Role of Facebook in today’s world may be measured by the number of businesses which utilize the Facebook icon to draw customers to their site. or, it may be measured by the number of social networking users who are registered members. Considering that there are nearly 7 billion people on the planet, it is astonishing to think that nearly 1 out of every 7 is a registered member of Facebook. The obvious interest in Facebook around the globe prompts us investigate its role in everything from social media to corporate interest to political activism. This paper will analyze Facebook’s function, its advantages and disadvantages in the modern life, and show how it affects today’s society around the world.
According to Carolyn Abram and Leah Pearlman (2012) (authors of Facebook for Dummies), “Facebook connects you with the people you know and care aboutâ€¦enables you to communicate, stay up-to-date, and keep in touch with friends and family” (p. 1). Yet, the social media site does even more than that — for as Abram and Pearlman observe, “Facebook welcomes everyone: students and professionals; grandchildren (as long as they’re at least age 13), parents, and grandparents; busy people; socialites; celebritiesâ€¦.No matter who you are, using Facebook can add value to your life” (p. 1). Just what exactly that value is, of course, varies: both positive and negative experiences with Facebook are heard of; and every corporation and business is deemed wise to have a Facebook page.
Facebook was launched in 2004 and today is “No. 1 in the amount of time spent on-site by visiting users” (Baloun, 2006, p. 7). As its IPO looms, Facebook shareholders stand to gain billions in the public trading of stocks. What has Facebook become? It has become more than just a forum where users can sign on, post messages, keep up with friends, and share ideas. It has become the number one source of advertising revenue on the Web — and it has done so in just seven short years. Facebook is a billion dollar industry — a global phenomenon — and has even gone verbal: “facebooking” is how millions of teenagers and adults around the world are spending their free time.
While for investors looking to make a quick score in the coming public offering of stock Facebook is little more than a monetary interest, for fans of the social networking site Facebook is a kind of substitute life: it is a place where one’s social life can be made and/or destroyed. Recent stories of teenage suicide linked to Facebook bullying have made the covers of gossip mags across the nation. On the other hand, other Facebookers use the site to draw attention to creative hobbies, business ventures, family happenings, and more. All cultures and all classes have a vested interest in Facebook. The story of its creation was even made into the Academy Award nominated film the Social Network, which grossed $225 million worldwide (the Social Network, Box Office Mojo, 2011). The reality in the 21st century global society is that everyone is connected and everyone is interested in the social networking site.
As Jolene Zywica and James Danowski (2008) illustrate, Facebook began as a forum for college students, “however in 2005 high schools were added to Facebook in order to reach a wider range of users. In the following year, almost 22,000 commercial organizations had a presence” (p. 2). Facebook was always viewed as a way to make money — and early investors, like Napster co-founder Sean Parker, saw Facebook’s financial potential in its ability to draw young people (prime fodder for advertisers). While Facebook remained un-monetized (free of advertising) for some time, it only did so to “be cool” so that once its membership was global, it could then open the floodgates to advertisers. Last year the site grossed more than a billion dollars in advertising revenue, and this year it looks to rake in billions more by going public on the stock market. Thus, Facebook’s function (for investors) was always profit-driven.
But for users, Facebook is socially-driven. “In July 2007, social networking sites occupied five of the top fifteen visited websites according to Alexa.com” (Joinson, 2008, p. 1027). Facebook is often viewed as the primary means of maintaining a “social life.” Numerous academic studies have been performed to assess the role and function of Facebook in users’ lives. Joseph B. Walther et al. (2008) state that “forming and managing impressions is a fundamental process, and one that has been complicated by new communication technologies” (p. 28). What this means is that Facebook has changed the way that people see themselves and the way that they disseminate information about themselves. It has also helped break down the barrier between private and public information. With Facebook, one’s private life is now offered to the public (if, of course, one desires it to be). This offering, however, has both negative and positive effects.
Advantages of Facebook
Facebook’s advantage over all other social networking sites is its usability: “From its dorm-room days, Facebook has looked simple, clean, and uncluttered” (Kirkpatrick, 2011, p. 11). And yet, because so many users around the world access Facebook daily, it has become a playground for students as well as teachers, for employers as well as employees: in other words, it is an enormous bulletin board — also called “the Wall” — where anyone, anywhere can post anything: “Facebook is all information all the time. Each month about 30 billion pieces of content are posted there by members — including Web links, news stories, photos, etc. it’s by far the largest photo-sharing site on the Internet, for instance, with more than 3 billion photos added each month” (Kirkpatrick, p. 11). On Facebook, the trivial meets the important; the private meets the public. In short, the biggest advantage of Facebook is that it “is bringing the world together” — and in some countries, like Chile or Norway, it is even bigger than in the United States where it began (Kirkpatrick, p. 15).
