Thursday, December 16, 2010

Facebook and the individual in the global village

The end of the year is approaching, 2010 is almost over. This is a good time for some reflection. It has just been announced by TIME Magazine that Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, is the ‘person of the year.’ Facebook does not need an introduction here; everybody knows what it is and offers. In 2004, when Facebook was tiny and Zuckerberg a nineteen year old student, the online service was described, by the founder himself, as ‘an online directory that connects people through social networks.’ This description can easily be used to describe the global, highly successful, Facebook of 2010.

Not everybody is equally delighted by the success of Facebook. In her 2009 Christmas address, the Queen of the Netherlands warned about the increasing individualism in Dutch society. According to the Queen, there is a real danger that the Dutch are slowly alienating themselves from the local community, from the warm bonds of neighborliness, and instead turn into isolated, cynical, and cold-hearted individuals. And the social networks on the internet, Facebook included, only accelerate this process, said the Queen, because they replace ‘real’ connections with ‘unreal’, or virtual connections.

The Queen’s speech has been criticized, especially for not taking into account the negative aspects of neighborliness. Indeed, one of the proudest achievements of the Netherlands is the level of tolerance that has been achieved. There is no ‘neighborhood watch’ anymore, to comment on other people’s lifestyles. This personal freedom is something to cherish, and to defend, because it is extremely fragile. We see how fragile it is at the moment, when various incidents have led people to argue that some of our privacy, and some of our tolerance towards irregular behavior of others, should be sacrificed.

This restriction of people's privacy for the sake of keeping the community together and safe is a global trend. One of the most topical books of recent times is the book by Simon Chesterman, One Nation Under Surveillance: A New Social Contract to Defend Freedom Without Sacrificing Liberty. He predicts that governments will collect more and more information about their own citizens, and that these citizens will increasingly accept that their government will collect this highly sensitive information.

And perhaps this is not such a bad thing. Perhaps a restriction of privacy will bring back the isolated individuals into the warm bonds of neighborliness. In literature, it has already been pointed out that the freedom that comes with increased privacy and tolerance does not always lead to happiness. In other words, to be free is not only to be selfish, it can also be a lonely state of existence. Perhaps a 'neighborhood watch' could be helpful, if it does not limit itself to commenting on other people’s lifestyles, but tries to integrate everyone into the life of the local community.

But is Facebook really a danger to such a process? In a way, Facebook itself is doing the same thing, by collecting data of its users, and using the collected data to bring people with similar interests together. Those that cherish their privacy will not be happy about this, and Facebook does offer an opportunity for them to block the sharing of their personal data. However, it is indicative that not all of the Facebook-generation see this collection and use of personal data as an unwarranted invasion of their privacy.

Perhaps then, the Queen has mischaracterized Facebook. Perhaps Facebook is the foundation of a true ‘global village,' where people do share interests, hobbies, etc. Of course, in the end Facebook cannot replace the warmth of a local community. But must Facebook be considered a threat to local solidarity and neighborliness, as the Dutch Queen has suggested? Merry Christmas and a happy 2011!!

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