Tuesday, February 26, 2008

I Facebook, Therefore I Am (comments much appreciated!)

I Facebook, Therefore I Am

By E.K.Bensah II


There are many happy people swimming in the information society here in Ghana who are totally oblivious to the phenomenon that is Facebook. There are many satisfied with doing the occasional searches in Google; checking their electronic mail, and surfing the Internet on anything and everything. That you can go to any internet café around town that has a working connection and access such-things might not only underscore the 24/7 access that we so (unwittingly) crave and want, but remind us that the virtual world can serve as a substitute for what many call the "global village."


Whatever you might think about this village, if ever we wanted to de-bunk the platitude of living in one, the mere muttering of "Facebook" would disgrace us.


Facebook is a social networking site that has become a phenomenon almost overnight. I say "almost", because though it was set up in February 2004, it would be 2005, and only in 2007 before many people I know using Facebook would be heightened to the sensitivity of what the service offers, and add me as "a friend" to join the network. That the term "social networking" existed before Facebook suggests that they were not the pioneers of the service.


In fact, it would be MySpace—now owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch's New Times Corporation -- that would be launched in 1999 to blaze the trail for what we have now come to know as social networking sites. Suffice-to-say, however, Facebook has blazed the trail in terms of user-friendliness and easy registration. Online encyclopaedia Wikipedia reports that there are 64 million active users.


An Unearthly Experience

If we forget about the numbers for a second and think about the experience it offers, it is fair to say that there are no surprises why Facebook is as successful as it is. For a service that was started by Harvard students, and meant to be US-centric, it has risen so exponentially it's no longer funny—to become a keen competitor to MySpace that started it all before Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg came down from Harvard to rain on MySpace's parade.


I first started using it around June 2007, because I was invited by "friends", who turned out to be classmates from secondary school. It has taken a while for those from primary school to begin getting in touch. I can tell you that the speed with which I added "friends"—both classmates and otherwise was truly an unearthly experience, for being able  to read their profile and find out what they were up to did really feel like you were in some "global village".


One cannot under-estimate the voyeuristic power of being privy to the lives of people you went to school with several years ago. That you can follow their marriages and the trials and tribulations of their lives all make for an experience that you can only put down to as being one of the benefits of being connected 24/7. Especially so, when one day, you wake up to see that you can even edit your Facebook profile by way of your mobile phone!



Priviledged glimpses

It meant that you could let those checking your profile (which is difficult, in fact to tell, unless they write on your "wall") know what you were doing hour-by-hour or minute-by-minute if you wanted. For a nano-second, you felt that the world was, as F.Scott Fitzgerald's character Nick Carroway describes the "Great Gatsby" in the eponymous novel, "at a uniform attention forever." Uniform because everyone was speaking Facebook – a language those connected could understand. It didn't require manuals or constant emailing to the manufacturers; everything was self-evident. The fact that any change on your profile meant that Facebook would send you an email was telling, because it meant that you could go about your business and still follow up on who was sending you a message.

These priviledged glimpses into the life of one's friends has elicited short-winded elations only the information society can produce. More seriously, it has given vent to what many feel is a significant loss of time. Small wonder, therefore, that a 23-yr-old Catholic student has given it up for Lent. The Independent Catholic News reports that Ellie Harrison sometimes logs onto the site even before she has breakfast! Determined to go on a "Facebook Fast", the MA Russian studies student has publicly declared what a lot of Facebook users would probably be in denial over—their addiction to the site.


Facebook Groupies

In another kind of digital exuberance, which can only go to underscore the time-loss associated with the site, I started joining all kind of Facebook groups—just because I could. The Facebook neophyte that I was in June 2007 believed that it was important to join and continuously connect with others. Still, I was also a key part of some of the groups: one particular Ghanaian Facebooker created a group to Stop the Sale of the Agricultural Development Bank; I joined, but realised I was unable to participate as much as I had wanted to, resigning myself to merely forwarding useful articles on the proposed sale to the group.


Then one day, it all changed.


Work got seriously intense for a couple of weeks, and by the time I actually logged into my profile, I was more-than-inundated by friends sending me "free drinks"; throwing virtual sheep at me; tickling me artificially; smiling at me virtually and whatnot that I opted for a break. My secret, though, was not to tell anyone. In between the messages and the sheep came a degree of self-regulation. At the time of writing, I have some 50-odd requests to join something or other I have not yet honoured, and a friend has just invited me to an event across the other side of the world I cannot possibly participate!


Facebook Fantasies, Digital Elations

We all are cognisant of the pitfalls inherent in a 24/7 information society, yet because we cannot escape it, we strike a fine balance—for that is as much as you can do. It's when you read about a Facebooker mobilising Colombians to stage a mass demonstration for revolutionary Marxist army forces using Facebook that you begin to wonder about the possibilities these social networking sites truly can offer. Or the fact that pedagogical/academic debates are being started around  the privacy – or lack thereof – of Facebook and its ability to offer comprehensive deleting of data, and what that means for innovation and ideas on the internet that you think that Facebook could be onto something big.


And something big it has been onto for a while. Its dalliance with Microsoft has been no secret. In October 2007, Microsoft invested a vertiginous $240million in Facebook. Microsoft has been instrumental in providing significant revenue for Facebook's advertising, just because it has been selling the Facebook's internet ads. The most important development through this dalliance is that Microsoft has been able to acquire a 1.6 per cent stake of the popular social networking site, now valued at $15bn.


Even though the Microsoft-Yahoo! saga might have bitten the dust after two weeks, possibilities are real for mergers, especially because of keen competition offered by MySpace, which, in my view, is to Facebook what Yahoo! is to Google.


The Future is Facebook

The online terrain is well and truly ripe for adventure – and you can bet your bottom dollar that Facebook is going to be in the thick of it. Last two weeks, it launched a Spanish version of its site, prompting reminisces of Yahoo!'s multilingual platform. The significance ought not be under-estimated, because one can very well imagine that with Facebook in the working six languages of the UN some day, we will not just be speaking its language, we will well and truly be thinking it.

No comments: