Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, describes his worldwide enterprise as a domain that facilitates global connectedness through online sharing where users can learn, discuss, and contribute ideas (John, 2018, p. 54). The Facebook platform has created a new communicative culture where sharing content and interacting with others has become a convenient daily practise. The emergence of social networking has tremendously transformed the nature of society today as it blurs the line between individuals’ public and private lives in building a unique digital world that embraces openness. Firstly, while Facebook has always been ahead of the times, it didn’t start as the platform we know and love today but has been constantly evolving since its establishment in 2004. Zuckerberg was a young man with big dreams when he developed the business idea, and for the past 16 years, has been resourcefully augmenting the social networking service through human engagement and technological progression. Additionally, this entity has critically transformed the political and social environment as user-generated content has become key in distributing information on a global scale and sharing opinions is no longer privatised. Lastly, a controversial element of the company is that their financial prosperity can be attributed to their effective advertising economy which exploits user data by selling personal information to companies who wish to personally target individuals through social media.
Where it all began…
In February 2004, Mark Zuckerberg was a 19-year-old student at Harvard University when he and a few other pupils came up with a brilliant plan to create a social operating system for the internet (Croft, 2007, p. 1). First called ‘FaceMash’, then changing to ‘TheFacebook’, and eventually becoming just ‘Facebook’, the platform began as a network solely for Harvard University students to communicate on. By 2005, Facebook expanded its access to over 800 universities and high schools across the country, and eventually in 2006, allowed anyone over 13 with a valid email address to sign up (Wilson, Gosling, Gosling, & Graham, 2012, p. 206). As shown in the figure below, the Facebook population continued to rapidly grow into a broadly diverse network of participants:
All of a sudden, users were given the opportunity to create their own desirable virtual identity and to join an online world that connected people far and wide. The ability to share photos, videos, news, or day-to-day updates has increased the level of global social engagement and has become the basic tool for daily interaction, personal identity, and network building (Debatin, Lovejoy, Horn, & Hughes, 2009, p. 83).
Facebook Subsidiaries and Development
In 2012, Facebook bought Instagram, its most well known subsidiary. This initiative was encouraged by the fact that Instagram could well be a competitive rival for the company, based on their business model (Reiff, 2020). Instagram remains the ‘photo-sharing’ branch of Facebook and has been extremely successful in growing its user-base of 112 million active users, mostly in the younger demographic. In 2014, Facebook acquired Whatsapp, the mobile messenger service that allows free calls and texts, and Oculus, a virtual reality technology company known for its innovative headset (Reiff, 2020). Over the years, Facebook has built a complex and vast ecosystem, here is a simplified outline of its internet ecology:
As Facebook has obtained these companies, along with many others, they have expanded their reach to diverse target markets in an effort to keep up with today’s dynamic society. By integrating futuristic technology into their business model, Facebook is keeping up with society’s digital progression and maintaining power over the tech industry. Additionally, Facebook developers began building applications that allowed users to streamline their online identities with other internet services such as Itunes, Youtube, Pinterest, Myspace and so on, making it increasingly simple for users to navigate their activity online (Croft, 2007, p. 2).
Facebooks Growth Rate
Expectedly, the body of employees at Facebook has grown dramatically over the past 16 years with the company growing from seven employees in 2004, to 44,942 in 2019. Zuckerberg became a billionaire 13 years ago at 23 years old, and is still actively working on the Facebook campus in the Silicon Valley, which some people call a mini adult disneyland.
Facebook’s influence on socialisation and political engagement
Now established as a global tech giant, Facebook has had a tremendous influence on the political and social environment. Socialising has taken on a new form where the word ‘friend’ has become a verb, and ‘sharing’ or ‘liking’ something holds heavy weight in controlling user satisfaction (Elgot, 2015). The action of friending and unfriending someone on Facebook could be described as apathetic in nature, as this response is carried out via the click of a button rather than over a cup of coffee. In recent years, social media activity has caught the attention of sociologists as young people are spending an increasing amount of time on their screens. Ryan, Chester, Reece, and Xenos (2014) reviewed the uses and abuses of Facebook, finding that most university students found themselves scrolling on Facebook for no particular reason and spending more time on the platform than intended (p. 141). The results of the study provided evidence that depression and anxiety are positively correlated with Facebook addiction, suggesting that lonely people might use Facebook as an escape from their problems but it will never truly gratify them (Ryan et al., 2014, p. 141). While there are considerable social benefits on Facebook in strengthening relationship ties and keeping up to date with friends’ lives, the psychological impacts should not be dismissed.
