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Technology & Innovation

Is There Any Escaping Facebook?

Facebook and other social media are becoming permanently woven into our society’s fabric, says NYU telecommunications professor Clay Shirky. Privacy is a 20th century notion.  

As if ruling the Web weren’t enough, Facebook has now begun to dominate other media. “The Social Network,” Hollywood’s fictionalized portrayal of site founder Mark Zuckerberg, has grossed $213 million to date and was recently nominated for eight Academy Awards. Zuckerberg himself was named Time magazine’s 2010 Person of the Year. On TV, CNBC profiled the company earlier this month in its documentary “The Facebook Obsession.” And so on. As the site’s ubiquity dovetails with continuing concerns about its commitment to user privacy, it may be time to ask: is Facebook inescapable?

According to NYU telecommunications professor Clay Shirky, the answer is a resounding yes. In his interviews with Big Think, Shirky has repeatedly argued that Facebook and other social media are becoming permanently woven into our society’s fabric. Even as of a few years ago, Shirky says, “I had to make a case at the beginning of any given talk that…the social stuff wasn’t all just going to be teens on Facebook…[it’s] going to become generally, culturally important.” The influence of social media in Obama’s election changed all that.

It’s a trend Shirky doesn’t think will reverse anytime soon, even as periodic outcries over user privacy management (or mismanagement) continue to dog the company. Says Shirky “I think Facebook is going to be fine. Facebook has a long history of planning a change in the service that’s good for them in some way or another, overstepping their bounds, apologizing and scaling back—but not scaling back to the point they were before the change. In a way, Facebook now uses the overstep-apology-reaction pattern as a way of saying how far they can go at any given cultural moment.”

Speaking of cultural moments, Shirky doesn’t think it’s really Facebook itself we’re all fretting about. Like Napster in the 1990s, it’s just the scapegoat du jour for our fears about the Internet itself. And if “The Social Network” can be believed, Zuckerberg serenely accepts all this, having been mentored by Napster’s co-founder, the charismatic Justin Tim—er, Sean Parker. Like peer-to-peer file sharing, social networking is definitely here to stay. Whether Facebook itself will continue to boom, however—or whether, as a company, it will go the way of Napster—remains to be seen. But given it’s recent $82 billion valuation, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.


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