Comment Facebook turns 10 this month, which means a bombardment of anniversary pieces lauding the social network. This blabbergasm will stress how Facebook “changed everything” and speculate on how “unimaginable" life might be without Facebook. But Mark Zuckerberg’s greatest achievement isn't financial or technical. Facebook has turned its users into networks of anxious spies.
The result is a world where any deviation from a machine-processed conformity is frowned upon.
Today’s web giants are really founded on two conceits, both of which have somewhat less substance than might appear.
One is that these companies, the Facebooks and Googles, have some fantastic wisdom into how we interact. They insist that they’ve succeeded because of some unique understanding of human beings, rather than being at the right place at the right time with a new communication tool.
Which, when you think about it, is exactly why Facebook succeeded.
Yet social networks are really the Saga Noréns of business - they’re confounded by the simplest of interactions or niceties. These web giants may be the companies with the least social insight, rather than the most, for they have repeatedly demonstrated that they're unable to respect the boundaries of the individual.
For instance, take Facebook’s catastrophic Beacon program, which turned us into unpaid brand endorsers, or Google+ recently opening up its users to email spam.
Some see a sinister agenda here - and they cite as evidence remarks by Google chairman Eric Schmidt - such as the desire to test the “creepy line” - and it’s easy to conclude (and properly correct) that Facebook and Google prefer people to conform with their technical limitations and policies rather than the other way around.
But this supposes a giant social networks knows the contours and subtleties of individuals' boundaries and seeks to find holes in them, for commercial gain. Perhaps this isn’t the whole picture. Perhaps they look so socially inept because they are: they genuinely don’t know what individuals are, and what we do. And because they don’t believe we value those boundaries ourselves, they ride right through them.
After a frenzy of social media marketing a few years ago, people have begun to realise that the behavioural insight of a Facebook or Google is really not all that great. In 2010 Facebook touted the idea of a “Social Graph” - a social network data stash.
Most people didn’t know what it meant, except that it was some symbolic representation of online interaction. You don’t hear much of the "social graph" today - even from the marketing audience for whom Facebook invented the jargon. Marginally more people today search for the term as they did in early 2010, before Facebook appropriated it.
The second conceit concerns data integrity. Facebook wants us to believe - and many are happy to assume - that it’s amassed a more accurate aggregation of individual data than anyone else. This was always going to be far-fetched simply because there’s rather more comeback to giving spoof data to Facebook than giving it to the police or the NHS.
Rather encouragingly, many appear to have little conscience about telling Facebook a porky. In one survey with an admittedly small sample size, 31 per cent of people admitted to entering false data into their social network account. And then there’s the fakes and dupes, where the entire entity is fictional. Facebook itself reckons that up to 7.9 per cent of accounts are “duplicate or false” (14.3 million accounts in all) ; with possibly another 2.9 million what it calls “undesirable or misclassified” - such as a business, or a user’s pet cat.
( I should know, as I'm a Facebook fake: the only way I’ll use Facebook is with a pseudonym. I look infrequently and generally in read-only mode when I want to catch up with what a dozen or so real-world friends has been doing, before I call or email them)
Of the two, the first is a fabulous irony. Nobody calls Saga Noréns "a social detective”. It’s flattering to Facebook to call it a social network.
Shouldn’t Facebook really be called ZuckMail?
What you won’t read in any Facebook anniversary blabbergasm is an interesting omission, and one worth keeping in mind. Facebook’s success exploded alongside the precipitous decline in the value of email as a communication tool. Cheap broadband allowed people to do a lot more with their computers – with low flat-rate access banishing time-metered (CompuServe-era) or cost-metered (dialup era) access – but the software didn’t keep pace.
By 2001 email inboxes were drawing in spam and similar cruft. And although many users were already actively engaged in real-time social networks with IM, no IM developer took it to the next stage. (And when they tried, the users resented it. A reminder that “bleeding edge” software is very conservative in its mindset.)
Friends Reunited, on which ITV splurged £175m just as social networking was taking off, only to sell it for £25m to the publisher of the Beano comic four years later, had already demonstrated the concept, with a very narrow and exclusive affinity group. Facebook had an even more exclusive affinity requirement when it launched – but ruthlessly cast this aside.
Facebook solved "the email problem" by restricting access. Spam from outside your social network is rare. But unlike Hotmail or Yahoo! Mail, Facebook also exposed everybody’s address book to everyone else - allowing every user to browse other people’s contacts and watch them. And soon, watching other people became a kind of hobby. In the wretched modern jargon, Facebook "gamified" this voyeurism. Your friend count and timeline are a constant reminder of your score.