The Rise of Facebook

18 05 2012

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It is no secret that today Facebook became a publicly traded company with an initial public offering on the NASDAQ stock market.  The IPO is expected to raise around $5 billion.

Today I happened upon a couple of interesting articles that are kind of related to the Facebook phenomenon.

The first is an article from the L.A. Times, about an elderly actress and former Playboy Playmate, Yvette Vickers, was recently found dead in her home. The state of her corpse, described as “mummified” in the Times piece, leads forensics types to believe that she had been dead for months – possibly as long as a year – before a curious neighbor broke into the house and made the discovery.

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Among other details mentioned were that an electric space heater was “still on” and so was her computer. She was evidently active on Facebook prior to her death.

Another article I read this morning was a lengthy (and well-worth the read) article in The Atlantic that spoke of the Vickers case in the context of loneliness in modern society. Essentially, the article entitled “Is Facebook making us lonely?” suggests that this aged Playmate made phone calls to “distant fans who had found her through fan conventions and Internet sites” but not to any close family or friends.

The article goes on to discuss “the Internet paradox”, the concept that describes the “contradiction between an increased opportunity to connect and a lack of human contact.” This is the heart of the piece – technology has enabled a much larger degree of connectivity among people, but the connections are shallow, impermanent and do nothing to decrease Facebook users’ sense of loneliness.

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There are lots of interesting statistics cited in the article, including:

* in 1950, less than 10% of American households contained only one person; in 2010 that number is up to 27%

* 35% of adults over 45 were “chronically” lonely, up from 20% a decade earlier

* in the late 1940s, there were around 2500 clinical psychologists, 30,000 social workers and less than 500 family and marriage counselors in the U.S. Today, rose numbers are around 77,000 clinical psychologists, 192,000 clinical social workers, 400,000 nonclinical social workers, 50,000 marriage and family counselors, 105,000 mental-health therapists,etc.

The article astutely surmised that “The majority of patients in therapy do not warrant a psychiatric diagnosis. This raft of psychic servants is helping us through what used to be called regular problems. We have outsourced the work of everyday caring.”

There have been several studies over the years, many precedeing Facebook’s widespread popularity, stating this theory of the Internet paradox. More recently an Australian study showed that Facebook users were less likely to be close to family members, and that Facebook usage tended to exacerbate narcissistic tendencies.

The results of such studies have gotten to the point of almost becoming ad nauseum. And yet people still cling to their smartphones and Facebook accounts like modern day life preservers.

The next time you have a quiet moment, standing in line at the grocery store, or in an elevator, or anywhere when silence or waiting occurs, look around at people around you. How many people are playing with their phones? Are you? Look around the next time you are stuck in gridlock – or even moving – traffic. I promise you that the car in the next lane with a huge gap in between it and the car in front of them is being drive ln (or not) by someone who is playing with their phone.

I try to stay away from editorializing too much on RttRL here, but today is a big day for Facebook and I felt that this is relevant to the conversation. This was the third-largest IPO of an American company, behind Visa and Enel (an energy company). Unlike these other two companies, Facebook’s product is also its consumers – the users of the service are the product being sold. They are sold quite unashamedly to advertisers and data miners who use the information that people freely offer up to create behavioral models that are used to predict all manner of things from brand preference to creditworthiness.

I digress from the original point – does Facebook cause loneliness? I agree with the Atlantic article’s conclusion, which is “not necessarily” – it can serve to decrease or increase a user’s sense of isolation, connection or loneliness, but it does not cause these things on its own. Like any tool, it does what you ask it to do – and sometimes you get more than you bargained for.

I predict that Facebook will decline over the course of the next decade or so. Its killer will be something else, the next great thing. I think the real genius of Facebook was its early exclusivity (it was only for currently enrolled college students once upon a time, remember?). Now that almost everyone who has Internet access is on Facebook, it has lost a lot of its cool factor.

Now it is primarily an outlet for people’s narcissistic, self-promotional (posting pictures and “witty” quotes and observations) and voyeuristic (viewing all of your “friends” posts and pictures) tendencies.

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