FOR anyone interested in Facebook and its precocious creator, Mark Zuckerberg, there was a jaw-dropping moment in the 2010 movie The Social Network, which purports to tell their story.
The scene is a swanky lawyer's office. Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, has been brought face to face with the Winklevoss twins and Divya Narendra, their business partner, accused of stealing their idea for Facebook. They want a cut. Zuckerberg is in no mood to capitulate but his lawyer recommends otherwise. "Pay them," she tells him. "In the scheme of things, it's a parking ticket."
Back in the real world, we know that Zuckerberg agreed to give the Winklevosses and Narendra $65 million. That may sound a lot of spondulicks but to Zuckerberg and Facebook it was indeed no more taxing than a parking ticket. If, as is imminently expected, Facebook floats on the stock market it could be worth $100 billion, in the process making its founder, who is 27, one of the wealthiest individuals on the planet.
Even by Silicon Valley standards such sums are mind-boggling, more so when you know that Facebook has only been around for eight years. Today, it has 800 million users, all of whom, to a greater or lesser extent, agree without coercion or the parting of hard cash voluntarily to share information (as well as thoughts and opinions) about themselves with countless people they don't know.
To those of us weaned on George Orwell's 1984 such cavalier abandonment of privacy may seem odd, even dangerous. To Zuckerberg's generation, however, it is regarded as natural, even essential.
In that regard they're in line with Zuckerberg's philosophy, which is to create a different kind of internet, sharing not just the kind of information you used to find in libraries but what's in our heads. As he told the New Yorker, "It's like hardwired into us in a deeper way: you really want to know what's going on with the people around you."
Sceptical as I am about Facebook, there is no denying its success or its hold over its users. Generation Facebook is addicted to the site, spending long hours immersed in it. "With Facebook," remarked the novelist Zadie Smith, "hours, afternoons, entire days went by without my noticing it."
Eventually, Smith managed to give it up but was left wondering what happened to the information that previously she'd so blithely shared. Zuckerberg insists that none of it will be passed on but how can she – or any Facebook users who want to drop out – be sure? Once you share intimate details about yourself online they may be out there for ever, passed on from person to person, and used for who knows what ends.
As the Leveson inquiry attempts to turn the clock back on public exposure, Facebook wants everyone to reveal everything about themselves. The aim is for its users to offer more and more personal information. Privacy, insists Zuckerberg, is an evolving "social norm".
It's a notion that appeals particularly to the young, many of whom gorge on trivia about witless celebrities. Facebook allows them, too, to be celebrities, albeit unpestered by paparazzi. Moreover, they want to be friends with as many people as possible and vie to accumulate ever more friends.
That few of these "friends" really are friends, in the sense that you could call them up and ask them for a fiver whenever you need one, seems neither here nor there. A friend, as defined by Facebook, is simply someone who wants to be a friend. Whenever I am asked to be anyone's friend I either ignore the request or tell him or her that with a friend like me on their books their chances of acquiring more friends will be slim.
The need for friendship is not, I surmise, what motivates Zuckerberg. Nor does he appear to be much interested in money or status or influence. On his Facebook page he lists as interests "minimalism", "revolutions" and "eliminating desire". Make of that what you will. He may be an idealist. Or simply a talented programmer who created a monster which he and we will live to regret. Where's your George Orwell now?
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