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.

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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]:

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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:

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

‘Shitstorms’ – blowing bad behaviour out of proportions

Two recent examples which went viral in Denmark show how mass hysteria has replaced actually talking to people.

Once upon a time good behaviour was the norm, and if your fellow citizens did something unacceptable it was perfectly fine – expected, even – to let them know when they were out of line. Older generations will still do this, whereas the rest of us have come to fear the consequences of rebuking strangers. A friend of mine, for instance was beat up and robbed a few years ago for having the nerve to ask a fellow train passenger to put out his cigarette. This increasingly publicized raw behaviour has led us to mostly shut up when we see something.

But staying silent is not the same as not caring, as should be obvious to anyone following viral Facebook posts the last few weeks.

Case 1: Parcel delivery service GLS were exposed in this incident on 26 January for rough handling of parcels. Instead of intervening, the bystander chose to film the incident on his mobile and post it on Facebook. Perhaps a wise choice, as one of the employees seems to threaten him once he is discovered.

Case 2: A professional childminder apparently left five children standing unobserved outside a store. Once again a bystander didn’t have the guts to approach her, but posted a photo to Facebook.

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Both stories quickly went viral. In the first case GLS suspended and fired one of the involved parties; in the second the childminder was temporarily suspended, but reinstated after a thorough investigation of the incident.

So it’s not that we don’t care about the behaviour of our fellow citizens; rather it seems we don’t have the guts – for whatever reason – to confront them directly but choose instead to publicly mock them without even giving them the benefit of the doubt. And with our almost morbid fascination with real or perceived injustice, social media fuel collective hysteria in a seemingly endless spiral.

FullSizeRenderI’ll end with my own example from today’s train ride: I could have asked my fellow passengers to take their shoes off the seats. I didn’t bother – instead I took a candid photo to accompany this post and prove the point.