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February 18, 2011

We’re All Friends Here

By Spear's

Sure, Facebook is huge — a global phenomenon. But will it be the next Microsoft? Will its great wall be visible from outer space? Daisy Prince posts a status update
THIS IS SET to be the year of Facebook. It all started on 2 January, when Goldman Sachs quietly sent out a notice to their ultra-high-net-worth clients saying that there was an opportunity they could invest in. Therein started one of the most closely watched processes for investing in a company ever seen. In the following two weeks, speculation about the deal reached fever pitch, as the papers speculated on who would get the shares and whether or not the stock would IPO in 2012.

However, before any of that could happen, the overwhelming publicity reportedly put so much pressure on Goldman that the frenzy came to a swift end on 19 January, when the company announced that it would retract the Facebook offer to its US clients. Although the firm had broken no laws, it seems they decided it wasn’t worth the scrutiny and pulled the deal, resulting in, one imagines, a number of PO’ed clients, managers and support people who had wasted hundreds of hours setting the deal up.

But that seems to be the curse of Facebook: wherever it goes it stirs up controversy. The Social Network, the film about Facebook’s origins written by acerbic West Wing-creator Aaron Sorkin, addresses the problems of Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg. Lawsuits against the company abound, and even the twin Olympic rowers Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss are once again taking Zuckerberg to court to get more than the $65 million they were originally awarded.

There are more problems afoot, too: a recent American TV documentary about Facebook told the tale of a teacher who lost her job for posting negative thoughts about some of her colleagues. This seems rather stupid until you realise that she thought her privacy settings were adjusted so only her ‘friends’ could read her wall. Unbeknown to her, Facebook had changed the settings to ‘everyone’, so she was caught and fired for inappropriate conduct.

The problems don’t stop there: Mexican drug lords are using Facebook to find pictures of the children of the rich for kidnapping and extortion. However, the fact remains that Facebook recently surpassed Google as the most popular site on the web, with over 500 million users.

So is Facebook the next Ford Motors, or even the next Microsoft? There is no question that Facebook is addictive, and the evidence supports this. The average Facebook user spends eight to nine hours a month on Facebook, as opposed to the average Google user, who spends only two to three. I can confirm this: I have come to dread going on Facebook because I know that twenty minutes will automatically be lost as I scroll down my wall postings to see holiday pictures that have been put up and silly musing from people I haven’t talked to in fifteen years.

I would avoid it completely, but Facebook is the only way I can communicate with my husband’s cousins (who are all ten years younger than me). I am continually fascinated by how much of their lives they spend Facebook-ing each other and how open they are on a wall to 500 of their closest friends.

No one can doubt that Zuckerberg is taking the concept of society to a new level, but what that new level will look like remains to be seen. If, as Aristotle said, humans were made to be in a community together, then I wonder what he would think of Facebook and Zuckerberg’s vision of us in ten or twenty years’ time, as watching TV and having our friends pop up on the screen to comment on the show. Privacy as we know it now will be a thing of the past, but the generation below mine doesn’t seem to care.

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One thing that might prove to be Facebook’s undoing is the nature of the enterprise. Intellectual property is very difficult to control and people are fickle, especially on the internet. At the moment Facebook has no competition, but who’s to say that something won’t come out of the sky in the next two or three years? The company also states that it hasn’t begun to tap its advertising potential yet, but to quote from The Social Network: ‘Facebook works because it’s cool.’

And for the moment, it is; it’s a clean site without tons of ads gunking it up. However, the minute they change that model, the kids will leave it for something else. I’m sure that Zuckerberg is well aware of this and probably stays up nights trying to think his way out of it. Facebook might be the 21st-century equivalent of the printing press but, as my mother pointed out to me, ‘Perhaps it is, but remember that Gutenberg didn’t die a rich man.’

Illustration by Sonia Hensler

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