In Defense of Facebook

As the summer ends and the baseball pennant race heats up, I'm reminded that the true American pastime is not baseball. The true American pastime is hero destruction. Americans love nothing more than to celebrate the rise and fall of public figures from Britney Spears to George Allen to O.J. Simpson. The catch of the day is Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook (allegedly) and a billionaire at an age when most young people have just earned the right to rent a car. But Zuckerberg didn't shave his head, mutter a racist epithet or kill his wife; his sin is his incredible success.

The forces arrayed against Zuckerberg are considerable. The story in the new movie "The Social Network" is told with the perspective of a jilted former partner of Zuckerberg who feels left out of Facebook's success. The director, David Fincher, is known for his work in murder-suspense thrillers like The Game, Se7en and Fight Club. The writer is Aaron Sorkin, who was able to make conversations about the Office of Management and Budget sexy in the West Wing.

The New York Times describes the paradox of the movie as, "the world's most popular social networking Web site was created by a man with excruciatingly, almost pathologically poor, people skills." Ouch.

Malcolm Gladwell posted a lengthy attack on the idea that social change can actually occur through social networking. And Greenpeace is launching a broadside call to "unfriend" Facebook because Facebook is siting a data center in Prineville, Oregon, a location that receives its electricity largely from dirty coal power.

Stepping aside from whatever jealously you may harbor, Facebook has changed the way that 500,000,000 people -- one out of every fourteen people on the planet -- connect to the world. For most people there was no such thing as a status update in their lives as recently as 36 months ago. Chuck Maguy, President of Saatchi & Saatchi LA says that Facebook helps people express who they are and what they believe. "If you're a friend with a new mom on Facebook," he says, "you'll see that it's the place where she goes for the most important questions she faces. Facebook isn't just about telling people that you're at Starbucks."

Rob Goldman, founder and CEO of fast-growing startup Threadsy, a  "social assistant" application that helps people integrate social networking information with their email, says that Facebook is one of the most profound technical developments in the last century.  "It's literally changing the way that we relate to each other as human beings," he says.  Far from decrying the shallow relationships that Malcolm Gladwell profiled as less-than-important in his New Yorker piece, Facebook is changing the meaning of the word "community", according to Goldman.  "Communities are becoming bigger, more geographically dispersed, faster and less dense, meaning my friends are less likely to know each other on facebook than in real life."   And Goldman isn't the only one with a buzz-driving startup that's connected to Facebook.

The game network Zynga derives most of its revenue from Facebook.  Started by serial entrepreneur Mark Pincus, Zynga has been valued at $5 Billion and hopes to "transform the world through games."  Zynga's breakout hit, Farmville, is resocializing farming to millions of young people.

Like it or not the world is increasingly full of screens. Society's challenge is to overcome this atomization and bring people together to fix problems from the local library to the atmosphere. Facebook has this type of social activism written into its core. Facebook's Causes application now has 375,000 individual causes, and more than 20,000,000 people have played a role, mainly small, in an online cause.  Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection has over 3 million members. Philanthropic social media campaigns like Pepsi's Refresh Project rely on Facebook to get their message out. Zuckerberg's recent announcement of a $100 million gift to Newark's public schools is one of the largest philanthropic gifts ever by anyone of that age.

Malcolm Gladwell's piece in the New Yorker focuses on the hype surrounding Twitter and the overblown stories of facilitating the almost-revolution in Iran.  But that misses the point.   Movements look different today than in the past.  They're not always a big, loud group of people waving signs at City Hall. Much of the action happens in policy circles based on polling, or at the cash register.  And in corporate activism, companies are quick to react to oncoming threats of actions that might harm their Google search results.  Grassroots organization will always be important, but it can be aided by online activism.  The research doesn't yet exist to back this up fully. Here's a peer-reviewed paper that examined events in 2009 in Guatemala, and concluded that Facebook was an important communication vehicle to call for the resignation of the President. Here's another that looks at cyber-protest and civil society. But it's early yet.

In 1973, Mark Gronevetter argued in his seminal paper, The Strength of Weak Ties, that "small-scale interactions become translated into large-scale patterns."  Facebook is increasing the number of small-scale interactions that we each can have with our larger network of acquaintances. Those interactions will eventually create the largest and most powerful global movement that humanity has ever experienced.

But I guess it's more fun to pick on Mark Zuckerberg.