Is Facebook good for individuals and society? Take a look at what our debaters have to say.
The Third Largest Nation
Graham Shaw introduces Facebook as a huge communications hub that profoundly impacts our personal lives.
Danny Zhang argues that Facebook enables us to organize and mobilize on an unprecedented level in both our civic and our personal lives.
In an interview, August Hutchinson and Dr. Roger Marum contend that Facebook impedes connection, but that people can still incorporate it successfully into their lives.
The â€˜Likeâ€™ Culture
Meredith White writes about likingâ€™s impressive allure, and how it drastically simplifies our thoughts while quantifying popularity.
The Third Largest Nation An introduction to Facebook With 1.19 billion active users, Facebook could be the third largest country in the world; trumped only by China (1.35 billion citizens) and by India (1.23 billion). This massive user base is especially impressive considering the fact that there are estimated to be only 2.5 billion people with internet access worldwide. The company was founded in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg and three classmates at Harvard. Their initial policy against the creation of fake profiles capitalized on other early social networks’ lack of legitimacy and helped Facebook quickly outgrow its competitors. The vast majority of users upload genuine information and media to the site, which, in conjunc-
But should users feel so good? Facebook, a site based on publicizing one’s life, inherently encourages people to act like peacocks strutting their feathers; members proudly display recent life events and achievements to their personalized online audience. While this can be great for another person casually keeping up with a friend, it can also breed insecurities. Some users will even lie in order to garner likes, but more regularly, the flood of content can distract from the important relationships that Facebook is supposed to fortify. In any case, users have put a massive amount of personal information on Facebook’s servers, which could sometimes end
Does Facebook safely facilitate valuable connection with friends and fellow citizens in a streamlined manner? Does it destroy our privacy and undermine our relationships and our persons? Does it do both? tion with widespread adoption, has made Facebook a major and established means of communicating with family and friends. Extended family and distant friends can instantly see a picture of your new puppy, where you go to school, or talk to you directly, simply by visiting your Facebook profile. The wealth of frequently updated personal info makes interaction on Facebook feel like a natural extension of in-person communication, and is more casual than a phone call. And it can also be used for far more serious ends - like social activism and revolution.
up in the hands of companies, governments, and criminals. But are the first two always bad? And ultimately, is Facebook or the user to blame? Facebook provides its users ample privacy warnings and give them numerous tools to control the availability of this information. Yet critics maintain that Facebook isn’t doing enough to protect its users. Facebook is sure to be a part of our culture for at least awhile longer, which begs the question: how good is it for individuals and for society? By Graham Shaw ‘16
This Issue Greater Potential
The ‘Like’ Culture
The Facebook Debate
By Danny Zhang
By August Hutchinson
By Meredith White
By Our Debaters
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This magazine was created and designed by, and is currently edited by, August Hutchinson. Copy edits of articles are contributed by Ben Hawthorne.
Greater Potential We can organize as never before On a windy, chilly Sunday morning last May, writer Jonathan Safran Foer delivered his address to Middlebury College’s graduating Class of 2013. After opening his speech by poking fun at President Liebowitz, he got down to talking about the work of being truly human in our tech-obsessed world. “Each step forward in technological communication has made things more convenient,” the author said, “But each step forward has also made it easier, just a little bit easier, to avoid the emotional work of being present…I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts.” In many ways, Safran Foer’s message is one that has been told to our generation again and again, though he did it with an expected literary flair. We have been told that we have shorter attention spans than our parents and grandparents. We have been told we are unsatisfied with anything less than instant gratification in an age of Google. We have been told that we are wasting our life away Instagramming, tweeting, and of course, Facebooking. In many respects, he is right. The virtual activities that consume so much of our day, as hard as it is to admit, do sometimes make us forget the important work of making human connections. The embrace of advancing technological substitutes we use to save time, in Safran Foer’s own words, might eventually diminish us too. Yet, these negative externalities of technology are only part of a bigger picture. Though I agree with much of what Safran Foer 2
had to say, it’s important to recognize that technology, and social networks like Facebook, have the ability to unlock amazing human potential. One of Facebook’s most attractive features is its large population. With over 1.1 billion users as of March 2013, the sheer number of people on a centralized platform for information sharing makes possible that which was, due to geographical and social dispersion, previously impossible. The fact that so many of your friends, classmates, and strangers can be found in the same place presents us with new opportunities to efficiently and rapidly organize and mobilize, for things big and small. Such potential would have been hard to imagine prior to Facebook, even with the prevalence of e-mail and cell phones. Instead of making twenty calls to your friends (who may or may not pick up their phones) to invite them to a big birthday party, you can invite them to a private Facebook event where everyone can update themselves on the particular details. Instead of waiting until move-in day to meet your college roommate, you can coordinate with them via Facebook, and decide which of you is bringing the rug, the microwave, and the fridge. Yes, Facebook cannot replace old classmates catching up face-toface at a nostalgic reunion, but it can help make that reunion possible in the first place. Safran Foer might say that connections made via Facebook are thin and diluted, but I say that it enables us to set
up connections that would have been more difficult to achieve, if not impossible, by other means. Twenty years ago, political scientist Robert Putnam published a controversial journal article called “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” In it, he argues that civic participation in the United States had declined steadily between the 1960s and the 1990s. He included participation in volunteering work, trade associations, and of course, bowling leagues, even as the number of individual bowlers has increased. Echoing what Alexis de Tocqueville said in the early 19th century regarding the importance of civil association to the strength of a democracy, he predicted that the erosion of social capital and civil society would invite worrisome consequences for the American political system and for society in general. In my view, Facebook has risen as a potential counterweight to that decline of association. Of course,
Consider This: America’s two political parties have information on about 150 million U.S. internet users. Information from a person’s Facebook account is added to other data from online activities, consumer databases, etc, which is plugged into an algorithm that profiles individuals and chooses who to target, and with which ads. These ads then appear on websites like Facebook.
I do not mean the time spent on online in association with your Facebook friends can substitute for time spent in a book club, a bowling league, or a food bank. But the site can serve as a platform in which those book clubs and food banks, along with myriad other associations, can reach a wider swath of the population.
any virtual social network, it poses large and complicated questions of virtual identity, individuality, and self-esteem. Answers to these questions are unclear due to the short period of time that Facebook has been in existence.
