Connecting at arm's length

06 February 2012 - 01:59 By Toby Shapshak

Facebook apparently once tried to copyright the word "like".

Toby Shapshak. Stuff editor. File photo.
Toby Shapshak. Stuff editor. File photo.
Image: Times LIVE

They hardly needed to. The word is now universally associated with the social network and it is predicted that it will be used a trillion times this year.

Not "love". Not "hate". Not even "unlike" (and one wonders how many times "unlike" would be used if there were a button available).

Facebook, in case you've been sleeping for the last eight years, is the biggest thing on the internet. It really is.

With 845million users (admittedly, many, like me, aren't active) it has grown into a behemoth with the ultimate entrepreneurial storyline.

From a student project (thefacebook.com) started in a Harvard University dorm, it is now the glue that seeps into the internet, which is itself the glue increasingly holding the world together.

If it were a country, it would be the third-biggest (up from sixth this time last year) and, most important, it is mostly mobile.

It won its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, Time magazine's coveted Person of the Year award in 2010, has featured in a Oscar-winning Hollywood film and has even fomented revolution with its (overstated) role in last year's Arab Spring.

Last week, Facebook announced the worst-kept secret since the last iPhone upgrade: it will make what will be an oversubscribed initial public offering later this year. It aims to raise $5-billion, giving the world's biggest social network a value of between $75-billion and $100-billion.

With revenue of $4-billion a year (and a not-so-shabby 27% profit margin of $1-billion), it's hard to see that listing makes financial sense - but this is the era of Google, at nearly $600 a share, and Apple's market cap overtaking Exxon Mobil.

The last time there was such hype about a stock listing was when Google listed in 2004. It proved to be a worthy investment, to be sure, but it is just the latest monopoly.

The feeding frenzy is surreal, isn't it? If you want to be cynical, all we're talking about is pictures of your friends, inane videos of seemingly drunk "catz" and endlessly recycled quotes by famous figures; while our fragile sense of privacy is slowly eroded ever further every time Facebook changes its policies.

On the other hand, Facebook is driving internet traffic to websites in a way nothing else has done, is attracting bucketloads of ads and has connected you with all those idiots you went to school with. Like it or not, it's where all-important word-of-mouth references are made, brands are praised or pilloried, and the world is sensitised to real revolutions, such as in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and to shopping specials at the local supermarket.

Facebook was built "to accomplish a social mission" and Zuckerberg included in a letter to potential buyers a soon-to-be "classic" treatise on the role of social media, cellphones and communication technologies that reads like a manifesto for our new online, mobile generation.

Likening Facebook to inventions such as the printing press and television, he wrote: "They gave more people a voice. They encouraged progress. They changed the way society was organised. They brought us closer together."

Really? Or just closer to our computer screens. Social media, despite its utterly ironic name, are an individual, solitary experience.

As central as it is to our lives, let's not fool ourselves that people hunched over cellphones (I am equally guilty) make for real human contact.

The pretence of such personal contact is a sad indictment of a world filled with lonely people who think they're having real contact.

"At Facebook, we build tools to help people connect with the people they want to, and share what they want. By doing this we are extending people's capacity to build and maintain relationships," wrote Zuckerberg.

Maybe I'm too cynical. Maybe I remember the old social networks of face-to-face or phone calls, before this digital world of, what are, essentially pen pals, came along.

If you're looking for a good investment, buy Facebook shares. If you're looking for real personal contact, go walk the dog.