The Facebook Effect

IN THIS ISSUE SPRING 2011

An Inside Look at Facebook by David Kirkpatrick

Excerpted from The Facebook Effect, The Inside Story of the Company that is Connecting the World By David Kirkpatrick ©2010 by David Kirkpatrick. Reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

The internet and its widespread use throughout the world has facilitated a new means for people to communicate and interrelate. Amongst these new means of communication, the most popular and therefore the most powerful, are so called social networks. MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter, allow users to create personal profiles and share messages, photographs, and videos with their chosen network of friends.

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The Facebook Effect - An Inside Look at Facebook by David Kirkpatrick

In addition to keeping in touch with friends and relatives, they have proven to be great tools in helping organize and mobilize groups that come together to address social and political issues. The full potential of these technologies is only beginning to become manifest, although they are currently playing significant roles in organizing and broadcasting social protests in Colombia, Iran, and most recently, Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt.

Facebook is the largest and fastest growing social platform of all time. According to the statistics provided by Facebook, at the time these words were written, there are more than 500 million active users and 50% log on in any given day. There are over 900 million objects that people interact with (pages, groups, events, and community pages) and more than 30 billion pieces of content (web links, news stories, blog posts, notes, photo albums, etc.) are shared each month.

The Facebook Effect - An Inside Look at Facebook by David Kirkpatrick

In order to better understand the vision of its creator and the influence that Facebook has in our culture SuperConsciousness has selected several passages from David Kirkpatrick’s book, The Facebook Effect, The Inside Story of the Company that is Connecting the World.

“Are you familiar with the concept of a gift economy?” Zuckerberg asks. “It’s an interesting alternative to the market economy in a lot of less developed cultures. I’ll contribute something and give it to someone, and then out of obligation or generosity that person will give something back to me. The whole culture works on this framework of mutual giving.”

Zuckerberg says Facebook and other forces on the Internet now create sufficient transparency for gift economies to operate at a large scale. “When there’s more openness, with everyone being able to express their opinion very quickly, more of the economy starts to operate like a gift economy. It puts the onus on companies and organizations to be more good and more trustworthy.” All this transparency and sharing and giving has implications, in his opinion, that go deep into society. “Its really changing the way that government’s work,” he says. “A more transparent world creates a better-governed world.” This is, for him, a core belief.

At the same time, Facebook’s global scale, combined with the quantity of personal information its users entrust to it, suggests a movement toward a more universal connectivity that is truly new in human society.

Zuckerberg essentially argues that any individual’s public expression on Facebook is a sort of “gift” to others. That has different manifestations depending on what kind of expression it is.

When it comes to political activism, Facebook offers a more fundamentally altered landscape. In Zuckerberg’s view, you are in essence making a gift into this free-sharing economy of ideas if you comment on Facebook about, for example, President Obama’s health-care reform efforts. Think of it as a gift of opinion into the polity, a gift of ideas that ultimately strengthens the polity.

The Facebook Effect - An Inside Look at Facebook by David Kirkpatrick

Our act of expression is less fraught when we are passing on an opinion about commercial behavior — telling what we think about a company or product — or when we are forwarding something like a news story we’ve seen and found interesting. Nonetheless, we are making a gesture of friendship and generosity, albeit in a way that Facebook makes routine. And that gesture potentially alters the landscape of business and media by enhancing the relative power of the consumer vis-à-vis the company or large institution. In all these sorts of beneficial expressions, you are rewarded for your contribution, typically by the reciprocal contributions of friends, and often by a sort of chain reaction of contributions of others you don’t even know. Facebook is of course not the only service that enables these effects either in business or politics. Twitter notably is another.

Facebook has now become one of the first places dissatisfied people worldwide take their gripes, activism, and protests. These campaigns on Facebook work well because its viral communications tools enable large numbers to become aware of an issue and join together quickly.

