This Is the End


Markets, Risk and Human Interaction

January 10, 2011

The Future of Facebook and the World

Where will Facebook be in ten or fifteen years? In our immediate euphoria, such a long term view may be like taking a good joke too far. But where Facebook is in that long term will say a lot about the nature of society. And, or course, it also will say a lot about how much anyone with a very long view should be willing to pay for Facebook.

The success of Facebook depends on people being willing to eschew privacy, to share their lives, or their lives such as they are in the limited dimensions of the virtual world, with a wide set of people; to have many Facebook friends, to have an interest in the day-to-day world of those friends, to believe in the value of interaction afforded by virtual modes of contact. If people decide to cull back their circle to something that resembles real life and share their lives in more personal and direct ways, Facebook may still exist, but it will not be a potent force.

I am not going to enter the discussion of how secure Facebook's position is, or how much advertising it can generate. Instead, I am going to discuss the implications of Facebook for our individuality as we increasingly embrace Facebook and similar systems that replace real interaction with the virtual, and the implications of this world for the success of Facebook.

The basic point is that either the world changes and Facebook become marginalized, or Facebook continues the thrive and we live in a world of existential alienation. Most of my discussion will be along the lines of those in Jaron Lanier's brilliant book, You Are Not a Gadget. I will use excerpts from the book below.

Crowd Identity and Alienation
It naturally happens that the designs that celebrate the noosphere and other ideals of cybernetic totalism tend to undervalue humans. Examples are the ubiquitous invocations of anonymity and crowd identity – Lanier

The themes of Existentialism are freedom of choice, authenticity, and alienation. These are themes cast aside by the Internet age in general – the cloud, the hive, the redefining of humans as parameters of a database, the programs that confine our imagination – and Facebook as a particular. Existentialism starts at the level of personal meaning rather than general philosophical theory, the person is the active subject rather than a passive spectator. It deals with choice, while the Internet constricts, even dictates, our choices.

Kierkegaard writes extensively about people's desire to meld into the common crowd in the quest to overcome existential anxiety, to be, as Kierkegaard put it, tricked out of one's self by “the others.” He calls the result of this desire leveling. Leveling makes people feel closer and more connected because there is less need to grapple with the uncertainty in interpreting subjective experiences. After all, one way we remain alone is that we cannot know what another person is really seeing or experiencing.

“Melding into the common crowd” has the two operative characteristics of melding and commonality. The melding is a natural force within the social network community, because its whole objective is to allow us to interject ourselves into this huge and ever-present crowd. The commonality of the crowd is another aspect of leveling. If everyone is the same, the uncertainty in knowing what others are experiencing disappears. Heidegger refers to this aspect, the leveling of all differences: “by averageness and leveling down, everything gets obscured, and what has thus been covered up gets passed off as something familiar and accessible to everyone. virtue of an insensitivity to all distinctions in level and genuineness, and in providing average intelligibility, opens up a standard world in which all distinctions between the unique and the general, the superior and the average, the important and the trivial have been leveled”.

The elimination of distinctions comes about inevitably in the digital world because people need to be transformed into standardized dimensions in order to insert themselves into this crowd. Lanier discusses the path to this standardization of identities: “Individual web pages as they first appeared in the early 1990s had the flavor of personhood. MySpace preserved some of that flavor, though a process of regularized formatting had begun. Facebook went further, organizing people into multiple-choice identities. If a church or government were doing these things, it would feel authoritarian, but when technologists are the culprits, we seem hip, fresh, and inventive”.

Marx also had a notion of alienation that provided a background to the most prominent existentialists and that links alienation to subjugation of individuality. The 'materialism' of Marx's philosophy of historical materialism came from Feuerbach, and the 'historical' came from Hegel; the latter overcame the limitations of the former by seizing on historical development to place humans in an active role. But while the Hegelian focus was on the realm of thought, Marx's was on the physical world, the practical sphere. It is in this that Marx was a precursor of Existentialism; one of the first to consider the individual directly rather than as a part of the universal. Not surprisingly, Marx's application of this practical orientation was to labor, which historically was how man interacted with and conceptualized the world.

