"Can we go back to using Facebook for what it was originally for — looking up exes to see how fat they got?” — Bill Maher
The silly things people do! Imagine, posting your brownie recipe online in an awful picture, and asking people to… well… actually “like” it! (Not the recipe, but the awful picture.) Or asking people to “like” your pet beagle, or your twin three-year-old sons, or your first novel… or the college degree you just received in an online adult degree program.
Is this an out-of-control orgy of narcissism, or what? If so, how do we possibly explain Pope Francis’s Facebook page (there he is with his inimitable smile as he sends a dove on its way!), that’s managed to accumulate 501,338 likes. Not to be outdone by the new Vatican kid on the plaza, Michelle Obama’s Facebook page displays a whopping 11,517,618 likes. And it certainly comes as no surprise that even Vice President Biden counts himself (or, rather, his virtual thumbs-up) among them.
But before we make jokes about the Pope or the First Lady, let’s realize that included in their Facebook ranks are The New York Times, The National Review, Alec Baldwin, the Nebraska State Patrol, the film Nebraska, Woody Allen, his ex-wife Mia Farrow, my rabbi… and let’s face it, probably you and maybe even your ex-spouse. Almost everyone and every organization has a Facebook page these days.
What did Mark Zuckerberg understand — that we didn't — when he launched Facebook?
Full disclosure is called for here. I gave into Facebook fever five years ago. And, yes, my ex-wife also has a Facebook page, but I can’t get into it without her permission. And my current wife of many years, secure woman that she is, approves that I did some FB checking on my ex. (She “liked” the idea.)
Let me also note (sheepishly) that I've located a reliable handyman through Facebook contacts, three long lost friends I had thought I’d never see again, and at least four great restaurants. On Father’s Day a few years ago, I also memorialized my father on Facebook.
At the closing bell on the NASDAQ exchange on May 18, 2012, Facebook disappointed the investment community in an IPO with shares valued at $38.23. The world expected much more from Mark Zuckerburg’s corporation. For months he had to endure all kinds of criticism. As of NASDAQ’s close today, Facebook’s stock is now $62.19 — which means, had you gotten in on the Facebook IPO, you’d be up 62.7% on your money in less than two years. Not too shabby for an investment in a culture of narcissism.
What in the world is going on here? What did Mark Zuckerberg understand that we didn't when he launched Facebook? One thing’s for sure. He can’t possibly suffer from Asperger Syndrome. Pundits kicked that one around the Internet for a while. But, as they say down South, that dog won’t hunt. People with Asperger’s lack the ability to pick up on social cues. And they frequently fixate obsessively on a particular topic. As such, some of them will turn into classic computer geeks.
But you can’t run a corporation if you’re just a computer geek. Granted, Zuckerburg employs others to do things he can’t do. Still, the ability to delegate is a social skill an Asperger’s diagnosis could never explain.
Clearly Zuckerberg and some of his Harvard classmates clued into a human phenomenon that has taken the rest of us a few years to catch on to. How could they possibly realize though that one day people would go crazy exchanging trivia, whims, and impulses?
In his February 3, 2014 article, Why Is Social Media Engagement So Important Anyway?, Andrew Hutchinson explains why social media is vital for businesses. His argument is particularly valid for Facebook:
“This is where the importance of brand identity comes in. Product alone, price alone — these things most likely won’t be enough. Your brand needs to be accepted, sought after. Your audience needs to know who you are and what you stand for. And with more and more people active on social media, getting their news, their updates, participating in more and more of their daily interactions online, this is where you need to be to connect with them.”
What’s at stake here for businesses is clearly a degree of intimacy they can’t achieve through traditional advertising. And with the presence of a community of customers on a Facebook page, a business can reassure a prospect in a way he or she can’t be reassured otherwise. In the 1950s, when there were only three major networks, and each prime-time show had only one sponsor, families that gathered around the television provided a captive audience for sponsors. A more varied menu of additional networks and cable TV channels, as well as the innovation of the remote, changed all that. Now social media provide the focus that TV once snatched from radio.
While this seems like an acceptable explanation for the business community’s use of Facebook and other social media, it hardly explains why individuals with no apparent product in mind take time from their busy schedules to congregate on a Facebook page.
Maria Konnikova, in her February 4, 2014 article in The New Yorker, delves into anthropology to account for this. Quoting Sam Gosling, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, she likens our Facebook activity to the act of primates’ grooming one another.
“That’s what Facebook does. It’s a way of publicly grooming your friends. Those conversations that happen on people’s walls could just as easily have happened in private. Facebook allows us to meet this very basic social need, and to do that on a broad scale.”
It’s not only the fact that we groom one another — but with our rampant likes and shares on Facebook, we do so in public.
Perhaps Gosling and Konnikova are on to something. But I think there’s something else at stake with Facebook. If you take the time to talk to people in their nineties, you’ll observe that they remember a time when people sat on their front porch after dinner in the evenings — particularly in the warmer months. Dad was home from work, Mom was finished in the kitchen, and the kids were allowed to play outside just before going to bed. People waved to one another and occasionally ambled over for a chat to someone else’s porch across the street.
As now on a Facebook page, while the rest of the community was in full view, you could joyfully hold a trivial conversation. Chats on the porch were about nothing really all that earthshaking: a brownie recipe, your pet beagle, your neighbor’s twin three-year-old sons. Those occasions for communal intimacy were lost to America and then to the world at large — until 2004, when a few gutsy Harvard grads led by Mark Zuckerburg allowed users over 13 outside Harvard to register for Facebook.