Monday, January 10, 2011

The Future of Facebook and the World as We Know It

The following reflects my views and not those of the SEC or its staff.
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. ...by 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.
Prognosis
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.