Pop Stuff: Facebook, Friend or Foe?
Is the glam and glitter of social media really worth forsaking our privacy?
In the Summer of 2007, I had a brief flirtation with Facebook. Idling at work on a slow day in midtown Manhattan, I received an email from a close friend telling me about a recent trip to Goa with our girlfriends. They’d missed me and if only I was on Facebook I’d see all the pictures. Despite my aversion to a social Internet, then the frivolous cousin of email, I caved. Rapt by the phoney excitement of waking up to new friends every day, an addictive precursor to likes being the world’s most important currency, I encouraged everyone I knew to get connected. A few weeks later Facebook and I hit our first road bump. A childhood crush began enthusiastically posting messages on my wall. Pulling the plug seemed easier than navigating privacy controls and as a bonus, restored hours I didn’t have to surf other lives online.
Fast forward a decade and I often feel like I’ve eschewed something as basic as electricity. When Facebook turned 13 two months ago, it had close to 1.9 billion users to celebrate with, almost a quarter of the population, making it the world’s largest distributor of information. Facebook has brought together communities from fishing enthusiasts to cancer survivors. Beyond connection, it has allowed people to build businesses, spawned revolutions and given rise to citizen journalism. Last year, when Philando Castile was shot dead by a police officer, his girlfriend’s Facebook Live broadcast turned a story that would have been muted at best and buried without accountability at worst, into front-page news spurring the shifting narrative around police brutality in the U.S. As the company looks ahead to virtual reality, original content and artificial intelligence, it might well revive empathy, replace TV and manufacture our robo-friends.
And yet every time I feel like I’m missing something, I think about power and privacy and decide that there is something to be said for not having another influential corporation be privy to my preferences and serve up my digital diet. Recent events have done little to change my mind. Facebook has been accused of imperialism, censorship, live streaming human rights violations, manipulating users by altering their news feeds for research and influencing the U.S. election. The company began 2016 in its mission to universally unlock the Internet by providing a curated selection of services, always including Facebook, to people in remote areas of India. The Indian government rejected what whiffed of digital colonialism. Facebook ended the year under a barrage of criticism that a failure to clamp down on fake news, combined with an algorithm placing users in polarizing bubbles, shaped the outcome of the presidential election.
Positive or negative, the enormity of its power makes Facebook appear more empire than corporation, and bestows on its 32-year- old leader a mantle fit for a politician, not a hoodie clad technopreneur. Mark Zuckerberg seems increasingly aware of this. In February of this year, he posted a 6,000-word manifesto for Facebook. Zuckerberg asserted “the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us” and touted “establishing a new process for citizens worldwide to participate in collective decision making.” This sounds like governance, not corporate marketing and the only reason it doesn’t scream Big Brother is that Zuckerberg is a liberal with a cute dog, not a dictator with an iron fist. It’s unclear whether Facebook will encroach on or enhance our freedoms as its escalating clout goes relatively unchecked.
Until we know the answer, I’ll sit on the sidelines and hang on to the illusion of agency.
Soleil Nathwani is a New York-based Culture Writer and Film Critic. A former Film Executive and Hedge Fund COO, Soleil hails from London and Mumbai.