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November 29, 2010

The Facebook Effect: How the Information Age is Changing the Way We Think

The internet has had a profound effect on how humans engage with each other and gain access to new information. From the very first search engines to the emergence of Wikipedia, the amount of knowledge that can accessed within seconds changes the way people perceive the world. The phrase “Google it” has replaced “I don’t know” as the answer to a challenging question and any query can be outsourced to the rest of the globe instantly. But up until recently these online interactions have remained largely impersonal due to the fact all activity was done under pseudonym, or “usernames”. Individuals interacting on message boards or in the comments section of a news website were completely separating their virtual selves from their real lives. Social networks are changing this dynamic and adding new depth to the way the web is used. Perhaps this new “social revolution” will be more influential and revolutionary then the information one experienced in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. The Facebook effect is one authors attempt to follow the creation and development of the globes most prominent social network, Facebook.com.

The book largely focuses on the biographical story of the site’s creator, Mark Zuckerberg, starting from his freshman year at Harvard in 2004 where he began developing the idea. Mark spent a huge portion of his time building new and exciting programing projects. His first, Course Match, was a website that helped Harvard students find out who was in their respective classes. The huge success of the site gave Zuckerberg new insight into the power of social content on the web; students wanted to know what other students were doing. His second experiment was far more controversial, but also more successful. By hacking into various Harvard networks and downloading the pictures that were taken of students at the start of their freshman year (for ID purposes), Zuckerberg complied a website called FaceMash. The program, as the Harvard Crimson newspaper eloquently put, “catered to the worst side of Harvard students.” It placed the pictures of two Harvard students of the same sex next to each other and asked the user to click on whichever was more attractive. The site became a huge success and was shutdown promptly after it almost overloaded the school’s bandwidth.

While these projects were juvenile in some respects and even got Zuckerberg into a fair amount of trouble (he was called in to a disciplinary hearing after the FaceMash fiasco) they served to prove a point: people loved using his software. It wasn’t long before he began forming his ideas for thefacebook.com (the website dropped “the” much later on). Originally the idea came partially due to the empty promises of the prestigious Ivy League he was attending. Harvard had stated multiple times during his freshman year that they intended to unify the various “facebooks” that each house at the school held but had yet to follow through. Zuckerberg wanted to create an online directory that all the students could use to post their information and see others too. The site launched on February 4th, 2004.

Originally the user functionality of Facebook was extremely limited. The first version allowed individuals to friend other users and post information about themselves; that was it. The path to where it is today, with the functionality to play games, install applications, and read your “news feed” (an aggregate stream of all your friends recent activities) has come from an intense six years of expansion, globalization, and investment. Each new feature introduced by Facebook has been heavily scrutinized by its users, and not all of that criticism has been positive.

The growth of Facebook and how it has slowly but surely pushed its user to share more and more information is more than an issue concerning the site, it signals a shift in global culture and the way people view privacy. When Facebook started it was limited to only those with a Harvard.edu email account. It later expanded to other Ivy Leagues, than to all universities, than high schools, and finally opened up to anyone and everyone. Because of the exclusive nature of the site originally, privacy was of little concern. Harvard students felt comfortable sharing information online because they knew that only their peers would  have access to it. This all changed when the site opened up and more importantly implemented new features.

Arguably the biggest shift in the way Facebook was perceived by its users came when it unveiled the “News Feed”. Prior to this add-on, users who wanted to see how a friend was doing would have to go to individual profiles and view them. News feed was Zuckerberg’s attempt to get rid of this annoyance and bring the changes to you instead. Users opened their facebooks on September 5th, 2006 to find a giant wall of updates on their home page, anything from new pictures that were posted by a friend to news that a cousin was no longer single. User instantly revolted. In fact, within the first few hours of its launch, only one out of 100 posts about news feed was positive. People labeled Facebook “stalkerbook” and hundreds of groups propped up on the site. Partially the reason such a strong resistance grew so quickly was because the new format worked so well. Friends saw that their friends had just joined the “Students Against Facebook News Feed” group…by looking at their newsfeed. Initial resistance was strong, but what truly surprised many was how fast it disappeared. People seemed to like the format after giving it time, despite the obvious privacy issues it exposed.