Of course, what appears at first to be an advantage may very well be full of disadvantage. While, according to David Kirkpatrick, 75% of Facebook’s users “are outside the United States” and nearly half of all Americans are “active on Facebook,” the fact remains that Facebooking has its pitfalls for the socially insecure (p. 16). Many of these pitfalls are reported in the mainstream media and (perhaps) sensationalized. But as researchers Nicole B. Ellison et al. (2007) show, “in contrast to popular press coverage which has primarily focused on negative outcomes of Facebook use stemming from users’ misconceptions about the nature of their online audience,” Facebook actually presents some advantageous options for users who understand how to navigate the social networking site for optimum benefit (p. 1145).
Knowing how to navigate and use Facebook is essential for optimal experience: “Facebook allows users to have control over their information and who sees it. The basic ‘visibility rule’ is that all the user’s Facebook friends and schoolmates can see the user’s Facebook account” (Tennyson et al., 2008, p. 1823). However, the visibility rule can be changed simply by adjusting the privacy settings. Despite the fact that it is an online forum social networking site, privacy still means something to some users — and Facebook allows such people the option to keep their privacy and simply use the site as a means of communication with specifically designated individuals. This is a major advantage of Facebook over alternative social networking sites, like MySpace: it is user friendly.
However, Facebook is not simply viewed as a forum for reconnecting with friends or as a site where businesses can promote their products. It is also viewed as a means of making new friends (Tennyson et al., p. 1824). Establishing new and/or romantic relationships with people is the goal of almost half of all users of Facebook. The Facebook generation is using the Internet to branch out and find individuals who share similar beliefs, hobbies, friends, and ideals with users. Facebook is a forum for people to find what they think they are missing in real life: community.
But Facebook appears to have even more advantages: “Plenty of people use Facebook as a tool for managing their careers as well as their social lives” (Abram, Pearlman, p. 21). Facebook allows users to find out information about industries that might be important to them. It gives users the option to connect with people whose career paths might be relevant to one’s own.
Facebook also acts as a springboard for political and grassroots movements. Indeed, the so-called “Arab Spring” revolution was reported to have been organized by users on Facebook (Abram, Pearlman, p. 22). The Occupy protests in the New York City, Washington, Portland, Oakland, and elsewhere have also used Facebook as a means of spreading the word about the protest movement.
In the final analysis, social networking is a tool open to any and all individuals, whether they are looking for a job, a place to eat, a way to meet friends, or a forum for posting pictures and updating family members. Facebook supplies Internet users an easy way to do all of those things. Its biggest advantage is the fact that it is user-friendly. But Facebook is not all good news. There is a negative side to the Facebook phenomenon.
The Disadvantages of Facebook
One negative example of the social impact of computing comes from an article reported in the mainstream media entitled “Facebook ‘friend’,” in which we learn how the social networking site Facebook has become both a place for boasting and bullying: “For millions of people across the world it is a useful way of catching up with friends. But the social networking site Facebook can also be used for more sinister purposes. In 2009 Notts Police recorded 28 incidents of harassment involving the site — a figure which shot up 50% to 42 last year” (Sherdley, 2011). Instances of harassment on Facebook are, according to the report, on the rise.
The article tells of Azundah Brown, recently put in prison “for harassing a fellow student on the site” (Sherdley). His victim was Alex Kimberley who accepted his friend request on Facebook. Brown was “on a four-year scholarship program from Nigeria,” when Kimberley met him in person at a location near the college campus one evening by sheer chance. She accepted him as a friend to be nice, but immediately he began posting sexually explicit and slanderous comments about her on her “Wall,” which “could be read by friends and family” (Sherdley).
Two other friends of Kimberley also came forward with evidence of Brown’s harassment: comments sent via text messaging asking for sex. The evidence from Kimberley’s “Wall” and her friends’ phone, as well as testimony from another person that said he had groped her in a lift, was enough to convict Brown. This is one example of the way in which social computing can have a negative impact.
