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by Louisa Clarence-Smith
“You are not their client, you are their product” said U.S. Senator Al Franken, refering to Facebook in a speech last month at the U.S. Capitol. His words echo the concerns of millions of Facebook users over the startling amount of personal information that Facebook holds. (If you’ve never really thought about it, this video will give you an idea). Media revelations about the transmission of users’ information to advertising servers and Facebook’s determined campaign to make people’s profiles public, means that most users must consciously choose to sacrifice privacy for the privilege of an extended network.
Founder Mark Zuckerberg brands Facebook as a service “giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected”. And for the citizens of China, Saudi Arabia and Iran, a Facebook account is a badge of freedom in the face of government attempts to control internet activity. But Western Europe and the USA are witnessing a growing dissidence from Facebook users who question the nature of a service aimed at dominating the World Wide Web.
For Maria Rovira, 21, a student at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain, Facebook’s accumulation of her personal information was one concern which provoked her to close her account last month:
“You are putting a lot of information about yourself out there. Ok, you can keep your information from people who aren’t contacts, but if you close Facebook – a day, week, month or year later when you re-open it, all your information will be there. Facebook is a very important information resource for markets and I don’t want to participate. A bit of privacy, please.”
I write in the wake of the Guardian’s widely-publicised interview with Google co-founder and competitor Sergey Brin, who points out that the “open standards” upon which Facebook prides itself are standards reserved for use within the Facebook circle. He criticised Facebook for not allowing users to export contacts, making it inconvenient to adopt alternative networks, and for preventing Google from indexing user content.
Alongside political attempts to restrict internet activity and Hollywood’s efforts to introduce legislation which would force pirate websites to be shut down, Brin cites Facebook as a serious threat to the future openness of the internet; proceeding to declare that he would not have been able to create Google in the Facebook-dominated web environment which exists today.
In an accompanying letter to Facebook’s submission of its initial public offering (IPO) documents in February 2012, Zuckerberg denied the profit motivation of the company: “Simply put: we don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services.”
However, in launching the company onto the stock market he has implicitly made it subject to the demands of rapid profit return and perpetual growth. Disguised as a media-sharing tool, Facebook’s easily-embedded “Like” button is fast-becoming the primary method of collating user-information. So as more people sign up and stay logged in while they surf, Facebook reaps the benefits in advertising revenue and is fast-approaching a $100 billion dollar valuation.
The contradictory nature of Facebook’s “sharing” philosophy is not the only reason why a band of account-holders are bucking the trend. For Hannah Clarke, 21, a student at Edinburgh College of Art, Scotland, closing her Facebook account earlier this year was a reaction to a feeling of disconnection from the people purporting to be her “friends” online.“Instead of actually talking to people I’d look at their profile and feel like I’d caught up with what was happening in their lives”, she explains.
“But really it was just a one-sided form of communication and I kind of forgot that I hadn’t even spoken to them. Since deleting Facebook I keep much more regular and honest contact with the people I want to talk to via phone calls, Skype and emails.”
What started as a free and convenient way to keep in touch with friends and family, is now widely recognised to be a cause of our increasing isolation from the real world. On Facebook, a “friend” is “added” with the consenting clicks of two buttons. But as anthropologist Robert Dunbar argued in a recent study: knowing what someone ate for lunch, what music they listen to and where they work is not enough to constitute friendship; which must be grounded on trust and real shared experiences.
“Facebook stalking” and “Facebook addiction” are just some of the well-understood problems which the network’s system (designed to inspire users to publicise ever-more information), encourages. Maria closed her account after recognising that it was turning her into a voyeur of the lives of people she barely knew:
“Facebook is something which never ends because everyone is continually sharing new information. And you end up looking through the photos of people on the beach who don’t mean anything to you. The thing is that your Facebook contacts are not your friends, they’re everyone.”
“I closed my account the moment I was spending all my free time there (instead of calling a friend, reading, going for a walk, or doing university work) and I had become obsessed with the contents of the pages of friends and family, judging them on the basis of what was published. And that was sad.”
For Rocco Scatamacchia, 28, a law graduate from Rome, Italy, his rejection of Facebook is an expression of his concern that social media could destroy the charm of the chance encounter. Regardless of the convenience of having Facebook, he believes “it is impersonal and devalues personal relationships, making them daily and mundane.”
The Facebook philosophy promotes the modern idealistic thinking that in an internet-connected world, physical distance is no barrier to transnational empathy and friendship. But when a human relationship exists solely on a screen; when a post is restricted by a word limit and communication is sanitised by an odourless, prescribed digital format; in what sense does that contact constitute “friendship”?
Seth Moser-Katz, Extraenvironmentalist podcaster and technophile, points out that by sharing pictures, thoughts and videos, “it is easier than ever to keep an eye on what your friends are up to, keep up on your favorite band or tell a buddy that you are thinking about him.”
Reminders of birthdays and invites to real world events lead Seth to think of Facebook as a virtual form. “It is…democratizing and distilling culture down to its very essence and allowing every single person to have the same opportunity to access and contribute to a virtual world.”
However, recognising the social limitations of virtual “connectivity”, he concedes that new technologies like Google Glass, designed to further merge social networks with daily reality in our “uber-connected world”, will ultimately intensify human isolation.
As Facebook’s tentacles pervade ever deeper into society’s structure, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to resist and set oneself apart. Despite working in media, Rebecca Rolfe, a journalist from North Carolina, has never had a Facebook account.
“What I decided was that it was about identity,” she explains. “Who you are online is a carefully crafted persona. It is a real version of you as you wish it to be…But I want to know the real you.”
You won’t find Rebecca on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Google+ either. “Not being on social media is my attempt to check my voice, to ensure I’m not trumpeting my thoughts without taking proper time to listen to those of others.”
“I want to continue to grow and learn, and for me personally the best places to do that are outside of social media.”
Would you choose to live without Facebook? I know I could. And it might even be in my best interests. But as the powerful means of global communication and organisation it has proved itself to be, I’d rather hang in for the ride.
Ultimately, it’s up to us to make our own choices about how we wish to relate, if at all, to a service which is already a daily experience for 483 million people. You may not consider Facebook to define your friendships, but as more people sign up and it becomes the place to plan parties, share music and co-ordinate mass action, it looks a lot like it could be the most influential shaper of human relations in the future.
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