Furthermore, most young people in the U.S. are on Facebook. Here, they learn about the traditional civic organizations such as those mentioned above, and they can stay connected to those with which they want to associate. They are also a captive audience, which has political implications. Candidates and elected officials, following the example of Barack Obama’s campaign, have very successfully used social media to reach out to wide swaths of the younger generation, who often shy away from more traditional news media (e.g. magazines).
But at least some answers have been positive. For example, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison concluded that using the site can increase feelings of self-worth. They asked subjects to view their Facebook profile and then to associate positive and negative adjectives with themselves. Even those who viewed their profile for only five minutes associated more positive words with themselves at a greater rate.
Imagine the potential for even more participation, of youths and of everyone else, if Facebook could provide voter registration services, or the ability to sign up for health insurance. Again, Facebook cannot and will not be a replacement for voting or volunteering, but it makes those things more accessible in the first place. In other words, it is allowing and indeed encouraging all those individual bowlers Putnam talks about to find each other and to form leagues of their own. To be sure, Facebook has the potential to hurt us. At the very least, we know how much of a time-suck it can be. And as with
And in any case, Facebook has been working to enhance the ‘humanity’ of users’ online experiences as much as possible, adding, for example, the chat and video features. They may still be what Safran Foer calls “diminished substitutes,” but they allow us to keep connections with people who we would not otherwise if Facebook did not exist. We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. “My daily use of technological communication has been shaping me into someone more likely to forget others,” Safran Foer said at one point in his speech, “The flow of water carves rock, a little bit at a time. And our personhood is carved, too, by the flow
of our habits.” For much of our generation, Facebook has indeed become a habit. But it doesn’t have to be a habit that is merely a distraction, a tool for procrastination, or a place where we project our ideal selves. It can be a place where we take advantage of a centralized social platform to organize and mobilize our friends, family, and communities. It can be a place where we connect ourselves to book clubs, bowling leagues, and politics. It can be a place where we engage and connect with people who we never could have engaged and connected with before. We can do all those things on Facebook while recognizing that it cannot be a substitute for the hard work of making real human connections. Facebook was never designed to replace face-to-face interactions, but it can expand our social lives, even if it makes them slightly less rich. That’s a trade off I’m willing to make in recognition of the greater potential enabled by Facebook. By Danny Zhang ‘15 3
Human Connection An interview with Dr. Roger Marum Technological innovation in the communications sector always seems to inspire worry. Consider the telegraph. It provided a more speedy mode of communication than its forebear (the mail), leading to complaints like this one from a concerned citizen in 1871: “the art of letter-writing is fast dying out. [We] fire off a multitude of rapid and short notes, instead of sitting down to have a good talk over a real sheet of paper.” Like many others, this complaint focuses on how changes of the framework within which we interact impacts our relationships. Dr. Marum argues that such concerns are certainly valid when talking about a new means of communication, like Facebook. But he hastily adds that changes are always reshaping life as we know it, and that “what we forget in the midst of change is how resilient we can be as individuals.” While a change to our means of communicating is important and must be analyzed, what ultimately matters most is the way in which people react to the change and incorporate it into their lives. Dr. Marum has ruminated on this topic for quite awhile now. He runs a class at Middlebury, Community and Connectedness, which addresses the ways in which electronic communication technologies of all kinds, from cell phones to social networking sites, affect our relationships. It’s a class that he’s certainly qualified to teach. As an experienced clinical psychologist with a PhD, 4
he is quite attuned to the ways in which people connect with other individuals and with their larger communities. He is aware, for example, of just how good it feels to know that comparatively large numbers of people are cheering/praising us or something that we did. But this good feeling, which Facebook is built to provide us with,
is fundamentally different from the good feeling which we derive from individual connection. He makes this clear with a baseball analogy. “Let’s say I’m a pitcher and one of my teammates is a catcher, and we’re really close. We have the opportunity to spend an hour talking after each practice. The stadium’s empty; no one’s around. We can feel a closeness and a value in our friendship. I don’t get this when I stand on the pitcher’s mound,
with 43,000 people in the stands cheering and thereby signifying that they like me for some reason. It’s very tempting to get caught up in this adulation; I may be aware that the guy in the nose-bleed seats doesn’t know me well, but there’s something fantastic about his cheer in the context of the other cheers.” It’s great, in other words, to believe that we’re popular, that we have a lot of fans, even if our connections with these fans are much more tenuous and much less genuine than those with friends. This difference between public adulation and private connection, he says, is very important when considering social interaction on Facebook. “I make a wall-post. I get a lot of likes and positive comments on my post. I can focus on one of two things: the fact that I received 35 likes and positive comments and that therefore my post was generally liked, or the fact that a certain person liked my post for certain reasons that we can connect over.” The danger, Dr. Marum argues, is that we fool ourselves into believing that thirty-five likes can satisfy our yearnings for social connection at the deep level that personal relationships can. We would, as he says, “become preoccupied with that instant, shallow feedback.” It would be quite possible to look through those positive comments and then connect with some of the commentors on that basis. But the temptation, says Dr. Marum, is to refrain from doing this, and to simply take
the positive comment at face value without seeking a reciprocal exchange of thoughts. To do this is to forgo the opportunity to develop an actual personal relationship. And Facebook, as a social environment, makes it very easy to do this. In just about any non-virtual social environment that you’re used to, from sitting across from someone at a dinner table to chatting at a party, you’re much more likely to pursue the sorts of interactions, like one-onone conversation, through which actual, meaningful connections and relationships are forged. Mutual presence is another element common to most interaction, from face-to-face chatting to a conversation over the telephone. But this is largely absent from Facebook. Yes, the website has text- and video-chatting features, but these aren’t at the site’s core. Wall posts, news feed updates, and the like are, and these are read after they have been posted. Responses to them, too, are generally given when the other person is not present.
Consider This: Well over half of America’s twenty million teens are on Facebook, and over 90% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 use online social networks. These are the ages in which we develop social skills and establish some of our most important relationships. So the way Facebook affects human connection is particularly important.
