Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Redefining social interaction

Like the wheel, steam engine, the motor car and the personal computer, social media phenomenon Facebook can take its place among one of the most impactful innovations in history. Tuesday marked ten years that the world has been logging onto creator Mark Zuckerburg’s virtual world, which reportedly had a membership of 1.2 billion monthly users as of January 2014. During that time, popular culture, social interaction and many other aspects of human civilisation have been shaped by the existence of Facebook. It has transcended language, religious and cultural barriers; and has truly changed the face of the world.

It would not be an exaggeration to label the social media site as revolutionary. In fact, it has been seen as playing an important role in the political changes that swept across the Middle East and North Africa at the start of this decade, known as the Arab Spring. Many posit that by giving young people an outlet to express themselves in what is normally seen by the West as repressive societies, it helped bring together already discontent populations and brought their voices to the sympathetic ear of the Western world. Meanwhile, Facebook’s development from an online hangout for US college students to a mammoth global network has also revolutionised the way that persons access information and the ways that businesses interact with consumers.

On a more personal, but no less widespread a scale, Facebook has changed the way that individuals interact with each other on a daily basis, and has merged the offline and online worlds. Parting ways with a new acquaintance invariably ends with a request to ‘friend me on Facebook’, as a means of keeping the connection going. Indeed, one of the notable impacts of Facebook has been the adding of new words and meanings to the English lexicon – friend (as a verb), unfriend, poke, wall, tag, like and share… these terms have all taken on new life with the advent and expansion of Facebook.

With the merging of offline and online worlds, the line that separates private and public has become very blurred and determining its exact location is a task that is keeping legal minds around the world busy. One’s Facebook profile is considered to be a very personal thing, but the information that is posted there is being released into the public domain and can often have repercussions offline. Human resource managers hardly make a new hire without first checking out the candidate’s Facebook profile and employees have been fired due to statements and photos posted on the site.

Meanwhile, many have argued that a site created to make people more connected has actually aided in more anti-social behaviours. We see others’ personal photos, news and thoughts, but all under the impersonal glare of a computer or smartphone screen. When offline, we spend so much time documenting our activity to be shared later on social media, that we forget to live in the moment and actually savour the experience. We know more about each other, but do we empathise less?

For many, Facebook was their first foray into the social media world, which now has a dizzying array of platforms for sharing information, such as Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and the list goes on. Nonetheless, there doesn’t seem to be any real threat to Facebook’s popularity. At ten years old, Facebook’s staying power has probably earned it the role of the wise, older sibling in the rapidly-changing world of social media. We wonder, though, as the site continues to evolve in both form and function, will it remain a benign ‘big brother’?

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