So it has come to this: In a post on his personal Facebook profile, Mark Zuckerberg announced that on Monday, August 24th, Facebook had one billion users. Or, as Zuckerberg put it in his post "1 in 7 people on Earth used Facebook to connect with their friends and family." (It's slightly less than that, but let's not quibble.) The site has about 1.49 billion users, but Monday was the first time more than a billion had logged in in one 24-hour period.
Zuckerberg went on in his post to thank (quite graciously) the Facebook community for helping to reach this milestone, and to extol the virtues of a future with a more "open and connected" world, saying "This was the first time we reached this milestone, and it's just the beginning of connecting the whole world."
But is it a good thing that this future world should exist under Facebook's banner?
I guess it's good for Facebook and the "connected world" that Zuckerberg is looking forward to, but I can't help but feel there is something ominous about the whole thing. One billion people using a single social network to communicate means that those communications; the way they are held, used, exploited, monetized, etc., are at the whim of one company.
Don't get me wrong, I don't think Mark Zuckerberg or the Facebook team and sitting in their offices twirling their collective mustache and practicing their maniacal laugh. And they do provide a service that many, many people want. It is the concentration of power and authority that bothers me. The manner in which we conduct our lives, especially when it comes to how we handle privacy, is at odds with Facebook's long-term goal, which, as repeatedly stated, is an interconnected world. But what if you don't want to connect? Or, more pertinently, what if you want to control how you connect?
I used to go on Facebook on an almost daily basis, but now I'm on it maybe once a month, if that. A big part of the reason why was the slow wresting of control from me over what I wanted to see, and over who got to see me. Every update to Facebook yielded news stories about how to, once again, update your privacy settings so only the people you wanted could see your profile. Other updates made seeing just posts from your friends, and in some kind of chronological order, more and more difficult. We seem to have become the victims of one very, very long bait and switch.
Facebook has its own goals and interests. It is naive to think otherwise. Beyond the idealism of "connection," Facebook needs advertising dollars. This is not a surprise, and part of the reasonable exchange that comes with using a free service is seeing ads, which is a fair trade off. But Facebook needs more than that. It requires an exponentially increasing number of connections between its users to continue to grow, especially as it saturates the social media market. And if that means constantly urging you to give up more information and connect with more people, or put posts from strangers into your feed because the algorithm thinks you might like it, even though you have no actual interest in it, then that's what Facebook will do.
It is important to note that this is not unique to Facebook. Twitter is beginning to stick tweets into your feed from people you don't follow. Google spent a lot of time and effort trying to get people active on Google+ by encouraging (forcing?) them to use their profiles on YouTube. LinkedIn is famous for saturating its users' email contacts with suggestions that they sign-up as well. This is the nature of the beast.
I'm not against the connected world that Mark Zuckerberg and the other icons of social media are dreaming of. On the contrary, advanced technology and communications will allow us to make a better, more moral world. But we must grant people the autonomy to decide for themselves whether or not they want to be a part of it.