This troubles Dr. Marum, who says that forging a real relationship requires this sort of mutual presence. At the very least, it makes your counterpart more tangible; therefore your interaction is more memorable. On top of that, says Dr. Marum, it allows people to perceive cues from one another, and to adjust accordingly. “You notice in their eyes or in their voice whether they’re falling asleep, or you assess their level of interest and attentiveness based on their facial expressions.” Lastly, he adds, the more tangible your counterpart is, the more meaning a phrase or a conversation can have. “If my wife and I are sitting together in our living room and sharing a glass of wine and I look at her and say to her, ‘I love you,’ that’s inherently very different from typing ‘I love you’ into Facebook.”
In a nutshell... Dr. Marum argues that: Q
A lack of mutual presence isn’t a new feature of communications; the handwritten correspondences of yore lacked mutual presence too, as do e-mails today. But when we mail or e-mail for the sake of social interaction, the lack of mutual presence is made up for, because letters and e-mails are almost always sent by an individual for the sake of direct connection with another individual. Wall posts, news feeds, and the other pillars of Facebook’s social networking framework lack this one-on-one quality. This isn’t to say that people who interact on Facebook never enjoy one another’s mutual presence. Most of them directly interact with one another off of the internet, sometimes quite frequently.
On Facebook, people are discouraged from connecting on a personal level and are encouraged to seek general responses (e.g. adulation) from friends that’re shallow and less meaningful. The lack of mutual presence between correspondents on Facebook detracts from their connectedness and the quality of their interaction. Facebook has a luring quality that creates a powerful and everpresent temptation to waste time, but time on it can be spent well, too. Individuals have a large degree of control over how they incorporate Facebook into their lives, and are able to do so without many if any negative repercussions.
But the more important Facebook is in our efforts to maintain social networks, says Dr. Marum, the more disconnected we are. This is due not only to its failure to encourage mutual presence, but also because it makes relationships ‘me-centric’ (as opposed to ‘us-centric’). In other words, if you and I are interacting on Facebook, my messages to you center around what I say and do and what my interests are, instead of being about expressing my thoughts and sharing my actions and telling my stories as relevant to you on a personal level. Truly 5
us-centric interaction produces enjoyment and value on a much greater level. To boot, we get to know one another better, making us more likely to become good friends or colleagues. And a good friend or colleague is worth much more than a slew of adoring strangers and acquaintances. This isn’t to say that a sense of ‘us’ is absent altogether on Facebook, because people do interact. “I post something,” says Dr. Marum, “and I get a return post.” But, he hastens to add, “It’s not the
that it enables us, more easily and efficiently than ever, to organize group activities, during which we can personally connect in a way that we can’t over Facebook. Dr. Marum is skeptical, however. “Did our ability to efficiently organize a gathering at, say, an ice cream parlor through Facebook allow us to have intimate socialization? The presumption right now might be ‘yea, it helped me get in touch with seven of my friends, and we chatted and enjoyed each other’s company.’ But have any of us sat there checking
“Members of my generation regularly tell today’s teens and young adults that they are losing real human connection. Though Facebook makes this easier to do, I don’t think they’re necessarily right.” same sort of sense of ‘us’ that we get in one-on-one conversation, which is the sense of ‘us’ that is truly satisfying. It behooves us as individuals not to misinterpret Facebook’s version of this as the valuable sense of ‘us’ that we really yearn for, because we would think we’d be getting something that we won’t be getting.” We therefore would become deceived about our relationships. At the very least, we’d feel hurt upon discovering that we don’t have something which we thought we had. Perhaps more significantly, we would rely on or trust people who, because we hadn’t built a true personal relationship, would not really endeavor to be reliable or trustworthy. The list of potential pitfalls goes on. But even if Facebook is deficient in these ways, one could argue 6
Facebook while we were sitting and having ice cream together?” For many people, in other words, Facebook can be an ever-present lure and distraction. Dr. Marum realizes that this phenomenon isn’t new or unique to Facebook. But the power of the lure is worth considering, and he has a personal anecdote that testifies to its strength. “I had a pager twenty years ago, and at the time, I was a competitive runner. I lived near the Rose Bowl, which has a 3.1 mile perimeter, so I practiced there. At the north and south ends of the stadium were telephones. Every time my pager rung, I wanted to stop at the next bank of phones and check in. At times, I thought to myself, why not just leave the pager in the car? This is about exercise; I’m only going to be gone for thirty
minutes. But because the pager existed, and because it connected me in some way with others, I felt that I had to have it with me. If it was there, it had to be used.” Because Facebook is active constantly (unlike, say, a pager), its lure can be ever-present. So it can take up a lot of time, which can easily be wasted, as many Facebook users know, but Dr. Marum believes that it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes, what’s labeled as wasting time is actually taking a break, and by taking a break to catch up with the goings-on around you using Facebook, you’re spending your time in a way that connects you to other people in a valuable manner. The point is that people have choices with regard to how they use Facebook. One of the most repeated refrains that Dr. Marum hears from his students is, “I can control this.” Just because wasting time on Facebook is tempting, for example, doesn’t mean that people shall, by definition, regularly waste time on Facebook. “We aren’t helpless,” he insists. “Members of my generation regularly tell today’s teens and young adults that they’re losing real human connection. Though Facebook makes this easier to do, I don’t think they’re necessarily right. There are people who can be successful in adapting to all of the changes that Facebook brings” - people who incorporate Facebook into their lives in predominantly positive ways. The real question is: what proportion of Facebook users do this? By August Hutchinson ‘16.5
The ‘Like’ Culture Do you like it?
