Facebook’s Person of the Year
Call me a curmudgeon, but now that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2010, perhaps we should reflect on the questions raised by Facebook—that is, if it raises any.
Time makes a big point of telling us that, with 550 million users, Facebook has in effect networked a twelfth of the people on planet Earth. Of course this isn’t really true, any more than the invention of the telephone has networked everybody in the world who has a phone. It creates the potential for easy social interaction, but no one person networks with everybody. Most of us are concerned to connect with a very small subset of the 550 million.
And if we asked how many people actually use Facebook actively, the number would be far lower than the total number of accounts. CatholicCulture.org has an account which we use to post our news and commentary. Many people follow us there, and that’s great. But I don’t “friend” anybody on Facebook. For me, it is solely a distribution mechanism. If I used it any other way, I’d quickly run out of time. I may not be typical, but I’m sure a great many people have set up accounts, wondering what the buzz was about and wanting to try it out, only to ignore it completely after the first week or so.
At the same time, Facebook is an easy and media-rich way to keep friends and family up to date on our lives, quicker than letter-writing, richer than email, and more current than (if not yet quite as far-reaching as) the annual family Christmas card. It is not uncommon among my own children for somebody on Facebook to get some news before their non-Facebook-using parents get it. But sometimes we’ll hear about it from people our own age who do "friend" others. Facebook really is quick and easy and, for many people, both fun and satisfying.
But this doesn’t make Facebook a significant entity in the universe of values. As a business model, of course, it is greater than the sum of its parts, but as a social model its beneficent influence doesn’t even remotely approach the sum of its parts. The genius of Facebook and so many other things like it is not that it is some overarching force to make the world a better place, but simply that it is a convenient tool that people can use, in whatever groupings they choose, for whatever purposes they wish.
Don’t get me wrong: The tools we use do have an impact on culture. The way we do things changes with the use of different tools, and this affects both how we divide up our time and how hard or easy it is to accomplish certain things. Major networking and communications tools—printing; steamboats, trains, cars and planes; telegraph, telephones, radio and television; computers, the Internet, email, search engines, cell phones and social networking sites—such things always cause a variety of activities to be reorganized and repackaged in many ways, and they always make some things far more convenient, and far more widespread. Sometimes they provide opportunities for improving our material well-being, or the use of our leisure time. Tools that work well are never insignificant.
But at times we can be overawed or distracted by the sheer wonder of our tools. Their broad social significance does not make the telephone, the computer, the Internet or Facebook any sort of a moral force for good. In fact, to return to the Facebook example, if Mark Zuckerberg were to try to cast Facebook in the role of a single overarching entity with a strong identity of its own, including a continuous effort to lead or push its users in a particular moral direction, he would destroy it almost overnight. In our easily tickled culture, there is often a great deal of buzz about new technologies and the “potential for change” they represent. But on what level is the change significant? We not infrequently delight in rearranging the furniture while the ship is going down.
Christians should be more prudent; perhaps we should treasure the curmudgeonly virtues of distrusting the prevailing buzz and taking things with a grain of salt. It is important for us to understand the difference between moral and spiritual improvements which truly transform us into better people, and simple rearrangements of the furniture.
Now I have nothing against Mark Zuckerberg–nothing, I mean, apart from the fact that he is both very young and very rich. He may well be, by Time’s criteria, a worthy Person of the Year. Facebook is clearly the next big thing, except that it isn’t “next” any more. And it is not Zuckerberg’s fault that every time I hear his name I think, albeit inaccurately, of Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web (who was, of course, Zuckerman’s pig). Not only can Facebook be used for good, but it has even focused our attention on certain neglected aspects of human nature, such as how much we love to publish ourselves and make ourselves known to others (see, I am doing that here). Such manifestations of human nature’s desire to know and be known (or just to see and be seen) actually raise interesting moral and psychological questions.
They raise some problems, too. Millions of people rather deliberately subvert their own privacy and publish much that they will one day regret. Others spend so much time seeing and being seen on Facebook that they network themselves into oblivion, disintegrating rather than enhancing their identities. But if Facebook were capable of truly revolutionizing humanity, these would be nothing but fringe issues, hardly worth mentioning. As it is, mere tools do not have that kind of power. And we can be sure of one thing: Facebook is merely a tool, useful for good or ill, according to the dispositions of those who wield it. The Person of the Year award notwithstanding—and much like the personal computer and the Internet before it—Facebook will leave us, as human persons, essentially the same as we were before.
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