Marx's focus on alienation in labor led naturally to the the plight of the worker, which then led to the indictment of capitalism, and from there to the solution of communism. We can abstract from the economic system that gave rise to alienation in society, and put the philosophical point more abstractly and with less polarity: in modern society labor became increasingly specialized and this specialization dissociated a person from his essential nature. Marx argued that for the most part, the worker does not engage their human essence, their creativity and ingenuity, their ability to respond to many varying challenges and situations.

A similar alienation occurs due to the computer cloud. We become detached from our essence by the transformation from a person with infinite depth and variation into one that is finite, specified by a multidimensional digital array. The Marxist view is alienation through specialization. In a sense people are turned into a datum, into one dimensional commodities. The Facebook world is not much better than that. In the ironic guise of a social tool, it creates a force for alienation and leveling beyond the dreams of Existentialists of a century ago.

The End of Privacy
The only hope for social networking sites from a business point of view is for a magic formula to appear in which some method of violating privacy and dignity becomes acceptable.– Lanier

Facebook and related sites owe their existence to a willingness for people to give up privacy. In order to meld into the crowd, people send pictures of where they are and give frequent updates of what they are doing. Most people are not exhibitionists, or even if they are now, every social trend, including a trend towards exhibitionism, has a rebound. I think there will be a time when protection of privacy once again becomes the norm, when it will be considered avant garde not to strip away the subjective and complex of the individual and dive into the cloud. At the least, to limit it to a small set of people.

One pressure that will act against the current fashion of casting aside privacy and dignity is that it will dawn on people that the world of Facebook has features of an all seeing Orwellian state, only worse, because rather than a single anonymous entity tracking our actions, we happily and voluntarily contribute, updated intraday, with the singular eye of the state replaced by the many eyes of the anonymous cloud. And rather than only tracking what we are doing and where we are, we throw in our preferences and our thoughts for free. I am surprised that repressive regimes do not seize on this tool rather than suppress it.

Replacing the Real with the Fictional
The most effective young Facebook users, the ones who will probably be winners if Facebook turns out to be a model of the future they will inhabit as adults, are the ones who create successful online fictions about themselves.– Lanier

The solution to the loss of privacy is to hold back the real and push forward a fictionalized version of the self into the cloud. This is the only way to meld into the crowd and still preserve individual identity. Fortunately, even as Facebook reduces individualism by holding the subjective from display, it also allows us to create such self-designed fictions. Toward the terminus of his life, Kierkegaard stopped going to church, saying that he no longer wanted to participate in “making a fool of God.” Here we make a fool of people.

So my bet – a long term bet because it will take the force of cultural change to accomplish – is that Facebook will become marginalized. It will not disappear, it will remain a repository for factoids about one's collection of friends, but the reality of what Facebook friends really are will become evident, as will the effects of standardization of the individual, the cost to individuality of giving up privacy, and the frustration with having Facebook friends that are increasingly fictionalized and flattened versions of their real selves.

Postscript: I joined Facebook a few years ago because some people sent me e-mails from their Facebook accounts asking to be my friend. So I signed up and befriended them all. I haven't received any new friend requests for the past year. I thought no one wanted to be my friend anymore, until I recently checked my privacy settings and discovered no one could search for my account.


  1. You've got a boatload of fascinating ideas!

    I agree with your prognosis.

    Certain 'inventions' will inevitably arise given the development of the landscape that makes them possible. They are emergent properties of the new landscape.

    The casual peer-to-peer networking offered by Facebook is one such form.

    Like with search before once a certain tipover point is reached concentration becomes self-reinforcing.

    So it is with Facebook. A tipover point may have been reached. But I wouldn't count on it.

    Its future may be as a network with wide penetration but only marginal utility.

    It won't be able to seriously address the "Crowd Identity and Alienation" problem.

    Because while Facebook is currently dominant, it doesn't address the requirements for deep peer-to-peer association.

    Sometimes missed potentials of new technologies are not regained.