From a political standpoint, user participation through social media has transformed the way people discuss, review, and engage with politics. Gary Tang and Francis L. F. Lee (2013) argue that, “the rise of social media has arguably further contributed to the phenomenon of accidental or unintentional exposure to public affairs content because such content is often ‘‘pushed’’ to people by their acquaintances” (p. 764). Through the Facebook news feed, users are exposed to the content that their friends (or friends of friends) are interacting with which results in incidental news exposure. This process makes people generally more aware of significant world events as well as more localised stories. Additionally, political figures have now turned to social media to carry out their campaigns because it is the most convenient and far-reaching alternative to connect with their audience (Elgot, 2015). Scott Morrison, Australian Prime Minister, uses Facebook to communicate with the country, and other users can respond to his message in the comments section:
Through platforms like Facebook, political parties can maintain control over the message they wish to construct instead of relying on news services to portray their ideals. Facebook has introduced a direct medium of communication where politics and user-generated content can collaborate as individuals can react, comment, like or dislike information online. Chadwick (2006) remarks that accessing information via Facebook is completely free, and the fact that users are mobilising to share content encourages others to participate themselves (Gary & Lee, 2013, p. 764). In the past, political information was shared through one way communication techniques on television, radio, and in newspapers, however the rise of Facebook has transformed the way people engage with global news and share personal views.
Facebooks Advertising Economy
Finally, as we are aware, Facebook is a free platform to join and maintain a profile on, so where does all their billions of revenue come from? Well, the current economy at Facebook is driven by digital advertising, where companies pay Facebook for access to user information so they can actively track the behaviours of their consumers. Christian Fuchs (2012) uses the theory of capitalism to describe the process of data exploitation by large corporations in saying that internet users have become “productive labourers” (p. 140). When users sign up for Facebook they are asked to provide demographic details such as age, gender, hometown, education, relationship status, and so on, and as they interact with their profiles over time, every click, visit, comment, and like, is carefully tracked and stored through Facebook’s complex data system. User information is then sold as a commodity to companies for economic gain. Fuchs (2012) remarks that, “the production of surplus value is generated by consumer participation on Facebook, so the platform needs user engagement and interaction to prosper” (p. 144). Facebook would not exist without the unpaid labour that users provide.
The Iceberg Model
While these details are outlined in fine print in Facebook’s terms and conditions, the process by which user data is being extracted is hidden from the consumer, bringing to light some ethical concerns. Debatin et al., (2009) use an iceberg model to visually portray the visible and invisible side of Facebook.
This representation indicates that the visible part of the network is made up of users profiles and communication exchange, while the invisible section is, “fed by the data that trickles down from the interactions and self-descriptions of the users in the visible part” (p. 88). Data is extracted subtly and targeted advertisements slip quietly into our news feeds, but most individuals do not consider this to be threatening to their privacy.
Cambridge Analytica Scandal and Privacy Regulation…
However, in March 2018, a politically driven Facebook data breach by Cambridge Analytica caught the attention of Facebook users. “87 million individuals’ data were illicitly harvested without their consent” (Hinds, Williams, and Joinson, 2020, p.1). This data was then used to create “psychographically tailored advertisements” that aimed to influence people’s votes in the 2016 US election (Hinds et al., 2020, p.1). This corrupt scandal provoked conversations on privacy ethics and many Facebook users deleted their accounts. Here is a timeline of Facebook’s policy changes leading up to the Cambridge analytica scandal:
Hinds et al. (2020) assert that many users are unaware of how their data is being recorded and used by large corporations, particularly because computer algorithms are tracking such minor details of activity such as language patterns, number of friends, and frequency of logins (p. 2). All of these behaviours are the building blocks of an individual’s virtual identity. Facebook’s advertising economy is essential to their livelihood as a network, pointing to the fact that exploiting user data is only going to escalate from here on out.
While there are evident downfalls of the company’s business model, Facebook has transformed the social culture of society. Mark Zuckerberg began with a simple idea that has been successfully amplified over the past 16 years, truly changing the way people connect. It has simplified the way users are able to create content and contribute to a growing online society. Facebook has transformed the way in which politics are communicated and how opinions are addressed as it emphasises freedom of expression and has effectively moulded our public and private lives. Ethical concerns continue to dominate debates regarding social media and the utilisation of user data, however as Christian Fuchs (2012) remarks, Facebook’s structure relies on users for productive labour to drive their economy, and users’ social addiction to using Facebook collectively feeds the cycle.
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- Reiff, N. (2020, April 1). 5 Companies Owned by Facebook; photo and video sharing, virtual reality, and messenger services. Investopedia.
- Ryan, T., Chester, A., Reece, J., & Xenos, S. (2014). The uses and abuses of Facebook: A review of Facebook addiction. Journal of Behavioural Addiction, 3(3), 133-148.
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- Wilson, R., Gosling, S., Gosling, S., & Graham, L. (2012). A Review of Facebook Research in the Social Sciences. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(3), 203-220.
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