CapitolAfter Donald Trump’s surprise win last night, the world is rightfully shocked and scared. How could a person like that rise to power in the world’s most powerful country? But while Trump is uniquely American, his election follows a trend which has marked other parts of the world for years, even decades.

Yes, the man is jerk, a bully, and an idiot; the type of guy you would hate in school, knowing that he might have his way back then, but he would never succeed in life. Except sometimes they do.

But despite all that, Trump represents something else: he is not a politician. His anti-establishment platform has hit a nerve with millions of voters who are fed up with bureaucracy, career politicians, and inside deals. For that, they have apparently been willing to accept an incredibly high number of personal flaws.

We have seen the anti-establishment trend play out in Europe for a while. Right-wing parties such as UKIP in the UK, Front National in France, or the Danish People’s Party in Denmark are all testament to this. And just look at Duterte in the Philippines.

At the last Danish election, in 2015, voters in droves (myself included) supported new-ish, anti-establishment parties on all sides of the political spectrum. More than anything else, I interpret that election as a quiet uproar of people fed up with the ruling classes. The enlightened elite had all become the same, congratulating themselves on their one version of the truth, reading the same newspapers, hardly venturing out of the capital. But by focusing inwards, this elite became blinded by their own know-it-all attitude, ignoring real problems facing large portions of the population.

So if you thought the worst that could come of voter fatigue was falling electoral participation, think again. The vacuum left by the blinded elite is paving the way for protest parties and politicians across the globe. Trump is the latest in that chain. And of course the Americans had to take it to the extreme.