Finally, something good to say about Facebook

2013 has not been a great year, press-wise, for Facebook. “Facebook is no longer the king of all social media in the minds of adolescents,”  noted one writer on Yahoo’s Shine On site. “It has seen a steep and steady decline in favour of Twitter and other social networks perceived to be devoid of trivial life details, ‘drama’ from friends and the watchful eyes of parents.”

Meanwhile, “Facebook fatigue” has become an increasingly common phrase in news coverage about the site’s long-term investor value and diminishing share of screen-time due to user boredom.

Facebook-land is so full of precipitous cliffs that it’s easy to understand the human urge to just drift away, leaving Facebook as a still-open but increasingly rarely used channel. Unfriend those you no longer wish to read about or be followed by via Facebook, and accept the risk of permanently chilled relations with or even being “re-strangered” by them in real-life. (Blocking and filtering of who sees what is a better option in a big small town like Winnipeg.) Leave Facebook entirely, and lose access to the interesting, fun or important stuff that occasionally pops up among the spam and minutiae.

Human beings love choice and control, and hate being deprived of it, so it’s no surprise that Facebook’s all-or-nothing cliff effects have bred resentment of the site — a resentment that has become more vocal even on Facebook itself in recent years.

Social media is ideal for voicing resentments of life’s problems and for building up a critical mass of people who feel the same way, but who in the past would not have had much possibility of meeting up with the like-minded except by pure chance. Thus, at the same time as Facebook has reached new levels in attracting public scorn, it might have also at last found a positive legacy: as a force, alongside other forms of social media, for political reform.

There have long been anecdotes that social media played a role in the overthrow of dictatorships in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt during the “Arab Spring”. These anecdotes are supported by a 2012 article in the Journal of Communication by Zeynep Tufekci and Christopher Wilson, an academic analysis that concludes that social media probably made the early stages of the revolt against the Egyptian dictatorship’s rule harder to suppress:

[T]hose who used blogs and Twitter for both general information and for communicating about the protests were more likely to attend on the first day, as were those who used the telephone, E-mail, and Facebook to communicate about the protests . . . Although this study did not assess respondents’ overall degree of participation in the protests during the month following January 25, we believe that participation on the first day is a crucial indicator. Under an autocracy, the riskiest kind of dissent is that which fails and the most dangerous protest is one that is small. Smaller protests have a higher likelihood of being effectively censored, isolated, or repressed in authoritarian regimes.

Even in highly corrupt but at least nominal democracies, such as Mexico, social media shows signs of being used to make a country that has long lived under a strict social hierarchy, with a pampered and abusive elite at the top, a little more egalitarian, as The Economist explained in May:

There can be few Mexicans who are not relishing the downfall of Humberto Benítez, head of the consumer protection agency, Profeco, who was sacked on the orders of President Enrique Peña Nieto on May 15th. For weeks Mr Benítez clung tenaciously to his job, claiming he had nothing to do with a scandal that started when his daughter, Andrea . . . failed to get the table she wanted in one of Mexico City’s trendiest restaurants. She stormed over to Profeco demanding that the restaurant, Maximo Bistrot, be closed down. Her father was in hospital at the time, but his subalterns responded with alacrity, sending over inspectors who partially halted business at the restaurant over some minor misdemeanours. Not, however, before Twitter had started to buzz with the story (Andrea was quickly branded #LadyProfeco), turning it into a national scandal.

More recently came an interesting revelation from Egon Krenz, the short-lived East German leader under whose watch the Berlin Wall finally “fell” after 28 years. Now in his seventies, out of prison and living quietly as a retiree in a small town on the Baltic coast, Krenz conceded in June that the Berlin Wall — and with it, the East German dictatorship — could not have survived in the age of social media. A rough translation (available here) from the original German version:

Egon Krenz believes that East Germany, in the age of social networks, could not have maintained the German Internal Wall. The isolated East Germany would therefore, in the Facebook era, have faced existential difficulties.

“This mutually foreclosed system would be, in a world of social media, certainly not be as easy to maintain,” said the 76-year-old. “We would need to accept it…”

Dictatorships thrive best when critics are scattered widely without the ability to coordinate, and most threatened when they come together, as King Louis XVI learned the hard way in 1789 after his summons for the Estates-General to meet to discuss France’s problems spiraled out of his control and turned into the French Revolution. As use of social media continues to grow, the opportunities for critics of abusive regimes, political and otherwise, to come together and gain critical mass to force change will continue to present themselves. For a long-suffering world, that would be a good thing.


About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

2 Responses to Finally, something good to say about Facebook

  1. TRex says:

    Surely there is a large lag in numbers as regards adult participation in Social media and the exposure of the NSA and participating governments as it relates to electronic media?

    I expect these behemoths like Google to fade significantly! Good for trading recipes and not much else. Or else so many of the personal info boxes will remain unfilled as to render it all useless.

    Whatever folks were doing before Twitter and all the rest? That’s what they’ll be doing again.

  2. theviewfromseven says:

    One thing that’s often missing from the debates about online privacy and the activities of the NSA (et. al.) is the power of correlations.

    For example, there’s the old saying that you can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep. It’s true. A person’s Followers/Following lists on Twitter, for example, can be used to make some fairly (or very) educated guesses about personal interests, political inclinations, whether they use a bank or a credit union, what they likely watch on TV, whether they’re a Starbucks or Tim Horton’s person or a PC or Mac person, and so on.

    Facebook is similarly full of patterns.

    In the democracies, at least, it’s probably not so much a case of governments collecting data so that they can maintain dossiers on people as a case of collecting data so that they can build predictive models for screening people at borders and identifying potential security threats early on.

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