In 2008, Sladjana Vidovic committed suicide by tying “one end of a rope around her neck and the other around a bed post” and throwing herself out her bedroom window (Barr, 2010). She was a high school student in Ohio, but born in Croatia. She had a heavy accent. The bullies at school called her “Slutty Jana,” and laughed at the way her body looked in its open casket (Barr). Such an incident is horrific enough to read about, let alone to meditate upon. Yet, the fact is there: bullying happens — and it happens on Facebook, where Sladjana and teens like her have faced seriously bullying and resorted to drastic measures (such as suicide) to escape the persistent, nagging onslaught of social belittlement.
The suicide of Phoebe Prince echoes the one of Sladjana: another high school girl bullied beyond endurance. In a world where social networking is everything, such social slighting can be devastating. “Oh, for a world of brave hearts who’ll stand up to bullies. I’ll never forget in my own high school when the big, tough football star rescued a girl who was being harassed by four or five boys,” says Margery Eagan (2010). Eagan may be right — but on a social networking forum like Facebook where real-life heroes are physically absent (and only allowed to make their presence known by way of blurbs on a “Wall,” one senses that the Facebook forum is as unrealistic a place for young adults to socialize as a dream world constructed in their own heads. Facebook only acts as a corner into which teens may be backed if they know no other means of dealing with peers. Such, at least, are the disadvantages of Facebook. While it emphasizes social networking, it offers no immunity to social slighting — and gives insecure teens no protection against bullies and peers who desire to use the site as a means of attacking others. The pressure to “friend” everyone can turn into an unwillingness to “unfriend” peers who prove harmful.
How Facebook Has Changed Society
The rise of social media in the 21st century has impacted everything from the way we educate to the way we interact. Our perceptions of reality are informed to some extent by what is seen and heard on social networking sites such as Facebook, and the way in which we ourselves are conditioned has been decried by many. The evolution of Facebook and social media technology and influence over the past decade has certainly helped shape our economic, social, and political history.
Facebook is the biggest social networking site on the Internet and has allowed information to spread more quickly than ever before. Facebook has reshaped the way organizations operate, the way universities teach, the way entertainment is viewed, and the way people communicate. Such a tool is used by outsider politicians such as Ron Paul to develop a serious and loyal following, by celebrities such Ashton Kutcher to promote events, and by journalists like Matt Taibbi to raise awareness about the current economic crisis our nation is currently undergoing. Facebook is unlike any media we have ever witnessed before — and its power is being utilized by governments, advertisers, and revolutionaries alike.
The power of the Internet site is new to the world. Previously, media influence was limited to programming. The power of the media had been used by politicians and political groups to espouse doctrine, but advertisers did not really tap into the power of the media (and corporations did not really began to employ public relations men) until Eddie Bernays (nephew of Sigmund Freud) began to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and link sex with control in the minds’ of advertisers: Bernays “took what he learned by cranking out propaganda during World War I and applied it to the nascent science of advertising” (Jones, 2000, p. 253). What he had learned was that citizens could be manipulated by the methods used by propagandists — and that advertisers had to employ the same means: what Bernays brought to the game however was the solid fact that sex sells. Advertising suddenly went sexy in a big way. Facebook, during its early life, was free of advertising — a point which drew millions of users to its site. Now that it has been monetized (allowed advertising on its pages), user complaints have risen. Facebook, a place where they could go to get away from the world, had suddenly sold out.
Has the rise and influence of modern media like Facebook helped or hurt the citizenry of our nation? That question is put before Clay Shirky and Evgeny Morozov (2010) in their discussion about Internet freedom: “Is the Internet a medium of emancipation and of revolution — or a tool of control and repression? Did Twitter and Facebook stoke the flames of rebellion in Iran, or did they help the authorities unmask the rebels?” Such questions are part of a larger discussion concerning the role of media in political and social networking. Yet, even within the context of the discussion, “You very quickly get this kind of vertigo, where you think you’re asking a question about Twitter, and suddenly you realize you’re asking a question about, say, Hayek” (Shirky). What this means is that talking about Facebook can be like opening an enormous can of worms — one cannot help but launch into a discussion that includes the visions of Huxley and Orwell. One is compelled to examine the role of Big Brother on sites like Facebook.
