Last weekend I spent a most stimulating day at a great institution, the University of Peradeniya. The occasion was an international conference on the social sciences and the humanities, and I was, to my great good fortune, invited to speak. There were many papers in parallel sessions throughout the second day (also the first, but I arrived only in time for dinner the previous day), and so I thought to share some insights I obtained from one very good paper in this week’s Southpaw, and add to it from yet another set of comments I heard at the final roundtable panel at the conference which was a discussion between humanists and scientists.
Free and easy
It all pertains to Facebook! This, as many know, it simply a website; but it now has millions of users worldwide, and nearly a million Sri Lankan accounts alone! It is free, easy to use and a way, at first pass at least of keeping in touch with one’s friends. At the conference, Tarindi Udalagama, a young sociologist and member of also of what seems to be an energetic and productive grouping of scholars, the young researchers collective, gave a paper on Facebook and Sri Lankan youth. It was well researched work, carefully and concisely presented. This prompted me to ask a number of questions during the session, which then stimulated a pre lunch conversation where her friend and colleague Andi Schubert, also of the collective, joined us.
Now, Facebook is a social network on the world wide web or internet, and if you follow these things, you will know, there are many such. Let me give three other examples: Flickr, a photo sharing site, YouTube a video sharing site, and Second Life a full on, three dimensional life simulation site. In all these sites, the user, that is you, creates an account, with any name (handle, alias or avatar) s/he likes and then proceeds to share, comment, argue and of course make friends within that context. In all these social networking sites your real identity can be quite separate from your online one because it works through an alias. So yes, you have another world out there in cyberspace, an alternative reality if you like, but your friends there, are not your friends in the real world, because you didn’t go in there as your real world self. In fact, Yahoo, Google and Linden Labs, which owns the example sites I listed, do guaranties, through their terms of service (ToS) agreement that your private information will remain private.
Facebook is different, and it’s a stand out in its difference. Here, the ToS tells you, you cannot give a fake name, even though some do try! In fact, the whole point of it is to say, hey, this is me, from the real world, with all my info and my news and photos and links, and hey, it’s you, my friend also from the real world meeting up here. This is as old as the personal letter with snapshots in it, advanced recently by email, and now, through Facebook. I feel this is not an alternative reality, but rather an extension of reality. But the real insight I thought came from Andi, for as we spoke after Tarindi’s paper, he said, ‘Isn’t it a reconfiguration of the public/private distinction that is happening in Facebook?’ Yes, I think that’s right, and while this has happened with purloined photographs and videos before on the internet, just as blackmailers even in the nineteenth century used personal letters to do so – this is the first time, in human history that millions are consenting to this alteration of the terms of their privacy.
It turns out that this, for some strange reason I cannot still fully fathom is worth a lot to those who own Facebook. At the final discussion of the day Sanjiva Weerawarana, who is CEO WSO2, an innovative, Sri Lanka based software company, pointed out, that Facebook, whose stock which is privately held but value carefully modeled according to well understood earnings models, would be worth as much, or more than Intel soon. Intel, for those you who don’t know, makes the chips that run not only in personal computers, but many many mobile devices as well. They have many competitors but they are the largest chip designer, and have as Sanjiva pointed out enormous human intelligence among their ranks.
And still, Facebook would be worth more? Given one, world changing idea, that would not be possible of course, without Intel and companies like it.
It is, as I have said before, a strange world we live in.
Published in print & on the web, in The Nation on Sunday 12/25/2011