    Example from the past:

    Television! Which because of cultural inertia adheres to patterns laid down by the first players. Those patterns become extremely difficult to dislodge.

    Many of television's potentials for civic engagement and localization of political participation were lost (and in fact turned upside down) by its solidification in community unfriendly ways. The INERTIA of the implementation becomes impossible to dislodge even when obviously faulty.

    [For my 61 years people have been pointing out (and its scarcely disputable) that the public airwaves could make campaigning a lot cheaper... and candidacy available to more than just 'pre-approved' candidates. Yet media costs and the money quest continues to be a thorn in the side of honest politics and good governance. I wonder who's interest THAT serves?]

    Facebook and other such sites are trying to bridge a longstanding gap as ICT quickly goes global. In evolutionary terms its essentially instantaneous:

    There is a FUNDAMENTAL SCALING ISSUE IN HUMAN SOCIETIES associated with NATURAL HUMAN COMMUNITY SIZE (Dunbar’s Number), THE ALTRUISM PROBLEM* (there’s a problematic discontinuity between biological and intellectual altruism) AND COGNITIVE LIMITS (the attention economy).

    In short... our personal networks are smaller than the social organism of which we are a part.

    This presents potentially fatal problems in large group decision making.

    (But its out of this realization that pragmatic approaches to solution can be found.)

    Social Networks & The Social Organism: Healing the Breach


    I strongly, even urgently have been seeking to advance the preservation of one corner as an enterprise owned by, and for the benefit of... ALL humanity.

    The Commons-dedicated Account System:

    A self-supporting , Commons-owned neutral network of accounts for both political and charitable monetary contribution… which for fundamental reasons of scale must allow a viable micro-transaction. Such a network ideally should maintain its own cloud and bank. Accounts may be created and/or maintained with zero balances and/or only momentary balances during a pass-through transfer (monetization model requires no burden on the actual transaction.)

    Gov 2.0 and New Economies - Designing the Social Contract

    Political Fundraising: Act Blue, Facebook and the Missing Network Imperative

    * A very much simplified example of the "Altruism Problem" might be to consider how a decision-maker considering a trade agreement might treat labor-rights depending on whether or not his own children would be working under them. Over time and in aggregate these biases merit more attention than they receive. Objectivity is often a self-serving illusion.

  2. I think that Facebook is just all about what Davied Riesman described in self-explanatory titles of 2 books of the 1950:
    The Lonely Crowd. New York, 1950. (With N. Glazer and R. Denney.) and Faces in the Crowd. New Haven, Conn., 1952.
    Facebook is the triumph of "the other-directed character". How to define one's self become a function of the way others lived thus "shared" in Facebook, where a person wants to be loved "liked" rather than esteemed. Those who are in Faceebook are other-directed and need assurance that they are emotionally in tune with others.
    I would say taking it from Riesman "that isn't it possible that Facebook is as a whole a fantastic fraud, presenting an image of people, a crowd, taken seriously by no one, least of all the ones who sign it up?

  3. Facebook is based on "use" and not "useful." Perhaps people will recognize that soon.

  4. I am a grudging user of Facebook, and a fan of Lanier, and I hope that your prediction of the marginalization of Facebook comes true. But I doubt it. Our collective forfeiting of privacy has been gradual, voluntary and opaque. Most Facebook users do not fully understand exactly who sees their information, how it is tracked and how it is retained. Because of the simplicity and "friendliness" of the interaction, the whole enterprise feels like harmless entertainment, not like an ominous surrender to a corporate Big Brother. If Zuckerberg succeeds, Facebook will become a sort of uber-portal, though which all online interactions will flow. "Private" email and chatting will take place on the platform, as will shopping transactions and the consumption of other media.

  5. I have heard TV described as life without all the boring stuff. Facebook is the opposite.

  6. While this intelligent and erudite commentary was a pleasure to read, I think you may be overanalyzing the appeal of Facebook. For a small sliver of Facebook-addicted, you may be spot on; but for most of us, I think it meets a real and previously unmet need.