Indeed, Morozov goes on to say that the government has more interest in watching Facebook and Twitter than in blocking it — because both networks give public access to private information, which could be beneficial to a government looking to root out any open rebellion. The same is true in 1984 — the screens work two ways: they allow both the citizen to see and the government to watch. The employer who wants to know what his employees are actually thinking may get a real glimpse of it through social media — but how he reacts is what will reflect upon him.
Language is also changing as a result of “facebooking.” According to Guy Merchant (2001), “wide-reaching changes in the communication landscape” are happening as a result of “linguistic innovation” on social networking sites such as Facebook. Merchant’s study suggests “that teenagers and young people are in the vanguard of these processes of change as they fluently exploit the possibilities of digital technology, radically changing the face of literacy.” While such a suggestion could imply that teenagers may be able to utilize their jargon for companies looking to promote themselves among younger crowds, there is no guarantee that the jargon itself is supportable and free of contentious elements: in fact, Merchant notes that “tension between change and conservatism” has been a case of study for scholars exploring the topic of linguistics capital.
But Facebook has also changed the way we think of ourselves — it has changed the way we view our identity: Keith Hayward and Majid Yar (2006) state that “the locus of identity construction, by which popular media position and produce social marginality, has moved from one pole of the production-consumption dyad to the other, reflectingâ€¦shifts in the modes by which collective and individual social positions are judged and negotiated” (p. 10). Such a statement is of course indicative of how the rise of new communication media like Facebook can transform the way popular culture identifies itself in ways heretofore impossible due to limited communication. Now digital media, such as peer-to-peer file sharing, allow information of immense variety to be disseminated globally more quickly than ever before. The impact of such instant access has changed our relationship with popular culture. Such instant access is having an homogenized effect on the global society.
As David Held (1999) states, “Hyperglobalizers of various kinds describe or predict the homogenization of the world under the auspices of American popular culture or Western consumerism in general…[and] point to the thinness and ersatz quality of global cultures by comparison with national cultures” (p. 327). Yet, in a sense, the homogenization of the world is being challenged by the very scope and possibility of new communications media. One need look no further than the recent archiving of State secrets at WikiLeaks and the instant celebrity of Julian Assange. Likewise, in America, the rise of the libertarian platform under Republican Ron Paul has seen its grass roots base grow exponentially thanks to new communications media like the Internet. The connectedness of supporters of political change and activism is a distinct characteristic of social media — and it reveals one of the ways in which the Internet has changed our relationship with popular culture. Both Assange and Paul are examples of a revolutionary counter-culture movement, however small, that poses a direct threat to the established global-cultural movers and shakers whose “corporatocratic” greed, according to John Perkins (2007), is at the heart of globalization. However, while such persons as Paul and Assange challenge the status quo, Facebook appears to be content to let users identify themselves (in terms of how they relate to peers), thus suggesting that Facebook is designed to cave into the status quo.
Leo Levinson (2009) describes Generation Y as a generation that desires to abandon the status quo — but Facebook may be changing that. According to Levinson, Gen Y may be seen in a way that businesses should take into consideration when marketing to them: “This generation likes to feel that they have discovered things on their own. They often reject the ‘everybody’s doing it’ theme that many advertising messages have. Because they are an extraordinarily diverse generation, they are comfortable with people, styles, and ideas from groups other than their own” (Levinson).
Of course, Gen Y does not appear to be as “diverse” or independent as he imagines them to be — the surest sign of this being that it remains a generation governed by fads and trends that run a course and are followed by another: what was once “different” quickly becomes “conformity,” as every young consumer gets in on the latest style.
Facebook, then, may be viewed as a challenge to Gen Y. If Gen Y is the future of consumerism, and businesses have to take that into account, Facebook is going to shape the way businesses target the young. Whether Gen Y measures up to what businesses want all depends on the worldview that Gen Y adopts in reaction to social networking sites like Facebook. Signs are indicating that Gen Y is adopting a worldview different from their baby boomer parents’ generation, which was a worldview of revolution. Gen Y is now having to deal with the repercussions of that worldview — and those repercussions will likely inform their own. However, more factors will go into play: after all, Gen Y is not merely an generation made up of purely economic individuals: it is a generation made up of social, political, economical, and spiritual individuals — which means there is much to consider when deciding whether its buying habits will match those of the baby boomer generation. If Facebook is to last and not be just another Internet bubble — here today, gone tomorrow — it will have to somehow secure the interest of Gen Y and not allow them to become disillusioned with the once “cool” site, which was initially free of advertising.
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