Facebook’s Philosophy

February 2nd, 2012

Mark Zuckerberg’s letter to investors in Facebook’s IPO filing solidified how they think about the world:

People sharing more – even if just with their close friends or families – creates a more open culture and leads to a better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others. We believe that this creates a greater number of stronger relationships between people, and that it helps people get exposed to a greater number of diverse perspectives.

Facebook’s goal is to increase how much people “share” their information, to create a more “open” world where people are more connected. It’d be easy to quip that of course they want this, because it’s good business for them, but I don’t think that’s the way causation flows here. I’ve no doubt they believe that. And that’s the problem with it.

To do this, Facebook sees themselves as a sort of utility which connects the world and that everything is built on top of. Everything else—applications, games, services—should be built upon Facebook, because they are the one place you can go to get access not only to nearly every individual, but also to their personal information (metadata, if you’d like), and their relationship with every other individual. Facebook is a utility which allows you to tap into what they like to call the social graph, or the network map of societies.

My issue is with the idea of an “open” society, where people make most of their information public. Zuckerberg believes this society is superior, because the world will also be more honest and transparent, and we will be able to learn from differing perspectives. Perhaps. But as I argued in September 2010, an open society begins to breakdown the barrier between the private and public. In an open society, sharing becomes a part of the doing itself. If you’re seeing a movie, you post about it, along with who’s there with you; if you’re listening to a band, you let Spotify post it for you; if you’re eating dinner at a new, really cool restaurant, you haven’t really been there until you check-in.

Once the sharing is a part of the doing, you no longer consider whether to do something in the isolation of whether you want to do it. When sharing is a part of the package, you also consider how whatever it is you’re doing will reflect on you. You’ll consider what the general public’s, or your network’s, standards are for it. In that piece, I wrote:

To exist as individuals, we depend on private space to think and experiment without judgment by the public, and to judge the public by our standards. It is only within this space that we can define who we are as separate individuals from the greater society we exist in.

As that space decreases—as we begin sharing more and more of our interests, desires, hopes, fears, goals and what we are doing at any given moment—these factors, uniquely ours, will increasingly become the public’s. They will become the public’s to judge, compare, laude or criticize, and decreasingly our own characteristics, thoughts and beliefs. Rather than judge the outside world based on their own standards, individuals would judge themselves by the public’s standards. Individuals would be outsiders to themselves, looking in and measuring by everyone else’s standards.

That sounds hyperbolic, I admit. But I don’t think it is. As the amount we share increases, we begin to internalize the “public’s” standards next to our own, and at some point, it’s difficult to separate the two. Rather than creating a world filled with more diversity and variety and different perspectives, we create a networked groupthink, where heretics—diversity—is immediately found, criticized, and repressed.

You could argue that people should be stronger-willed and thicker-skinned. Maybe that’s so, and maybe that’s possible, when your identity is already formed. But imagine growing up in this open world, trying to figure out exactly who you are. Social pressure to conform on adolescents growing up in a pre-Internet world was already terribly high, so imagine trying to find new music, books, ideas and hobbies where you not only can share everything you do, but you’re expected to. Forming your identity requires experimentation with a variety of different things, seeing what you like and what you don’t, and that’s something which is inherently private, because you really aren’t sure yet what it is you like. But when that’s public, the overwhelming pressure will be to go along with whatever happens to be the social trend at that moment, to protect yourself from public ridicule. And not sharing isn’t much of an option, either, when the social norm is to share.