Philippa Thomas Online

Occasional thoughts about life, books and news.

The Facebook Effect

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David Kirkpatrick has written the insider story of the making of the monster* that is Facebook. So insider, with every step chronicled in exhaustive detail, that I found myself skip-reading for the real nuggets of insight. But there are quite a few to be had.

PRIVACY
“You have one identity”. The famous (infamous) quote from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2009. Infamous because up to now, we’ve all survived and thrived by massaging multiple identities: naturally presenting somewhat different selves to parents, friends, lovers, employers. Online, inconsistencies are increasingly laid bare. The pressure is on to ‘be who we are’, which means defining who we are, knowing ourselves, and accepting that our efforts at self-definition are being archived as we go. Frightening? Yes.

So Kirkpatrick writes that “Facebook is founded on a radical social premise – that an inevitable enveloping transparency will overtake modern life.” But here’s his take on that obvious development. “With its mammoth scale, Facebook’s very success has rendered the premise less alarming. For better or worse, Facebook is causing a mass resetting of the boundaries of personal intimacy. A large number of Facebook’s users, especially younger ones, revel in the fullness of disclosure.” Nice phrase. (Still true?)

And so the question is out there : “as it becomes harder to orchestrate how others view us, does that make us more consistent, or just more exposed?”

And the biggest question of all is posed : who will control our digital identity? Who owns our data? It’s a question I heard discussed with some passion by Sandy Pentland of MIT’s Media Lab at the Nieman Foundation last night, a question he thinks we have to address collectively NOW before it’s too late.

THE PLATFORM
When Kirkpatrick’s book was published this May, he noted that there were more than 500,000 applications operating on the Facebook platform. (Anyone have the total now? ATOW I couldn’t get onto Facebook’s press site.)

And here’s the problem he highlights : are users sufficiently aware of the risks they’re taking? “Frequently when users install an app, they give it essentially blanket permission to extract data from their profile. But once that data is in the hands of the developer the user loses all control of what happens to it. ”

THE GIFT ECONOMY

Kirkpatrick recounts a conversation over dinner with Zuckerberg, and the idealism of the Facebook founder about his invention’s ability to promote the “gift economy” on a massive scale. Zuckerberg describes it as “a framework of mutual giving… Transparency and sharing.” As he sees it, because you operate under your own name, exposing your real identity, you have to earn respect, credibility and trust.

What about its impact on politics, on government? He quotes Google’s Jared Cohen formerly of the State Dptmt. “I call this digital democracy… Facebook is one of the most organic tools for democracy promotion the word has ever seen. ”

So : Idealists of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your privacy. It might be a trade off that is worth it.

And, putting all this in context, here’s a final argument that really struck me, in real Clay Shirky style. Kirkpatrick quotes modern management theorist Gary Hamel as saying that historically, there have only been two ways to “aggregate and amplify human capabilities”. They were bureaucracy and markets. “Then 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. ”

Uh, Wikileaks, anyone?

* yes I’m on Facebook. What a great tool. How could I not be?

Author: philippathomas

I've been a BBC newswoman for 28 years: reporting from around the world. Currently to be seen anchoring BBC World News TV. Main interests - politics, diplomacy, tech, media, arts and all things American. I began this personal blog as a 2011 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard. You can also find me talking daily news on Twitter at @PhilippaBBC, and sharing anything from travel photos to my year in books on Instagram at @philippanews. Thanks for reading!

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