Will Anderson, a student at the University of Florida, experienced Facebook’s power after he became alarmed when he heard in early 2008 about a bill that had been introduced in the state legislature. It would redirect state scholarship money that was going to liberal arts students like him and divert it to those studying math and science. Like Morales in Colombia, he took a leap. Anderson started a Facebook group called “Protect Your Bright Futures” and invited 200 Facebook friends to join. Within eleven days the group had swollen to 20,000 members. That’s when Anderson received a phone call from Jeremy Ring, the state senator who had sponsored the bill. He was withdrawing it. “You can’t ignore 20,000 people,” Ring told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

The Facebook Effect - An Inside Look at Facebook by David Kirkpatrick

The Facebook Effect - An Inside Look at Facebook by David Kirkpatrick

In Egypt, demonstrators in 2009 organized on Facebook to protest a proposed law that would limit bandwidth consumed by Internet users. Shortly afterward, the minister of communications significantly amended the plan to address their concerns. In a country like Egypt, where public protest can lead to torture and arrest, such successes are especially striking. In Indonesia, a woman was arrested for the absurd “crime” of criticizing a hospital in a private email to friends. After tens of thousands joined a Facebook group complaining about this injustice, she was released from prison and the focus of attention shifted to possible malfeasance by prosecutors. These are both countries where in the past, protesting publicly under your real name was risky.

Facebook has now become one of the first places dissatisfied people worldwide take their gripes, activism, and protests. These campaigns on Facebook work well because its viral communications tools enable large numbers to become aware of an issue and join together quickly.

“When there’s more openness, with everyone being able to express their opinion very quickly, more of the economy starts to operate like a gift economy. It puts the onus on companies and organizations to be more good and more trustworthy.”

“I call this digital democracy”, says author Jared Cohen. A former student of Bush administration secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, Cohen was hired by Rice to join the State Department’s critical Policy Planning Staff. “Facebook is one of the most organic tools for democracy promotion the world has ever seen,” adds Cohen. When he arrived at the State Department in late 2006 at age twenty-four, he was reluctant even to mention Facebook in meetings. People there had barely heard of it. But Facebook kept growing globally. By late 2008 it was being discussed in the White House Situation Room, where President Bush had his National Security Council staff gathered during crises.

The Facebook Effect - An Inside Look at Facebook by David Kirkpatrick

Facebook is the biggest of a number of websites redefining news into something produced by ordinary individuals and consumed by their friends. I create some news for you; you create some news for me — Zuckerberg’s gift economy again.

Sean Parker, who helped Zuckerberg develop his basic views about the service, is passionate about Facebook’s importance in altering the landscape of media. In his view, individuals now determine what their friends see as much as the editor at the local newspaper did in simpler times. Facebook permits your friends to, in effect, construct for you a personalized news portal that functions somewhat like the portals of Yahoo or AOL of Microsoft. If I see a friend post a link to something in a field I know they’re expert in or passionate about, I am more likely to click it than I am to click something that shows up on MyYahoo home page. And in the inadvertent spirit of a gift economy, in return I frequently post links to things I find interesting, useful or amusing. A similar but more anonymous form of sharing is facilitated by websites like Digg, Reddit or Twitter.

A world in which each individual has a clear window into the contributions of everyone else, gift-economy style, does not dovetail well with how most companies are run. While employees of just about every company in America are on Facebook in force, its intersection with the classically structured corporation has been awkward and clumsy so far. Gary Hamel, one of the great theorists of modern management, considers that inevitable. “The social transformation now happening on the Web,” he explains, “will totally transform how we think about organizations large and small.” Hamel says historically there have been only two basic ways to, as he puts it, “aggregate and amplify human capabilities.” They were bureaucracy and markets. “In the last ten years we have added a third – networks. That helps us work together on complex tasks, but it also destroys the power of the elite to determine who gets heard.”

The Facebook Effect - An Inside Look at Facebook by David Kirkpatrick

Facebook itself is both a beneficiary and a victim of the dynamics of the gift economy its CEO is so partial to. The more users want to contribute, the more activity they generate and the more page views Facebook can use to display advertising. But because Zuckerberg has given Facebook’s users such powerful tools to express their views, the company itself has regularly borne the brunt of user dissatisfaction when it took actions people disapproved of. Digital democracy affects life inside Facebook even more than outside it.

Facebook is changing our notion of community, both at the neighborhood level and the planetary one. It may help us to move back toward a kind of intimacy that the ever-quickening pace of modern life has drawn us away from.

At the same time, Facebook’s global scale, combined with the quantity of personal information its users entrust to it, suggests a movement toward a more universal connectivity that is truly new in human society. The social philosopher and media theorist Marshall McLuhan is a favorite of the company. He coined the term “the global village.” In his influential 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, he predicted the development of a universal communications platform that would unite the planet. “Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man – the technological simulation of consciousness,” he wrote, “when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of society.” We are not there yet. Facebook is not what he describes. The world remains fragmented. But no previous tool has ever extended a “creative process of knowing” so widely.

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