Thursday, May 6, 2010

Accidental Billionaires and the Public/Private Dimensions of Facebook

Yesterday, I finished reading Ben Mezrich's The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, a Tale of Sex, Money, Genuis, and Betrayal  (New York: Doubleday, 2009.  260 pages.)  To be honest, I was a bit disappointed.  It is more like Entertainment Tonight than it is, say, a probing Frontline episode.  There is considerable emphasis on personalities (Eduardo Saverin, Mark Zuckerberg, Sean Parker) and how frequently they were able to get drunk and have sex (often at the same time) because of their genius and success.  The backcover blurb really does declare the focus of the book:  "They just wanted to meet some girls . . . ."  Plus, the book doesn't really conclude as much as it just ends.  If you want to know more about Sean Parker (one of the people behind Napster), Eduardo Saverin (the initial money behind Facebook), or Mark Zuckerberg (the computing genius behind Facebook), I suppose Accidental Billionaires might interest you.  If you are looking for something a bit more insightful about Facebook and its impact on society, this isn't the book (nor, to be fair, does it purport to be).

However, it did prompt me to reflect about my own nascent efforts in online social networking.

I started a Facebook page recently - go ahead, invite me - after putting it off for some time.  I had (and still have) reservations about privacy, and not just about how Facebook would have access to some of my private data, which they would use to their benefit (I have purchased enough things online that I am pretty sure that I am well-known as a consumer to those who wish to sell me their goods).  I am concerned about that, but in the end I was also interested in the way that Facebook forces (or should force) its users to think about the difference between public and private.

My distinction between public and private comes from my experiences in and reading about community organizing.  There is, for instance, a great chapter in Edward Chambers Roots for Radicals (New York: Continuum, 2003) that essays the distinctions.  It's a useful distinction, recognizing how our expectations are different in these two spheres and how we live our lives in both realms: it is not an either/or proposition.

The example I like to use when discussing this regards my now-seventeen year old daughter.  We negotiated terms when she asked to have a Facebook page.  Three weeks after she started her page, her older sister contacted me with concerns about the photographs.  I looked at them with my seventeen-year old, and we started to delete them.  They were innocent enough: just a few teen-agers at a beach in bikinis.  Safely ensconced in a family photo album, they would not have garnered a second thought.  On Facebook, however, there was no control over who would see the photos.  For me, it was a clear case of those public v. private lines being crossed.  For my seventeen-year old, however, it was more traumatic.  She was clearly upset with me, and when I asked why, she declared that the photos were "her," that they were a key tool in the way that she represented herself to the world.

I thought about this for some time.  I do think that the net generation does have a different sense of public v. private (as well as a different sense about many things related to technology).  As an instructor working with the net generation, I figured it was time to launch that Facebook page and see what happens. 

So here is what I can see so far.  Much of my extended family is now part of my online social network (for better or worse:)).  That's nice.  I have nieces and nephews and cousins with families of their own, and I can keep in touch with them via Facebook.  I have a few people from Azerbaijan who are part of the network, relationships I made on a recent trip to the Caucacus region.  Finally, there are a few of my work colleagues in my network.  Most of the action is, to date, family related.

I can see how Facebook can help shape movements and facilitate organizing.  I just haven't experienced that aspect yet.  I am also curious about others' experiences with Facebook beyond the familial or a circle of friends.  That's where I am at now.  If things change, I'll let you know.

Accidental Billionaire book cover
SA Blog Pics Photostream
Flickr Creative Commons

Facebook logo
AJC1' photostream
Flickr Creative Commons

No comments:

Post a Comment