Hail to the Chief … of Social Media

time cover.JPGWith 550 million members and counting, Facebook has enough people to be the world’s third largest country. And if you doubt the site’s influence over communication and behavior, an Oxygen Media study found that about 33% of women aged 18-34 check Facebook right after they wake up in the morning—even before they use the bathroom.

Who do we have to thank—or blame, depending on how you look at it—for the incredible social revolution that sucks our time, cramps our fingers and gives us hours of lolcat videos and funny status updates?

Mark Zuckerberg, a 26-year-old whiz-kid Harvard dropout who started Facebook in his dorm room in 2004. It’s since made him a billionaire six times over. His influence on human communication has been so massive that Time magazine named him 2010’s “Person of the Year.”

And now he’s vying for world domination.

All right. That last bit is probably exaggeration. But …

Consider the fact that Facebook has a better database than the FBI, according to Time. And that, as Time reporter Les Grossman writes, the site is now “big enough to bump against governments as well as other companies.” In a single day, about a billion new pieces of data are posted on Facebook. And in November 2010, Facebook accounted for a full quarter of all American Internet page views, with a membership that’s increasing by about 700,000 people per day.

Considering about a tenth of the planet is now hooked into Facebook, Zuckerberg is a worthy recipient of Time‘s tribute. But remember, other “Person of the Year” honorees have included Adolph Hitler and the Ayatollah Khomeini. Not that Zuckerberg is anything like them (please don’t send me mail!)—but the title doesn’t always go to someone who has necessarily been a positive world influencer.

Whether this young phenom has given mankind a true “gift” with Facebook, like the wheel or penicillin or sliced bread, is still up for debate.

As Grossman writes, “Facebook wants to … turn the lonely, antisocial world of random chance into a friendly world, a serendipitous world. You’ll be working and living inside a network of people, and you’ll never have to be alone again. The Internet, and the whole world, will feel more like a family, or a college dorm, or an office where your co-workers are also your best friends.”

But he counters Zuckerberg’s dream of unity, peace and status updates for all with:

An article published earlier this year in European Psychiatry presented the case of a woman who lost her job to a Facebook addiction, and the authors suggested that it could become an actual diagnosable ailment. (The woman in question couldn't even make it through an examination without checking Facebook on her phone.) Facebook is supposed to build empathy, but since 2000, Americans have scored higher and higher on psychological tests designed to detect narcissism, and psychologists have suggested a link to social networking. According to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 81% of its members have seen a rise in the number of divorce cases involving social networking; 66% cite Facebook as the primary source for online divorce evidence. Openness and connectedness are all well and good, but someone should give two cheers at least for being closed and disconnected too.

I know people who can’t have a 15-minute face-to-face conversation without checking Facebook at least once. All of us, in fact, have probably succumbed to the site’s look-at-me-now-now-now-now allure. Grossman also warns us:

However much more authentic the selves we present on Facebook are than they were in the anonymous Internet wilderness that came before it, they still fall far short of our true selves, and confusing our Facebook profiles with who we really are would be a terrible mistake. We are running our social lives over the Internet, an infrastructure that was not designed for that purpose, and we must be aware of the distortions it creates or we will be distorted by them. The standard cliché for describing viral technology like Facebook has always been, 'The genie is out of the bottle.' But Facebook inverts that. Now Facebook is the bottle, and we're the genie. How small are we willing to make ourselves to fit inside?

It’s that last question that makes me grimace.

Still, Facebook is now ingrained in our culture, with all of its pros and cons. Even if it’s gradually replaced by another site someday, the global communication zeitgeist it has sparked will remain for generations. And I wonder what our world will look like in 2015, if three-quarters of the earth’s population uses Facebook.

I also wonder if Mark Zuckerberg will win Time‘s title again.

Who wrote this?

Meredith has had two careers: one as a writer/editor for both Focus on the Family and The Navigators, and one as an English teacher trekking far-flung corners of Europe, Africa and Asia. She now rejoins Focus, but with souvenirs—including new eyes with which to better view American culture.

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