Facebook announced today that it now has 250 million users, having added 50 million new users in just the past three months. If Facebook was a country it would now be the 4th most populous place on earth. If it maintains this kind of growth there will be more Facebookers than people living in the United States by early November. The man who ostensibly rules this kingdom is 25 years old.
Could Facebook be too big? It has centralized an incredible amount of power over a huge number of peoples’ lives; the texture of Facebook now shapes the pattern of a substantial portion of human communication around the world. Is Facebook too big? That seems like an important question.
Let’s look at an analogy. Every week about 30 million Americans watch American Idol on television. What are the lessons re-enforced by this program? Perhaps it’s that anyone can achieve great things, that harsh public judgment can be funny and appropriate, that the story of our culture is one of rising from obscurity through hard work to wealth and heroism. There may be more subtle messages communicated. It’s widely understood that American Idol is an important cultural influence at this point in history.
Facebook is almost 10 times as big and its users spend far more time on the site than people spend watching American Idol. They use it to communicate with some of their closest friends and family. Surely there can be no doubt that the culture of Facebook has an impact on the larger culture of the human experience. The old cliche “the medium is the message” still rings true and Facebook is a very big medium.
That much influence centralized in one technology company, at a time of dramatic cultural change brought about by technology, is cause for serious concern.
What Is Facebook Teaching Us?
Facebook says all the time that it is helping the world become more connected; it acknowledges that it is making a cultural impact. Facebook cannot be trusted, however, to discuss all the different ways it is changing the world. The cultural impacts of Facebook will take a long time to analyze, but two examples are worth looking at.
Peter Thiel and the Singularity
Facebook’s first and most important investor is PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. Thiel is a big believer in what’s called The Singularity, defined by the Singularity Institute as “the technological creation of smarter-than-human intelligence.” Thiel believes that investing in the Singularity means thinking ahead about how humanity can benefit from our relationships with these smarter-than-human machines instead of being hurt by them. He says that the Singularity will either lead to the biggest economic boom in human history or it will lead to an apocalypse. Literally.
So one of Facebook’s keystone thinkers has his eyes set on a future where machines are smarter than humans, and that either helps us a lot or destroys us all. He is essential to the vision of a communication technology now used daily by 250 million people.
Facebook’s machine intelligence is very real; its system is learning quickly about how humans interact and how different people respond to different events, for example. Let’s hope that the very wealthy Thiel, the very young Zuckerberg and the rest of the company’s insular brain-trust, can steer that machine towards truly helping humanity and not destroying it.
You Will Be Less Private
Facebook made its mark and appeals to so many people in large part because what you say on Facebook is by default only visible to social connections you have chosen to approve. Already the site was changing our traditional understanding of privacy from one where certain things were said to certain people in certain circumstances – into an experience where all things are said to all people that we know, in a big bucket.
Now, the company is rolling out changes to the way Facebook works that will prod users into making more of their shared information visible to everyone on Facebook, all 250 million other users and an unknown number of robots analyzing your information for the company, perhaps for advertisers and perhaps for people building applications you’ll appreciate.
We asked Facebook execs earlier this month when they held a press call about privacy if they were in fact seeking to push users towards communicating more information publicly. Two of the three people on the call said yes, they are. One, the executive in charge of privacy on the site, gave an obtuse answer about how Facebook wants to give users more control over their communication. It doesn’t really seem that way.
Facebook is making changes to the public/private balance in a big way that hundreds of millions of people communicate. We may or may not like the results.
These are just two examples of ways that Facebook could be changing the world. It has incredible reach in doing so. Whether that is good or bad is an important question to ask.