On October 3rd, Tyler Wood, both a Facebook and personal friend of mine, posted a status: “It’s October 3rd”. It was a resounding success in the Facebook community, receiving likes from Seton Talty, Blake Harris, Maggie Goff and 35 others. On November fifth, I was notified that my friend, Liza Katz, currently studying abroad in the picturesque land of South Africa changed her profile picture. There was Liza, looking simultaneously angelic and earthy, walking stick in hand, safari scarf around head, petting a lion in the amber glow of a setting sun. Most notable however, was the little blue thumb beneath the photo indicating the 353 people that liked it. 353! I wish I could capitalize all the numbers to better convey how floored I was. Say you’re the 247th person to come across the picture. At this point, the point has been made: it’s a well-liked photo. The incentive of personal ties or loyalty to Liza is lost in a number like 353. In joining the mass, you become the mass and whatever compelled you to click the “Like” button, be it a personal affinity for lions or head scarves, is reduced to an easily digestible, objective quantity. The liking culture of Facebook has soared to triple-digit, even quadruple-digit heights. Liking, despite being loving’s lesser and more tepid cousin, is a powerful word with impressive longevity. Liking is comfortably familiar, but safely skirts the dangers of intimacy. It is our generation’s filler, softening words’ impact,
and also making similes out of everything, e.g. “Cornucopias are, like, bizarre.” Facebook capitalized on our liking to like and has effectively created an all-encompassing system for tallying popularity. Numbers are objective, we think; numbers are the truth. At last, the troublesomely ambiguous question of who is the most popular is settled! Facebook offers the level playing field that life can’t. The algorithm is democratic, functioning on the principle that the majority rules: the more likes, the higher newsfeed priority, and thus, the more likes. So why not let this perfect game begin? It’s like New York City, only better. In NYC, there is Everything. Thus, what emerges as the best and most successful business/ art/trend is the Best and Most Successful. Facebook is a distilled New York City without all the frustrating politics of real life. This speaks to some kind of truth. Forget the annoying ifyour-friend-jumped-off-a-bridge counterpoint; there is an inherent value to popularity. It’s how we elect our president, after all. Pop music may not be “good” or “artistic” but it is popular, therefore relevant, and therefore indicative of some human tendency - per-
haps the tendency to follow the masses. I overheard a theoretical business model being discussed in Proctor. The speakers proposed likers-forhire who would faithfully like all your postings in order to cross the Zuck-ordained newsfeed threshold and invoke likes at a then exponential rate. However shameless, the business model would actually make Facebook a little bit more like NYC in the sense that it invites the arbitrariness of life into the picture. The correlation between the actual merit of something and its success is often perplexingly loose. In life, we have money as a means of validation; on Facebook, we have likes. Whether or not these currencies mean anything deep in the human soul, they are evidence of standard-searching and standard-setting. Maybe there is no way to discern if one thing is better than the other. What matters is that, one way or another, favorites surface. We, being the socially dependent yet socially inept creatures that we are, then gain a vocabulary and a common experience. What’s really more amazing than seeing Liza pet a lion is the fact that 353 people have seen the same thing. By Meredith White ‘14
Is Facebook good for individuals and society? The services which Facebook provides affect the personal, social, and professional lives of the one billion people who use them. As a result, getting a better understanding of Facebook’s impact on us, and on others, is essential. Civic Engagement: Carolina McGarity: The way people associate to one another is changing. And with it, public participation is decreasing. A few decades ago, people would join together into voluntary groups like the YMCA, Habitat for Humanity, and many more. Yet organizations have undergone an enormous shift, and now are mostly professionally run non-profits, hiring people instead of recruiting volunteers. This has caused great concern. Associations have been vital in American society for forming a sense of community. They also impart important benefits to citizens, such as information, skills, and resources. Prime among these benefits is the motivational effect of groups to bring people into politics and motivate them to participate, therefore encouraging democracy. The decline of these associations, and therefore of public participation, has been undermining democracy at its roots. We obviously need a modern way to tackle this problem, and Facebook presents such a way. According to a Pew research study, the internet has become a huge part of organizational life in the US. People are most active in voluntary groups online, 8
and Facebook is a major tool in promoting these groups and connecting them to members. Through connections to these groups, Facebook can act as news distributer, as well as unite members and encouraging them to become more politically and socially active.
closing them by creating what the speaker called a filter bubble, our own personal universe of information that closes lots of information out based on what an algorithm thinks of you. This isn’t good for us as a society, because it puts blinders on it, and restricts the ability of our minds to open.
August Hutchinson: But Facebook inhibits our ability to
Carolina: Still, let’s face it – modernity has presented us with a problem in civic life which Facebook solves. In the last few decades of technological revolution, with people increasingly “plugged-in” to a virtual world, there has been a major disconnect between people. This has weakened communities and created isolation, leading to further social problems. For example townspeople 50 years ago would have gotten together to talk about everything from politics to the hardship of a neighbor. But now, most people get home and go straight to their computer, missing out on that convivial interaction.
engage politically. Let me quote a speaker from TED, Eli Parisier. “I’m progressive, [but] I like hearing what [conservatives are] thinking and like seeing what they link to; I like learning a thing or two. And so I was surprised when I noticed one day that the conservatives had disappeared from my Facebook feed... Facebook was looking at which links I clicked, and it was noticing that [I] was clicking more on my liberal friends’ links. [So] without consulting me about it, it had edited them out.” This means that, contrary to Facebook connecting us and opening our minds, it’s actually
But instead of bemoaning this fact, we need to look to modern solutions for social reconnection. The obvious answer is to tackle the problem at its heart and turn the perpetrator into the answer. Facebook does this. It brings people together in a virtual world, and while it may not be a replacement for actual social interaction, it is a strong creator of community and connections. Therefore, as Facebook is a hugely popular site for modern community and voluntary association, it is a timely solution to revitalizing the suffering U.S. civic democracy, as well as restoring civic
engagement and a weakening sense of a community. Toby Aicher: It’s also good for businesses. Rice university professor Emily Durham did a study on Facebook and business and found that “Facebook fans visit more, they spend more during their visit, they have a higher attachment to that brand” than the average customer. For one business, Dessert Gallery, Facebook fans made 36% more visits each month, spent 33% more at the café’s locations, had a 14% higher emotional attachment to the brand, and had a 41% greater psychological loyalty towards the café. Facebook fans also generated more word-of-mouth marketing than non-fans. August: Let’s be careful not to confuse correlation with causation. The reason people ‘like’ a business is probably because they’re already big fans of that brand, meaning that naturally, they’re more likely to enjoy their business/shopping experience more. Facebook had nothing to do with this. Toby: This doesn’t alter the fact that Facebook is a great marketing tool. As the author of The Facebook Era, Clara Shih, writes, “you need to be where your customers are and your prospective customers are. And with [such a large and growing number of] people on Facebook, that’s increasingly where your audience is.” One owner of a wedding photography business wrote in a New Yorker article that “three quarters of my clients now come to me through Facebook, either from
ads or recommendation from friends. I would be out of business if I didn’t have Facebook. Especially with this economy, I need to stretch each marketing dollar as much as I possibly can.” It’s also increased social engagement in ways even more profound than those Carolina suggested. Last August, Facebook added a new feature that allowed its users to display their organ donor status, showing whether they would donate their organs upon death. Since the start of the program, nearly 300,000 people on Facebook added organ donor statuses, and this has led to more-than-tangible increases in the number of registered organ donors. According to a study from of John Hopkins university, “on the first day of the initiative, there were more than 13,000 new registrations nationwide, twenty-one times the normal daily average of 616. Increases ranged from about seven-fold in Michigan to nearly 109-fold in Georgia.” Even two weeks after the start of the program, said the study’s leader, “the number of new organ donors was still climbing at twice the normal rate.” Facebook increases the number of organ donors because it raises awareness about donor status and makes it more public. As Blair Salder, senior fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement said “People are more prone to be influenced by their friends or family than by activists or public health officials.” Political Activism: Toby: Mikhail Gorbachev explained that “a big factor in the
