Like or unlike, we have now hit the 10th anniversary of Facebook. On Feb. 4, 2004, the first incarnation, meant for Harvard students only, launched to confined hoopla. If you’ve seen the great noirish movie “The Social Network,” with its snowbanks and hoodies and betrayals, you know the backstory. I decided to go archival, though, and revisit the Crimson’s coverage.
By today’s light, it’s both creepy and quaint: Facebook now counts a billion-plus users, but its first headline was the humdrum “Hundreds Register for New Facebook Website.” And yes, Mark Zuckerberg’s hauteur is on embryonic display. First he disses Harvard for its inertia with starting its own network: “I can do it better than they can, and I can do it in a week.” Then he says he’s not interested in generating site revenue — because “it would make everything more serious and less fun.” Irony alert!
How can we gauge the psychological, commercial, and political impact wrought by this unparalleled decade of social networks? Certain books have lately tried. Let’s agree we’ve got a moving target here, and dive in with “Facebook and Philosophy: What’s On Your Mind?” (Open Court, 2010). These 23 essays, edited by D. E. Wittkower, truck in Barthes, Sartre, and Foucault, while also pondering what it means to friend your girlfriend’s cat. There are entire think pieces on the implications of the profile picture, the impact of status updates, and the history of gossip.
Some writers see Facebook “as an emerging global village,” others “as isolation in disguise.” Some say it’s a way to maintain relationships; others as a way to “broadcast narcissism.” A recurring theme is how Facebook substitutes sham intimacy for the real thing. In an essay titled “Why I Am Not a Friend,” Mariam Thalos says that the face is “the Ambassador of the Self,” and nothing is more versatile or powerful than facial expression and body language in real life, in real time.
At first I thought, well, why make it either/or? I’m on Facebook, and I also see friends live and in-person. Then again, I’m a cyber immigrant. The natives, like my 14-year-old son and his buddies, unnervingly stare down at their smartphones when they’re together. (But note: They’ve all migrated from Facebook to Instagram.) Sherry Turkle, the MIT guru on how technology affects humanity, frets that cyber natives are “unmoved by . . . authenticity.”
And so it goes in her “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other” (Basic, 2011). Turkle is “a partisan for conversation” and thinks that social network relationships (not to mention attachments to Furbies and “empathic” robots) are “performance[s] of connection.” I agree that people try to front their best selves on social networks. This self-editing is a good thing (nastiness is much less prevalent than on the unfiltered Internet). But it also cloaks our fuller, messier selves. As The Onion headline says, “Facebook Version Of Marriage Going Great.”
There’s more to the social network story than smiling pictures and birthday wishes, obviously. And good news abounds in “The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change” (Wiley, 2010). Authors Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith write, “We are living in a dramatically smaller and more interconnected world” and then offer inspiring case studies. The most moving one traces how umpteen social networks matched South Asian bone marrow donors to help Sameer Bhatia, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with leukemia.
The book also alights on the social media breakthroughs of Kiva, Charity: Water, and the Montana Meth Project, framing each success via four principles (to mimic the four components of dragonfly wings): focus, grab attention, engage, take action. The main takeaway? To advance your cause via social media, be richly personal, be highly visual, be super frequent, and go beyond Facebook and Twitter (to Flickr, Tumblr, and more). The ultimate example here is Barack Obama’s revolutionary use of the medium in his campaigns. Reminder: His hired visionary was Chris Hughes, a cofounder of Facebook.
At this point, the social-media family tree has matured. Indeed, now the origin stories are getting published, and they follow a plotline right out of Genesis: after creation comes expulsion. In Nick Bilton’s “Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal” (Portfolio, 2013) it’s the ouster of Noah Glass who, among other things, gave the site its name. In Ben Mezrich’s “The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook” (Anchor, 2010) it’s the ejection of Eduardo Saverin who, among other things, bestowed Zuckerberg’s seed money. Mezrich’s book gave us “The Social Network.” And Lionsgate just optioned “Hatching Twitter” for TV. You can see why Hollywood called. Both books are written in pungent, cinematic scenes — I could practically see the jump cuts — in somewhat pulp fiction prose.
Their narrative DNA is different, however: Facebook has a smug college boy grounding, while Twitter grew from “anarchist-hacker collective” roots with one founder growing up on food stamps, another on a commune. Still, the crossover in these techno-creation stories is that the expendables are the more socially engaged ones. Many have commented that Zuckerberg exhibits traits tied to Asperger’s syndrome, while Evan Williams, the godfather of Twitter, is known to be socially awkward. (Note: He later got canned too.) The paradox is blatant: Most social media sites were the brainchildren of the antisocial.
Zuckerberg’s oddness, and truly remarkable focus, pulses through “The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World” (Simon & Schuster, 2010). This is a rather pandering affair; author David Kirkpatrick had decent access to Zuckerberg, and you can feel how the CEO converts entrée to co-optation. Still, Kirkpatrick mines great material on Zuck’s symbolic gestures (he starts wearing suit and tie in 2009 because “[i]t’s a serious year”) and eye for acquisition; he buys FriendFeed and repurposes it into FB’s news feed feature. Corporate triumphs (on spectacular company growth) and missteps (on changed privacy settings) are also dissected. Legions of irate posters know the drill here. To quote another Facebook headline from The Onion: “We Will Make Our Product Worse, You Will Be Upset, And Then You Will Live With It.”
It’s a fact that overheated books get attention. Social media is huge! It changes everything! And believe me, it was hard not to feel vaguely ill and Brave New World-ish reading these titles. The goal for the biggest networks, after all, is to broaden and insinuate from mere website to fundamental infrastructure. Never mind selling our information to marketers willy-nilly. In “The Facebook Effect,” one employee puts it thus: “If we open things up slowly over time, we could get to total ubiquity.” OK, OK, I give: Social media has fundamentally altered human communication.
But has the essence been transformed? Or just the scale? For the enlightening long view here, turn to Tom Standage’s “Writing on the Wall: Social Media — The First 2,000 Years” (Bloomsbury USA, 2013). Sure, it’s a bit callow to liken papyrus to Twitter and wax tablets to iPads. But Standage also unscrolls how each enlargement of communication, from Thomas Paine’s pamphlets to Randolph Hearst’s yellow journalism, has kicked up the same tensions: freedom of speech vs. censorship, deepening or coarsening public debate, goading innovation or promoting deception. If you’ve been on social media, you get the concerns of The Worshipful Company of Stationers, in 1641, when printing opened further to the masses: “[E]very ignorant person that takes advantage of a loose presse may publish the fancies of every idle brain.” To which I say: Like. Comment. Share.
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine. firstname.lastname@example.org.