Assessing the impact Facebook has had on society since its formal public opening – to anyone over the age of 13 – on 26 September 2006 is rather like assessing the impact of the wheel or steam engine but over a far shorter time-span. To date there have been no definitive studies of this impact, interested parties either concerning themselves with privacy, legal or similar issues, but a wealth of individual comments and publications surrounding cyberstalking, cyberbullying, Internet anonymity and commercialism. Facebook has, however, impacted the way that people react with one another almost to the same extent that the Internet itself, now twenty years old, has with a form of globalization hard to imagine a mere ten years ago. The ability of anyone to contact and connect with others anywhere in the world – with certain governmental restrictions – to follow their exploits and, effectively, be a part of their life has changed the way many people view societal relations.
Initially Facebook was designed as a means for students at Harvard University to contact and connect with one another, the name stemming from the Harvard Facebook issued to all new students as a means of helping them through the initial teething problems of their student life. It began life with a series of legal problems, including initial closure by the Fellows of Harvard University itself and charges of intellectual property theft all of which were either ironed out or settled through a short series of court agreements and judicial or private settlements, the latest being in March 2010.
The main effect Facebook has had on society comes through the effective globalization of communication. Where e-mail was initially considered the great breaking down of communicative barriers, Facebook has taken the level of communication possible several stages higher, allowing not only text communication but the publication of photographs and graphics, the updating of a Status, links to external websites and an ever widening ability to list interests, hobbies and pastimes. Facebook has effectively allowed anyone who is either on a Friends List – for those with strict privacy settings – or with enough time on their hands the ability to search and find others around the entire globe who share similar interests or who, measured on the quantity and quality of information provided, may be of some use to another.
It has also, as some have discovered to their cost, several detrimental aspects. Without effective controls over who becomes a member, Facebook allows individuals and commercial interests the freedom to create profiles which may be false or misleading. With reports of suicides caused by mobbing, terrorism and harassment, Facebook has become a center of attraction for those whose base interests include demeaning, manipulating and assaulting others through the relatively safe mantle of an anonymous identity. The system of reporting abuse, installed in an effort to prevent such abuses, has itself become a means of terrorizing members through claims of fake identities, inappropriate links or posts and photographs. The only secure method of reporting abuse remains that of copyright or intellectual property violations where an actual item of proof is required before action will be considered.
Further effects Facebook has had on society include a change in the way we react and interact with other people. Where once social interaction was predominantly through meeting a person or other people personally, Facebook allows individuals and groups to contact and communicate with people around the globe, often in areas where one might never have the chance to travel. It allows friends, work colleagues and acquaintances to remain in touch with one another once their ways have parted and bridges the gap of physical distances, for example with families during college and university years. In this aspect Facebook is not alone, as all other social networks allow similar relationships to continue albeit not on the same massive level achieved by Facebook itself.
This ability to connect seemingly effortlessly, to remain in touch and to forge new friendships – although Facebook claims to be a platform dedicated to supporting existing relationships rather than for the formation of new ones – has also resulted in many changes to the way individuals within society treat one another. For some membership of Facebook and the opening of an account is a must, for others a sign that they are distancing themselves from the real world. Time spent, so the argument, on Facebook is time that cannot be spent with friends, reading books, writing letters. Several companies actively ban the use of Facebook as being detrimental to the work environment – a waste of company time – and suggest that use of Facebook, or other social networks, can be so addictive that other more pressing, more important matters are pushed to one side or ignored.
Facebook has, effectively, constructed a new society of young and old Internet users which is global, lacking in physical borders and many every day restrictions. That personal and to some extent intimate interaction between individuals in the real world, in the physical society in which we live has suffered rests entirely with those who contribute, who participate. These changes, the lack of personal, face to face communication, the loss of social mores and traditions, the almost insular and closed lives that users choose to lead, are likely to increase until, sometime in the not so distant future, we will experience the acceptance of an online society operating alongside that of an actual physical society and hardly be able to tell the difference between the two.