fall of the Soviet Union was the rise of decentralized electronic communications, such as the fax machine, email, and cell phone. “ Since these communication technologies subverted the Soviet Regimes in the 1980s, they have continued to improve, and they now have even more revolutionary potential and a greater ability to organize dissent. Today, Facebook, while not being the only form of electronic communication, is one of the most important in the spread of democracy and freedom. We saw this in Egypt. In 2011 millions of Egyptians rose up and overthrew their brutal dictator Mubarak, and Facebook played an essential part of the revolu-
Gargantuan: Get a better idea of just how far-reaching the website is: Q
Every day, Facebook processes 2.5 billion pieces of content, 500 terrabytes of information, 300 million photos, and 2.7 billion likes. The most popular pages have millions of fans. Barack Obama’s currently has 37 million likes; Coca Cola’s has 75 million; Rihanna's has 80 million. An advertiser may target users in up to 25 countries to reach as many of Facebook’s 1.2 billion active users as possible.
tion. Key activist Wael Ghonim, named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people due to his role in the revolution, used the site to organize the first day of protests on January 25. He formed the We are Khalid Said Facebook group, which 3 million people quickly joined, and he used it to inform Egyptians about the atrocities of the Egyptian government and to organize protest events. Wael Ghonim said “I want to meet Mark Zuckerberg one day and thank him [on] behalf of Egypt...This revolution started online. This revolution started on Facebook. This revolution started [in] June 2010 when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians started collaborating content. We would post a video on Facebook that would be shared by 60,000 people on their walls within a few hours. I’ve always said that if you want to liberate a society, just give them the Internet.”
to be allowed to be used. China is not the only regime to be afraid of Facebook. In Iran you might remember the protests after the 2009 elections that were dubbed as the green revolution. Afterward, Facebook was banned because the government claimed the opposition was using it to organize. Facebook has also been banned in Syria, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, and Pakistan. One key question the opposition has to address is why authoritarian governments are afraid of Facebook.
Egypt is not the only example. All across the world, Facebook is being used to express dissent against dictators and organize opposition. In China, the Urumpqi riots, large sweeping protests in northwestern China against the government in 2009, were organized largely through Facebook. As a result China banned the site all across China, and it continues to be banned today. The actions of China are perhaps the greatest evidence of the revolutionary potential of Facebook. China saw the revolutionary threat of Facebook, and saw that it undermined their attempts to suppress dissent, and decided it was too dangerous 10
The only real answer to this is because it gives average people a voice and helps foster democracy August: Let me cite some of the facts that Toby noted - that China had banned Facebook, that Kazakhstan had banned Facebook, and all these other national governments had been able to ban Facebook either partly or in full. Facebook is attracting people to
organize on the internet. The fact that governments are capable of shutting down the internet means that attracting communication to the internet gives the government greater control over it. Toby: But without Facebook, the Egyptian revolution would have been much, much harder. As one of the leaders of the revolution stated, he used Facebook to distribute information to lots of people, and he used it to effectively organize events. It helped to create real action and real progress, and the man said that he wanted to thank Mark Zuckerberg for the revolution. It made it possible because it was an essential tool. Oakley Haight: I’d like to push back against the notion that Facebook itself is necessarily helpful to democratic movements. My example is Iran’s Green Movement from 2010. They were reassured by their own echo chamber of Facebook, allowing their optimism to grow and grow like a bubble. When a major planned event failed (to infiltrate a regime-backed memorial of the Iranian revolution and to reveal themselves in front of the cameras to denounce the regime) the bubble burst. It resulted in a major idealism hangover. Not only was this problematic, but by putting Facebook at the center of the Green Revolution, the Green organization was ‘horizontal’ - with minimal hierarchy and maximal popular organization. The problem with horizontal organization is that it’s very hard to delineate different
roles to different people based on their strengths; it’s also essentially impossible to reward participants outside of giving them the good feeling of participation, or to sanction troublemakers - the framework of authority just isn’t there as much. On top of this, Facebook being at the center at the movement made it much less tight-knit. And in countries with strong controls of the internet means that Facebook isn’t necessarily a reliable organizational tool, because the government can successfully block it or shut it down. In short, to quote a Foreign Policy article, “the many-voiced, every-man-for-himself spirit [of] Iranian [activism] is [admirable], but it is not the ideal way for a group to concentrate its energies in negotiations with a hostile state,” or action within or against it for that matter. Toby: But Oakley is still conceding that Facebook was the center of the revolution, which shows that Facebook does have this revolutionary potential. Authoritarian governments shut down Facebook because they know that it poses a revolutionary threat. A hundred years ago, if a person wanted to communicate a message, oppose the government, or advocate for a cause, they had to go through traditional and institutional forms of communication. They had to write for a newspaper, or publish a book or pamphlet, broadcast on the radio, or hold a public speech. But the internet and Facebook are decentralized and democratic technologies that give everyone a
voice and ability to dissent. And this fundamentally undermines authoritarian regime, because it makes it much more difficult to control the flow of information and censor it. Instead of a citizen having to go the state-controlled press, they are able to publish something on Facebook. August: First of all, in the times preceding far-reaching mass media, people printed their own pamphlets and shouted their own ideas on street corners, which is
hardly ‘institutionalized’ communication. Grassroots idea dissemination isn’t a new phenomenon. In any case, if there’s a problem that’s important enough to engage in something as drastic as revolution, or a problem important enough that it spurns social activism, there are going to be a large enough number of people who care enough about that to go out and do something about it, and to be able, outside of Face-
book, to raise awareness, whether through print media, television media, or some other medium. Revolts spread like wildfire at least as early as feudal times, well before mass communications. Facebook also has the potential to encourage complacent slacktivism - encouraging us to express and to be satisfied, without additional action. Facebook lets you show a lot of people at once, very easily, that you support a cause, so you don’t have to out and actually do something in order to show your support. Changing your profile picture to show solidarity or support, at the very most, lets people know that there are other people out there who agree with them. But that’s it. A bunch of northerners saying they supported civil rights in the South was absolutely nothing compared to the bus loads of people who went to Mississippi in 1964 to register black voters, or compared to the Southern men and women who participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott or the sit-in in Greensboro. As UNICEF complained recently, Facebook avatar changes don’t help them vaccinate children or provide malaria nets; likes don’t save lives. Things rarely change unless people do something about it. Moments in history in which change is driven or supplemented by the general populace, from revolutions like France’s to the acquisition of suffrage by American women, come as a result of action above and beyond publicly stating your opinion. Expression is often an extremely important part of that action, 11
but the action is necessary, and expression not sufficient. Toby: But awareness is still awareness; it increases the probability that someone will take action, and shows that there is support for action, which is important for the people who are engaged with that issue or impacted by it in some way.
