Fake or fact? Shining the light on the Facebook phenomenon
Fifteen hundred friends! He wouldn't know 1500 people! The insecure little p----.''
This is my hairdresser, harrumphing last week about one of his friends, a flight attendant, who lists 1500 ''friends'' on his Facebook page.
This allegedly popular flight attendant is one of more than 500 million Facebook members around the world. Or Fakebook, as my friend Lucinda likes to call it. I quote her because the more you learn about Facebook, the more like Fakebook it becomes.
Some of the fakery will be on display when the movie The Social Network opens in Australia this month. The film has been a box-office smash in the US, not surprising given there are 60 million Facebook users in America and the one thing Facebook users love to know about is other Facebook users. It is thus a given that The Social Network will be a hit here because Facebook has colonised Australia even more successfully than it has colonised America. One in four Australians has a Facebook account.
The Social Network is not fair to Mark Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook in October 2003. It portrays him as treacherous and manipulative. But that is karma, because Zuckerberg has had a habit of not playing fair.
The original material he used to create the prototype for Facebook was not only stolen from private databases but an invasion of privacy on a grand scale. It was then used in a cruel and competitive way.
Zuckerberg arrived at Harvard University in 2002 as a schoolboy prodigy, with great skill in writing computer software code. In his second year, he came up with an online guide, called Facesmash, for other Harvard students.
The raw material for Facesmash, the predecessor to Facebook, was obtained by Zuckerberg allegedly hacking into the databases of nine residential colleges at Harvard and copying the photographs and biographies of the students. He then began posting photos, two at a time, asking other students to choose which was the ''hotter'' person.
Facesmash was an instant online sensation within the undergraduate community at Harvard. The university closed it within days. But the model had been established.
The next year Zuckerberg produced Facebook and was immediately accused by three Harvard seniors, with whom he had previously collaborated, of stealing their idea and sabotaging their similar project.
As Facebook became successful, litigation began. It was settled in 2008 with Zuckerberg paying $US65 million to make it go away, though that payment, too, has been the subject of another lawsuit.
The discovery process turned up emails that Zuckerberg wrote when he was creating Facebook. These emails have leaked and they do not enhance his reputation. Here is an email from a friend, asking what he is going to do about the website set up by his original collaborators: ''Friend: so have you decided what you are going to do about the websites? Zuckerberg: yeah, I'm going to f--- them.''
Then there is this exchange with another friend about the information he was gathering about fellow students to post on Facebook: ''Zuckerberg: I have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sms.
''Friend: What? How'd you manage that one?
''Zuckerberg: People just submitted it . . . don't know why . . . they 'trust' me . . . dumb f---s.''
Why did people give away private information for public consumption then, and continue to do so now? Because Facebook, at its essence, is adolescent. It is built on the need to be part of a group, to be seen, not to be a wallflower.
The foundation on which Facebook is built is conviviality and insecurity. The construction of a network of ''friends'' is at the core of the project. As with any network of any kind, once you have scale, you have power.
Facebook is among the top 10 most visited websites in the world. The power of social networking sites is its customised tribalism and, with Facebook, a large dose of narcissism.
The typical number of ''friends'' is about 200. Having few friends is social death. Requests for someone to become your ''friend'' can be ignored.
Some people go to extremes to build an audience. One irritating persistent ''friend'' seeker turned out to be using Facebook as a blog for his political commentary. And the commentary was cliche. Cyberspace is paradise for bores shouting into a void of few readers and even fewer comments.
Facebook often provides too much of the wrong information. Zuckerberg has constantly been in the wars over the company's loose and self-serving attitude towards members' privacy.
It seeks to have everything for public consumption. He calls it ''transparency'', as if it were a moral imperative, when in fact it is his company hoovering up and using as much information as it can about its customers.
Exhibitionism can be dangerous to one's career. The majority of employers now check job applicants' Facebook pages to see what habits or indiscretions can be found online. It has also proved a happy hunting ground for voyeurs and bullies.
As Facebook grew exponentially, Zuckerberg churned through a series of senior executives and close allies. He has declined repeated offers to sell the company for billions of dollars because his ambition is even bigger than that of his competitors.
He wants Facebook to match Google. The business model he is developing is a customised search model where Facebook will become the information channel for its members as they get gossip, news, reviews, photos, video and entertainment sent to them by their ''friends''.
Your ''friends'' become both your news source and your social filter, even if most Facebook ''friends'' don't have the time or the inclination to write or speak to you, personally.