    All of us have had dozens-- if not hundreds, thousands-- of people in our lives in different capacities. Elementary school friends. Junior High friends. Camp friends. High school friends. College friends. First job friends. Current co-workers. Ex-girlfriends. And so on. Dozens, hundreds of people with whom we'd like to keep some kind of contact, without actually having to interact; more than an address book, less than a relationship. Facebook brilliantly meets this need (indeed, note that Facebook seems to be as popular if not more so with the 30+ than the under-30 crowd-- because we have more of these connections.)

    It doesn't replace interaction; it doesn't really replace anything, hence the innovation. So unlike the above commenter, I think Facebook is very much utility-based. I know that if necessary-- and it might be necessary, say, once every 9 months-- I can find and reach out to my camp friends from the '70s. Easily. That hasn't got implications about privacy or how I interact with the world; it's just darned useful.

    Because of the crazy-high install base, the likelihood of a competitive threat to Facebook in this realm is low. The question is, can they understand this utility and mine it, monetize it? Personally I'm dubious of the whole concept of the"social web"; I don't think we want a social web, I think we want a useful one. But based on the sheer volume of usage occurring on Facebook every day (and the continued growth rate thereof), I think they are filling a void, meeting a need in a constructive fashion. I think ultimately the drivers of their future are a lot less lofty than the ideas you express; I think it comes down to, can they appreciate this core utility and not mess it up?

  7. Do you ever feel like you're "talking to yourself" on Facebook? IF no one's paying attention, then you haven't lost any privacy BUT IF NO ONE's paying ATTENTION, then what's the point (and what's the business model)?

    Of course, it could just be that we don't have the 'right' friends BUT I suspect it's because most Facebook users aren't very 'thoughtful' about what they're sharing or what they're consuming which is why junk food & fast food hqve done so well and WHY Facebook will do at least as well!

    I admit i've judged human nature harshly BUT so does this post. As an advocate of personal branding as well as learning, I will focus MY personal efforts on learnIng and I'd even be willing to do it on Facebook where all the cool kids hang out' because that's where the action is!

    By the way, personal branding should promote authenticity which is certainly true of those who doN'T practice it. Honesty is the best policy!

    I wonder IF ANYONE WILL PAY ATTENTION to this comment?

  8. @josh What's the BUSINESS MODEL for a Facebook of 'superficial' friends?

  9. I’m really impressed by your article about the future of Facebook. I agree with every single word you wrote and I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately. I deleted my Facebook account a couple of months ago because I thought it was overwhelming. After 3 years using the network, it started making me anxious and I didn’t like this feeling. I have a blog also and I started writing about my experience of “not being on Facebook anymore”. Too bad it’s in Portuguese, otherwise I would send you the link.

  10. I just saw this on Hulu, I think it spells the imminent death of Facebook (I quit Facebook long ago btw).

  11. As per usual South Park hits the nail on the head!

  12. Great post. I think such websites as Favebook, Linkedin, Twitter became popular more because of recession than anything else as people were out of work and looking for ways to spend time. As economy picks up, I don't think people will have so much time to spend on these websites. Also, most of people on Facebook are college students and when they graduate and become busy with their lives they would not like to waste time on social networking sites. Also, how much one pays attention to Ads on such sites? They look spam to me most of the time and so the revenue model is also not so sustainable. Natural human tendency is to meet other people face to face and not just keep poking them sitting in their rooms. I am not so optimistic on these social websites in their current state. Let's see what's in store for them in future.

    Danish Kapur

  13. This could only be written by someone too old to understand Facebook. The site's popularity is due to our desire to watch other peoples drama, which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy because every young person HAS to use it to stay connected with others.

    The privacy concerns are overstated and the whole bit about losing one's individuality is misplaced concern.

    See here for more

    Facebook’s Value: Causing Old People An Existentialist Crisis Since 1984


  14. Too old, or it could be, too busy having a life.

  15. This is amazing list like the previous one..
    Thank you for this post..

  16. I couldn't agree more with this excellent article. It is both interesting and humorous to read the angry and defensive responses by Facebook users frantically trying to justify their vacuous passtime.Thanks for writing.