their distant friends and acquaintances updated, and from staying updated on their lives.
Personal Relationships: Carolina: Facebook helps people stay connected over distance. With modern globalization, people are moving more frequently: the number of times American families move has dramatically increased. Also, with economic and social globalization, more people have connections over seas and borders. All of these factors make it harder to form community and maintain connections. But what is more far-reaching and accessible than the web? Facebook gives us an easy and widely popular way to stay in touch with friends and family over distance, when we cannot see them frequently faceto-face.
But you have to ask yourself how important and valuable are these updates? They aren’t, because the value of each is so diluted by the volume of so many. We simply can’t remember so many things about so many people. So what happens is we either scroll through lots of information and ignore much of it, or we consume a lot and forget most of it. If someone’s sufficiently distant on a personal level, if we don’t spend time with them as individuals, they’re just not really part of your life at that time, and Facebook can’t do anything about it. That doesn’t mean they’ll disappear forever - plenty of people have left my life for a period, and then we start spending time together again, and we enter back into our relationship on the same level, or it’s very easy to get back to the same level. So Facebook doesn’t save us from losing people. It just keeps a shallow connection going that we don’t need and that consumes time.
August: Carolina brings up a commonly cited use for Facebook. 89% of users, according to a 1,000 person study from the University of Gothenburg, say they benefit from keeping all
Toby: You’re still interacting with them, though. It may not be a very personal interaction, but it’s still very valuable, because you can’t interact with all your friends on a very personal level, but you
can keep them in your life on a day-to-day basis. August: But keeping a tenuous connection with people so distant from us is not at all necessary to a good social life - as someone without a Facebook who has a perfectly delightful social life, I think of myself as living proof. Do I want to talk with someone, whether I’ve seen them recently or haven’t in awhile? I pull their phone number out of my contacts list and give them a call. Do I want to talk face-to-face? If they’re far away, we video chat over Skype. If they’re close, we get together in person. Do I want to write to them? I send them a letter or an e-mail. People maintained their social networks perfectly well before the invention of Facebook in 2004; they can continue to do so, as I do. You may miss a conversation or an event, perhaps, but in my experience, missing a few conversations that aren’t consequential enough to be relayed to me by a friend, and missing a few events that aren’t consequential enough to be announced in another medium, are hardly downsides at all. Toby: Sure, you can keep in contact through other means, like e-mail and Skype. Those are perfectly fine also. But Facebook is another tool in your communi-
cations arsenal. It’s a practical way to keep up on someone else’s life, so you’re not constantly sending them e-mails, for example. Carolina: And, Facebook is a good way for people to share interests and life events. Instead of writing individual and time-consuming letters to friends, Facebook provides an easy way to share things all once, and with more people. That way, whoever is interested will be able to find out what’s going on in your life, and whoever is not interested can ignore it. August: But it’s not an effective way of sharing. Have you ever noticed yourself, if you have a Facebook, scrolling through your news feed particularly fast? I know plenty of people who do this regularly, because the news feed tends to have inside jokes they don’t understand, posts for which they have absolutely no context, comments from people they hardly know, other comments they don’t care much about, and news articles they don’t care about from publications they kinda like. And what things do they tend to stop and click on? Pictures of friends, an interesting article, maybe a pithy comment or two from another friend. You could get all this stuff much more easily in other ways, and without all the useless and distracting clutter. In other words, without Facebook, you could connect more effectively. There’s also a number of little irritations with Facebook that,
Are We In Control? “Distraction is found in all online activities, because the virtual world naturally draws peoples’ attention out of the real world. But distracting ourselves with Facebook isn’t inherently bad. Everyone takes breaks, and nothing is wrong with taking a break that allows you to catch up with the goings-on in your community and amongst your friends. And in any case, people can choose to regulate the amount of time they spend on Facebook. We’re not helpless.” - Carolina McGarity when added together, can become problematic. You probably find yourself getting bugged by vague and cryptic posts, or status updates that fish for compliments, made all the more likely because Facebook encourages us to post about ourselves. You get meaningless and empty ‘happy birthday’ wishes typed and sent in three seconds by acquaintances notified by Facebook, who wouldn’t bother to share a birthday with you. You’ll inadvertently draw ire from a friend by uploading a picture that embarrasses them, and you can’t really take it back once it’s uploaded, since you don’t know
who sees it or saves it. You’ll also have friends inadvertently (and non-friends purposefully) upload embarrassing pictures of you, too; people will tag you because they don’t need your permission to and you can only remove the tag after the fact. Toby: These issues can be addressed with a little bit of maturity. It’s like an angsty teenager argument. People might fish for compliments on Facebook - sure, that might happen, but it’s just not that big of a problem. It’s just an extension of social behavior in real life. There’s nothing unique about Facebook and fishing for compliments. And as far as em-
Or Is Facebook Quasi-Addicting? “The University of Gothenburg studied 1,000 Facebook users. Almost a quarter say they use Facebook to ‘get away from pressure and responsibility,’ and over a quarter to ‘get away from things they ought to do.’ On top of this, the average person spends 75 minutes per day, around a twelfth of each waking day, on Facebook, so it’s no surprise that a quarter of users report feling ill-at-ease if they don’t log in regularly. The point is that communications technogy is alluring by definition. We’ve all felt it before, whether the buzzing phone in our pocket is notifying us of a text or an email. And Facebook is all the more alluring because it is constantly updated, constantly furnishing us with new communications to digest.” - August Hutchinson 13
barrassing photos go, once again, with a little maturity, adults aren’t constantly checking Facebook to make sure there aren’t any embarrassing photos from which you need to untag yourself. August: You can’t dismiss the issue of embarrassing photos as something that can simply be dealt with by a little maturity. What Facebook does, by existing, is allow you to post images for a very large number of people to see. Someone can save that, or they can send it to a friend, and they can publicize it too, perhaps for a group that includes people who you really don’t want seeing that picture. Thanks to Facebook, these pictures can spread very very quickly, and they don’t go away. This is much different than you taking a picture on your phone and showing it to one or three people before the embarrassed person takes issue with it and gets you to stop. But more troublingly, Facebook distracts from our close and meaningful relationships, because it encourages us to devote a greater proportion of our finite time than we would otherwise to tracking people with whom we have very little human interaction. In other words, we become preoccupied with relationships that don’t matter nearly as much as our closer ones, and we track, which facilitates little if any connection at all, more than we interact. Toby: This doesn’t mean that you can’t have a meaningful communication with someone on Facebook. If someone posts 14
something about a recent life event, you can comment on it and then launch into a discussion about it. August: Just because it does happen doesn’t mean it happens frequently - one could easily argue that Facebook makes it less likely that people engage in deep discussion. And in any case, our close and meaningful relationships are undermined by Facebook. In its social networking framework, most of our interactions are not between individuals or in small groups, as they are with almost all other forms of communication. They are based on announcements to large groups. As a result, to the extent that we live our social lives through Facebook, our personal relationships, which are among the most important things in our lives, become based on these announcements. It becomes about me, sitting there, crafting updates and statements akin to self-promoting press releases. Guess what I just read! Look at these pictures I took! Check out what I just found! You won’t believe what I just did! In short: tell me something about my stuff! This isn’t how real, genuine personal relationships are formed. Such relationships aren’t about me. They’re about us. I still share my thoughts and stories with you, but I do it because you will find it interesting, or because we can use it to launch a mutual conversation that’s enjoyable or valuable. Carolina: I’d like to address this myth of Facebook promoting
egocentrism. Portraying oneself in a profile does not in fact need to be selfish, or about looking at the world in terms of how one fits into it. In fact, socializing on Facebook is much the same as socializing non-virtually, as far as egocentrism. Some people just focus more on themselves in social scenes than other people do, and Facebook won’t change them one way or the other. Also, we all view the world in terms of our place in it, at least to some extent. So in the end, the Facebook experience is what you make it. People can be self-absorbed or not, but it really has little to do with the mode of communication. August: But are one-third of people actually egocentric in reality? Because on Facebook, according to the aforementioned 1,000 person study, one in every three respondents, which is quite a large proportion, state that the purpose of their status updates is, at least in part, to “get attention” or “get acknowledgment.” So above and beyond the ways in which Facebook, quietly promotes me-centrism without users being aware, over a third of users are consciously aware of, and embrace, this self-gratification, when many of them might not do so otherwise. And because people show off lots of positive stuff en masse, others complain that everyone around them seems happier, which makes them feel crappy about their own lives, and they’ve cited Facebook as the cause of that mirage. Because Facebook allows us to share information with many others at once, we tend to share
the good things in life. So if you have a large number of ‘friends’ (the average number per user in my age group is well over 400) you’re going to get bombarded with a lot of cool hiking trips and party nights and vacations. This would be true even if each of your friends has only one awesome day a year, which is an unrealistically low number. Toby: “Facebook leads to envy” is a dubious psychological claim. People can deal with looking at other people’s photos and not being jealous of them. Oakley: There’s actually empirical data to back up what Toby is calling pseudo-psychology. In the University of Gothenburg study mentioned by August, users were asked what status updates were usually about; 77% said they were usually about positive things, and a quarter of people admit that they regularly use Facebook to brag. So it’s sensible that they found that “Facebook usage has a significant negative relationship with self-esteem.” Toby: This is just an extension of regular social behavior. You’ll have people sharing positive events with you whether or not you’re on Facebook. Most people aren’t going to post pictures of themselves eating breakfast or brushing their teeth in the morning. They’re going to post cool photos; sharing cool things is one of the uses that we have for Facebook. August: The point is that offline, you hear about cool things every once in awhile from individuals
whose enjoyment makes you happy, while on Facebook, you get flooded with all of these fantastic experiences from all sorts of people. Carolina: Okay, sure, it would be better for our mental and community health if society were more oriented towards real, non-virtual interaction. However, this is simply not the reality we live in. We’re far too wired into our virtual world to look back on the “good old days” of strong communal interaction and association. So as modern citizens, we need to use the present circumstances to our advantage. We should accept, not resist, new ways of forming communities. Facebook helps us innovate our method of relating to others, and to regain our diminished sense of community. Privacy Concerns: Carolina: Users can share as little or as much about themselves as they want. Basically, they choose how they portray themselves, and how much of themselves they share, so no one is forced to give out too much information. A Facebook user is in complete control of how much information they share, and with whom they share it. In their privacy controls, they can regulate their information, so that it is only available to friends and not the general public. Ultimately, with a little precaution and common sense, this is not at all a dangerous issue. Oakley: Sure it is - things you never suspect would be used against you can be used against you. And don’t think you’re never
scrutinized just because you’re not, say, a terrorist. The IRS uses Facebook to track down suspected tax evaders and to search for evidence of their income in case of tax fraud. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services scrutinize photos and posts to confirm family relationships and/or weed out sham marriages. Of course employers can do the same thing; 24% of employers, almost a quarter, report using Facebook to prescreen applicants. Moreover, that data has been used against people who are battling for child custody and criminal cases, acquired by government prosecutors and other lawyers through LexisNexis’ “Accurint for Law Enforcement. Carolina: But it could be argued that it’s good that this tool is available so that we can better stop tax fraud, find evidence against criminals, etc. In any case, when considering privacy concerns, there are many ways in which Facebook is not much of a problem at all. Consider identity theft. While some individual information can be shown in a Facebook profile, it is not nearly enough to facilitate identity theft – it includes things such as date and place of birth. There are many better ways of stealing identities, such as ID and credit cards. Oakley: Facebook actually does provide enough good informa15
