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What can we learn from 20 years of Facebook?

Twenty years ago, Facebook was a small social networking platform for university students. Today, one third of the world has a profile. What's the secret to its enduring and widespread appeal?

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Since Facebook’s inception twenty years ago, it’s swollen from a small, college networking platform to the world’s largest social media site, hosting more than 3 billion users.

Its founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has guided its pitfalls and success, with his life being explored in a new feature-length documentary to mark the anniversary. While the original platform may be greying slightly, how have these years shaped its users, and what does it tell us about the future? 

The driving vision of Facebook has, among other things, been borderless, social connections – and this has no doubt been the main appeal for many users. The platform has allowed people to extend their social reach, share and store pictures over the years (its chronicled my own life better than any physical albums), and given a sense of connection to those we love but seldom see. Its also allowed people to discover or find interest groups on everything imaginable and has often been a force for good in helping to raise money and awareness for causes.  

 However, the platform also exerts subtle but significant control over our thought lives, from redefining the word ‘friend’ (which now extends way beyond the Dunbar number) to deciding what counts as news and who should see it. Its been used to help swing elections, sometimes scandalously, as well as arguably fomenting revolutions, and facilitating the spread of misinformation. Its also eroded our sense of privacy, as Harvard Professor and author Shoshana Zuboff pointed out, it ushered in an age of ‘surveillance capitalism’, where algorithms are trained on target marketing, confirming the adage ‘when the product is free, you’re the product’. 

It’s difficult to consider the above without realising that we’ve ceded some prime bits of human real estate to Zuckerberg; in a sleight of hand, we’ve traded control of some of our sacred spaces. And yet, most of us know this, it’s not news – so what keeps so many of us faithful Facebook users? That it’s highly convenient would be one part of the answer, though is it also because social networking platforms like Facebook tap into some of our basic human needs? Perhaps the success of Facebook is that it calls to our fundamental desire to be seen, known, and loved. 

Facebook seems to speak to this need in some plausible ways: offering us a window into our circle of loved ones, sharing our virtual lives with them, and having those lives endorsed and applauded. It appears to be scratching that itch we have for connection and love; that’s what keeps us there – but how well does it deliver? The fact that depression and anxiety have grown with social media usage suggests that when we ask social media to meet deep human needs, it can only offer a pale imitation. 

The Italian philosopher Franco Berardi makes a helpful distinction between ‘connectivity’ and ‘sensitivity’. Connectivity is the rapid circulation of information around compatible units, i.e. likes and shares from like-minded people. Sensitivity is an in-person encounter where something is understood and both parties leave having learned something. On this point, the American sociologist Sherry Turkle said in her TED talk that “we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection” (TED talk, 2012). In a world dominated by connectivity, Berardi suggests that we lose our ability to make sense of ourselves and one another. 

Perhaps it’s not only shallow connections that are troubling. Facebook, and social media more broadly, also tend to make us acutely self-focused. The American sociologist Charles Cooley said at the start of the last century, “I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am”. Maybe give that sentence another read. Social media profiles are curated to betray an image to others, one that can be dissonant with the realities of life (we’re generally less attractive and less on holiday). Obsessing about how others perceive you can bring with it a profound sense of unhappiness; unfortunately, this is often a consequence of the way Facebook is used.  

 Problems can occur when we look to social media for a sense of value. Happiness and fulfilment come through genuine connections that take us out of ourselves. The Bible tells us that we were made for communion with God and with others and that looking elsewhere for satisfaction is a quick route to mischief and misery. Perhaps that’s a key learning point from the last twenty years – Facebook is a powerful and convenient piece of tech, but its bound to disappoint when we unwittingly expect it to meet our deeper human yearnings. 

 

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