On 4 February 2004, 19-year-old Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg launched a website on which American college students were expected to socialise. Ten years on and TheFacebook, albeit without the definite article, has long since stepped out of the college dorm. At the end of last year, Facebook was being used by 1.23 billion users worldwide. It’s fair to say that Zuckerberg and his nifty idea have come to define an era.
Not that Zuckerberg has been universally hailed. There have been legal controversies about who really came up with the idea of Facebook, with fellow Harvard students Cameron Winklevoss, Tyler Winklevoss, and Divya Narendra accusing Zuckerberg of stealing their idea for a college network, ConnectU. (A settlement was reached in 2008, but the Winklevoss twins are still seeking further compensation.) There was the rather artificial furore about Facebook’s initial public offering (IPO) in the Summer of 2012, with many accusing Facebook of vastly overstating its value at $104 billion (it is now worth closer to $130 billion). And there have been the ongoing grumblings about Facebook’s attitude to privacy, with its tendency to constantly recalibrate its privacy settings a particular source of ire. (What the moaning seems to ignore is that people don’t actually have to give everything about themselves away. If you don’t want everyone to see a picture of you naked save for a fireman’s helmet and a bottle of meths pressed to your lips there’s one simple trick: don’t post it on Facebook.)
But despite the brickbats being chucked his way, there is something impressive about Zuckerberg. He is a geek who went from messing about on his dentist father’s computers in the late 1990s to becoming one of the most significant and influential figures in the world – and one of the wealthiest, too. The rush to haul him off his pedestal every time something goes a little awry for Facebook says more about contemporary antipathy to wealth and ambition than it does about Zuckerberg, a man about whom, thanks to his ironic commitment to his own privacy and his aversion to interviews, we know very little.
So what is it about Facebook that has proved so popular to the extent that it has even made a little history? The answer lies in Zuckerberg’s recognition of a widespread contemporary desire. That is, in the midst of the decay of the older forms of solidarity, based upon shared interests and community, people still need to forge an identity, a life narrative. It’s just that that is increasingly difficult to do through real social relationships. The need for affirmation, for others to recognise what you’re doing is to be sought elsewhere. And this is where Facebook comes in: it has allowed people to create themselves, to carve out a life narrative and identity through status updates, uploaded photos, likes and dislikes and, of course, ‘friends’.
Facebook may play upon contemporary narcissism, that desperate need to constantly have one’s life affirmed in the mirroring eyes of virtual friends. And in the process it may have degraded the meaning of friendship. Yet there’s little doubt that in helping to cultivate certain narcissistic tendencies, in allowing people to develop an identity online in the absence of real-world possibilities, Facebook has helped to shape contemporary culture and given people a chance to express themselves. In this regard, anti-Facebook privacy campaigners have always missed the real issue. Facebook is not violating privacy; it is allowing people to make themselves public. And judging by its one-billion-plus users, there are plenty of people who want to do just that.