This uprising and subsequent acceptance was the first of many on Facebook. The website has made a name for itself in internet privacy by pushing the limits of what it thinks people should share and what should be protected by privacy controls.  In many senses it is fundamentally changing the way people view their personal information, a topic “The Facebook Effect” goes extremely in-depth about. From the very start Zuckerberg’s goal has been making the world a more open place. He believed that the internet will inevitably march into people’s social lives and transparency will become the norm. People will feel comfortable broadcasting their thoughts to anyone and everyone who cares to listen. One website, Twitter, has already taken this premise to the extreme by creating a service where most users do not hide their posts and thus allow anyone in the world to read their content.

While some may feel this “public profile” is a violation of people’s most basic rights to privacy, it is all voluntarily given up by users. Facebook doesn’t “data mine” by reading your email or cataloging your search queries like Google, it gets all its information because you willingly submit it. This trust between Facebook and its users is probably one of the reasons there is such a strong reaction to any change in the website. People will get comfortable with the amount they are sharing given the current layout of the site and then get out of that comfort zone when new changes to the user interface happen. Despite the large amount of controversy surrounding openness on the internet, many find it enabling when their lives are broadcast to their social connections.

It is important to consider all the good that can come from this new form of expression. The ability to let others follow your life as it progresses is useful in countless ways. Parents eager to stay up to date with their child’s lives at college can check on Facebook for new pictures or read status updates to see what’s new. Opponents will argue that this could lead to unfavorable consequences if the student is being portrayed negatively on the social sit but this simply stresses the need for people to behave more appropriately. The Facebook Effect explores this “social etiquette” by examining the do’s and don’ts of the website. For example the book touches on a widely publicized example of Obama’s speech writer being tagged in a photo where he is touching the breasts of a Hilary Clinton cardboard cut-out. While it is unfortunate that such a photo would surface outside the writer’s group of friends it also begs the question, “if people’s private social lives are more public, won’t they act with more dignity knowing they could be scrutinized?”

The question is encouraging for some and disturbing for others. The “big brother” problem comes to mind as some critics foresee a future where everyone knows and sees everything others are doing. It may seem scary until we consider just how many people use Facebook. If the service can be used to scrutinize anyone, will people change their habits to become more socially acceptable, or will societies standards of what is socially acceptable change? Perhaps in the future, companies will not care if employees post pictures of themselves drunk at a friend’s house because the managers and CEO’s all have similar embarrassing photo tags. Facebook may in a sense “lighten up” people’s expectations of others and allow for more casual and forgiving professional relationships.

Regardless of how society ends up reacting to the wave of newfound social tools like Facebook, the products will still have substantial impacts on a macro scale. Speaking specifically in economic terms, these new information tools could completely alter the way we view traditional models and concepts. The Facebook Effect brings up an interesting experiment conducted at Facebook called the Gross National Happiness Index. The website used complex software to measure the occurrence of words and phrases that could be taken as happy or unhappy. Using this data they got an idea of how, as a whole, people were feeling. Because Facebook has such a large population penetration in some countries, 42 percent in Canada for example, it could eventually be used as some sort of global brain. Analysts might decide the housing market is about to rebound because a large number of Facebook users suggest they are in the market for real estate in their profiles. A huge percentage of the population is already openly sharing information about their lives, so many people that it seems foolish for businesses and governments to ignore.

The Facebook Effect does an excellent job of showing the website facebook.com for what it really is. Critics and privacy advocates may claim it is simply a fad that abuses user information for profit but the book largely disproves these theories. It centers on the idea that this new form of communication and broadcasting is here to stay and will continue to change the way society operates as the site further develops.  The greatest message that someone can walk away from The Facebook Effect with isn’t how impactful the site has been on society thus far, but all the potential it still has to shape the economic, political, and social structures of the world as it grows and matures in the coming years.