tion for identity theft. If you have your email, your hometown, your mother’s name (through friending her, perhaps), your pet’s name, or other similar information, hackers can answer the security questions on your Amazon account, your PayPal account, etc. and can get access to everything within, including your money. A few months ago, NPR did a story on a man who got locked out of all his online accounts and lost thousands of dollars because hackers were smart enough to gather seemingly harmless information from his Facebook page. But identity theft is far from the only concern; lets go back to looking at the government. The links between Facebook and Washington are already large. Facebook has a lobbying budget of $1.35 million and a political action committee. This is to say that an organization with a direct interest in eroding user privacy is becoming a powerful actor in Washington, less than ten years after its founding. This feels especially troubling in light of the debacle that is the NSA. Carolina: You shouldn’t really worry about government agencies like the NSA getting personal information from Facebook, as much as you should when it comes to sources like e-mail or Skype. After all, short of the one-on-one chats and the video calls, the information we put on Facebook is meant to be made available to a large number of people, and therefore tends not to be sensitive information, unlike the sorts of things we might say to close friends over Skype. 16
Toby: And in any case, when people join Facebook, the company makes it clear that it will use their information. That’s inherent in their business model, and people are voluntarily putting their information online. They’re not stealing your information. You’re putting it there. Oakley: Just because you’re voluntarily doing it doesn’t mean its good, or that what Facebook does with it is good. Plus, Facebook has been steadily eroding our privacy for years now. In 2005, when Facebook’s terms of service launched, they themselves stated that: “No personal information that you submit [to]Facebook will be available to any user of the Web Site who does not belong to at least one of the groups specified by you in your privacy settings.” The updated terms of service today read: “When you connect with an application or website it will have access to [information including] you and your friends’ names, profile pictures, gender, user IDs, connections, and any content shared using the ‘Everyone’ privacy setting.” And it is unsurprising that the default privacy setting for much of the information you post on Facebook is set to ‘everyone’.
Toby: A lack of some privacy is not a problem unique to Facebook; it’s inherent in the internet. Because electronic technology and the internet exist, as do services such as email, a lot of the things that we do will be online. August: But not using a Facebook drastically decreases the amount of that information online. Let me give you an idea of the extent to which Facebook, or anyone with access to their data, can dig through the details of your life for the sort of information that they want. Facebook Data Science, an arm of Facebook, can tell you that 15% of individuals attended the same high school as their spouse. It maps of the locations from which Americans check their Facebook as colored by their political affiliation; it can get all the way down to the types of words that are most commonly used (like “words expressing anxiety”) are correlate this with the number of friends a user has. In this way, you are a data point, and while Facebook may be telling the general populace nothing about you as an individual by sharing this aggregate data, it reveals just how much Facebook knows about you, and how much of your information other people can access through it - imagine
Facebook is forever:
how it could be abused in the wrong hands.
their privacy is. It isn’t really that difficult to update and manage.
Toby: August just mentioned the most innocent data points ever. Who you’re married to? You can find that information lots of places. The words you use on your statuses? That’s not really incriminating evidence.
Oakley: But it is also in Facebook’s self-interest to reduce user privacy, because of their business model. Facebook monitoring users ensures better returns for advertisers, which in turn generates greater revenues for Facebook. Their self-interest and your self-interest are not the same when it comes to privacy. They will always be looking for new ways to make your account less private and more profitable.
August: Sure it can be. Anyone who’s been in court, or who has had family in court, probably has noticed that one of the first things a lawyer often does is try to sully the reputation of an opponent in the eyes of the judge or the jury. So if a lawyer, or any other citizen or government agency can, through back doors, find information that would be private were it not for Facebook, they can use it against someone in a way that is wholly negative, both for the targeted person and for justice in general. Oakley: Plus, Facebook is making it as difficult as possible to effectively control information. It can be done, but I’m willing to wager that more people aren’t going to do that. The company buries its privacy settings in something like six different menus with over 170 options. Toby: Facebook doesn’t necessarily seek to undermine privacy. They want people to use their service, and people will be attracted to it if they know that they have control over their privacy settings. The large number of privacy settings helps give people a large degree of precise control, and they also streamline these settings so people know what
This is why they seize rights to just about everything you post. It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s artwork, or poetry, or anything else protected by intellectual property laws. In Facebook’s words, for such content, subject to your privacy and application settings, “you grant [them] a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license.” The license ends when you delete your account, “unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.” That’s as simple as someone liking your post. Since this is almost guaranteed to happen, you’re essentially forfeiting the rights to your content.
had adjusted her privacy settings very carefully to hide it from him. But when the president of the campus’ Queer Chorus added her, without needing her consent, to its Facebook group, he and her other 200 Facebook friends were automatically informed by the website, despite her efforts. What followed was a tirade of angry voice mails followed by demands to renounce gay lifestyles, threats to stop paying her car insurance, and a Facebook post reading, “to all you queers. Go back to your holes and wait for GOD. Hell awaits you pervert. Good luck singing there.” Toby: To have your father as a Facebook friend, and then to try and hide your social life from him just doesn’t sound like good planning on her part. August: The point is that, as you might be able to guess from her father’s words, hiding this was something that was very, very important to her, and yet despite her best efforts, she still wasn’t able to hide it.
August: And privacy settings aren’t as streamlined and easy to manage as you might think. Consider Bobbi Duncan. She had been hiding her homosexuality from her father while at the University of Texas, and 17
Debatable Magazine strives to provide a variety of insightful arguments about a different subject matter every month.