Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Anti-Social Network

If you find credible the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network,” the world’s biggest social network was founded by someone whose relationship to society is ambivalent and rocky:

  • He can’t relate to other people, but he can create programs that they will want to use
  • He can’t handle rejection, but he can create a program that lets everybody be included in some way
  • He is obsessed with an isolated activity, computer programming, but the programs he creates involve connecting people together
  • He is angry at the limitations society has artificially placed on technology, but he forms a group to create a product that will overcome those limitations
  • He is deceptive to those around him, but is also brave enough to tell truth to power
  • He believes himself superior to the powers that be, but on the other hand is pained by a sense of inferiority and rejection

Perhaps the most prominent characteristic of Zuckerberg as portrayed in the movie is that he is so casual about other people’s feelings. It’s not that he doesn’t care, but he seems to care so weakly, literally leaving his best friend and business partner out in the rain at midnight after he’s traveled across the country to join him in California.

The movie is unauthorized but the story resonates with things we know to be true:

· Zuckerberg has indeed created the world’s most popular social utility. Facebook is used by more than 500 million people—effectively 1 in 14 people around the world. This is more than a trend, it’s a tidal wave.

· Zuckerberg is a private person. A profile with The New Yorker magazine published in September 2010 contains the following anecdote: “Despite his goal of global openness, however, Zuckerberg remains a wary and private person….Backstage at an event at the Computer History Museum, in Silicon Valley, this summer, one of his interlocutors turned to Zuckerberg, minutes before they were to appear onstage, and said, ‘You don’t like doing these kinds of events very much, do you?’ Zuckerberg replied with a terse ‘No,’ then took a sip from his water bottle and looked off into the distance.”

· Facebook is either insensitive to users’ need for privacy, or has a not-so-subtle agenda to eradicate it. As one developer writes, “Over the past couple of years, the default privacy settings for a Facebook user's personal information have become more and more permissive…part of Facebook's effort to correlate, publish, and monetize their social graph: a massive database of entities and links that covers everything from where you live to the movies you like and the people you trust.” In response, there continues to be extensive controversy over Facebook’s privacy practices, including the time in 2009 when, as David Kirkpatrick notes inThe Facebook Effect,” the company “renovated its privacy controls,” and in the process “set the default setting on new controls to ‘everyone.’” This “opt-out” approach disturbed many, as did the seeming need of users to have a Ph.D. in privacy to manage what was at one time an incredibly complicated privacy management process, involving 50 settings and more than 170 options—now significantly consolidated.

It is perhaps the last point that I find most troubling in my capacity as a social observer and social media and marketing strategist. As a publicity tool, Facebook makes great sense because a business is not personal—the goal is to “personify” the organization so that others can connect to it. As a personal networking device, however, there is no way (as on LinkedIn) to distinguish between your personal and professional lives. Everyone you know, everything you do, is in a database under the same account. It is almost as if someone is architecting a site that forces you to have no barrier, no boundary, between who you are at work and who you are at home. This represents a significant shift in American social norms.

Of course you have a choice about joining Facebook as well as how much information you put on there, if you choose to join. Yet if “everybody” is on the network, and you are judged by potential employers and even potential mates by how many friends you have and who those friends are, how much choice do you really have?

The reality is, because there are so many people are on Facebook, and because it has such credibility among formal social institutions (who join it and establish pages), there is tremendous social pressure to join in and share information that in the past you never would have made so readily available for all to see.

As Clara Shih points out in “The Facebook Era”:

“Before the Facebook Era, people didn’t share openly like this….it might have taken months or even years to discover….the breadth and depth of information that today is readily shared in a semipublic view in social networking sites….Today not only is it socially acceptable to share aspects of our identity on Facebook…but it has become expected that we do so….Facebook has become a sort of directory of everyone on the internet….(and) not to be on Facebook altogether is to risk being left behind.” (pp. 32-34)

And yet Zuckerberg disingenuously claims that Facebook is doing nothing more than innocently responding to social norms, and hasn’t had any role in creating them. Asked to discuss privacy online in a January 2010
interview with, he stated: “We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and updating our system is to reflect what the current social norms are.”

Facebook’s true agenda—to, in effect, eradicate the concept of privacy—is admitted by Dave Morin, a “member of Zuckerberg’s inner circle” who is quoted in The Facebook Effect. In the book, he is quoted as saying: “Our mission since day one has been to make society more open. That’s what it’s all about, right? We help people be more open across more contexts. I think they have to worry less all the time about being who they actually are.”

And they are open. Every day, users routinely input their thoughts, photos, videos, comments, religious affiliation, relationship status, political affiliation, and many other pieces of personal information including their location. I can’t imagine people being forced to do this, and yet Facebook has managed to make them want to.

If Sorkin’s portrayal of Zuckerberg is at all accurate, it is not odd at all that on Facebook people routinely “friend” people who are not really their friends, but who are only technological approximations of friends. Who don’t have real “sympathy,” “empathy,” “honesty,” “understanding,” “trust,” “emotional support,” etc. for you at all.

Women in particular should be concerned about giving away their personal information on Facebook. Every year, more than 1 million women are stalked (versus 350,000 men). It is also estimated that 1 in 20 women will be stalked at least once in their life. And 75% of the time, when people are stalked, it is by someone they know.

Further, Facebook promotes a culture of casual relationships that can easily cross the line into crimes against women. According to a study sponsored by the Department of Justice, 1 out of every 4 college women will be either raped or victims of attempted rape before graduation. In addition, women aged 16 to 24 are four times as likely to be raped as women in any other age group. Moreover, “the attacker is usually a classmate, friend, boyfriend, ex-boyfriend or other acquaintance (in that order),” as one recently published article on the study notes.

In addition—of concern for both women and men—as Facebook has rocketed to nearly universal use in the U.S., marriage rates, especially among young adults, have steeply declined. As was recently widely reported, today only 52% of all adults (age 18+) are married, and for the first time it is more likely that someone age 25-34 will be single than married—just 45% are, vs. 55% in 2000. Is this an accident? Facebook which promotes an approximation of friendship and the ongoing revelation of extremely personal information, and marriage is about a sacred and private bond between two people.

The real heroine of “The Social Network” is Erica Albright – the girlfriend who breaks up with Zuckerberg just before he starts Facebook. Erica is portrayed as a multidimensional, balanced person who is fair and has integrity as well as a balanced view toward life. While I appreciate the genius that went into Facebook, I wish that more of her (or that character’s) influence were currently present in it.

Posted via email from Think Brand First