Wednesday, 5 February 2014

In your Face! Reflections on ten years from nerd-dom to world domination

Better get the fire extinguishers ready, cos Facebook turns ten this week. OK, so ten candles isn’t so many, but if you multiply that by more than a billion users around the world, we’re talking about a serious global fire hazard.

Now when you or I turned ten, we were still pretty unsophisticated, probably still partial to an afternoon creating new worlds with our Lego or zooming out in front of the Saturday morning cartoons on the goggle box. But Facebook is rather more precocious than that. And, these days, pretty much omnipotent.

It now touches every aspect of life for many of us. Flirtations blossom (and resulting relationships not being considered ‘real’ until your Facebook status says so). Old friendships that have been eroded by time and distance are rekindled (sometimes to the detriment of more recent, flesh-based ones). News spreads like wildfire (as do fake rumours and occasionally hateful propaganda). Business is conducted through cyberspace (though sometimes not in reality). Random silliness is shared to brighten our mundane days (and inane games created to annoy the hell out of us).

Like life or ‘The Force’ in Star Wars, Facebook has its light and its dark sides. The light side can bring the personal touch back into a world where we are increasingly isolated, forming unlikely alliances that can develop into long-term meaningful friendships. It can give us a voice when we feel like we’re shouting into the void. It can connect us with people with whom we can – if so inclined – make a difference.

The dark side can be a vehicle for trolls and predators, cyber-bullying, hate campaigns, false information and a neglected life offline. It’s well documented and undeniable, but is that dark side the rotten apple in the Facebook barrel that means we should throw the whole harvest out? I don’t think so.

Like so much that has come before, Facebook (and the Internet in general) has been rightfully accused of eroding our values and eating into our precious time. But then, the printing press threatened the vocal tradition of story-telling; the typewriter brought fears that it would sound the death knell for calligraphy and letter-writing; television was expected to kill the art of conversation and dumb us down in general. All those accusations have some basis in truth – but ONLY when we, as users, permit it.

You want proof? Well, stories are still told. Letters are still written. And we are still talking.

Just because you’re on Facebook, it doesn’t mean you’ve got to play Candy Crush and post photos of yourself doing a drunken duckface at every opportunity. Nor does being on Twitter mean you tweet what you had for breakfast and cyber-stalk celebrity accounts (most of which are actually written and run by unpaid interns hired by the star’s management).

Humans are, by definition, social. Even the grumpiest, most interpersonally dysfunctional of us needs to connect with other people on some level or another, and smart guys by Mark Zuckerberg saw an opportunity to make money out of that fundamental need. Good on him, says I. Can’t blame him for grabbing the opportunity and running with it.

But let’s not make the mistake of becoming drones, pulled along by the tides of social media and washed by the waves of dross and debris it brings with it.

Just as with the printed word, typewriters and TV, social media has the potential to do harm and dehumanise. But let’s not forget the benefits those developments have brought – the printing press led to the gradual spread of literacy throughout society, typewriters made it possible for information and ideas to be spread more widely, and television is not just Celebrity Big Brother – it’s also David Attenborough and the New Year’s Day concert from Vienna. All this, and more, applies equally to the online world.

Just let’s not forget, it’s no substitute for real life.

Technology is a tool, something we should use to enrich and ease our lives - not replace them. But we human beings are fatally flawed and we just don't to know when to stop, do we? 

Thanks to the massive splurge of easily-accessible communications, there’s a dangers of forgetting the joys of actual human contact. You know, the simple stuff that can make life so much better.

When you meet a friend, actually sit down and talk to them, look them in the eye, listen to what they say, laugh at their jokes (even if they're not funny), offer your shoulder if they need to cry, take the trouble to suss out how life is treating them and what they need from you - their friend.

When you walk down the street, nod and smile at those people you see every day but you never acknowledge. Maybe the next day, they may greet you with a shy "Good morning" and - who knows - before you know it, you may have made a new friend!

When you buy something from a shop or supermarket, look the cashier in the eye as he or she hands you your change and say "Thank you" - and mean it. That simple gesture costs you nothing, but it could make all the difference to their hum-drum day.

I like people, I really do. Though there are plenty I can happily live without, and plenty more I'm sure aren't crazy about me, I really like folk. In all their glory, with all their faults and failings, warts and all, it is our fellow people that give life the colour it needs. Personally, I don't dream in black-and-white, so I certainly don't want to live in monochrome.

That’s why I believe that it’s up to us, as users, to make social media work for us, and to apply an intelligent filter to avoid the dross that comes with the gift of instant connection with a shedload of people around the world.

We have a choice – to make Facebook serve our purposes, or to surrender ourselves to becoming its slave.

So, raise a glass to Facebook’s first decade and enjoy your ‘personal video’ marking its tenth birthday (we all enjoy a little ego-massage, don’t we?), but make sure you’re the one in control – at least of your own little corner of the Internet.

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