When Mark Zuckerberg bullied his former buddy Eduardo Saverin out of Facebook and replaced him with the – admittedly cool – Napster guru Sean Parker (played in the Facebook movie by Justin Timberlake) after Saverin had helped to launch Facebook from the obscurity of a Harvard dorm room, my son Markus resigned.
“That’s enough”, he said. “I quit, I’m not having this anymore. What an arrogant guy.” And with the enthusiasm that only 16 year-old do-gooders can muster, he walked into his room, sat down in front of his computer and yelled: “How do I delete my Facebook profile?” He had decided to cancel his account.
An exodus of users would come at an inopportune moment for Mr. Zuckerberg. The world’s richest nerd has just gotten the news that his pet project is valued at 50 billion dollars by Goldman Sachs analysts. But Zuckerberg seems to have anticipated the reaction of viewers like my son to the movie The Social Network. Shortly before the opening weekend, he donated 100 million dollars to the Newark public school system.
A traitor or a savior?
My son had not heard about the donation when he decided to delete his profile. And it would not have changed his mind anyways. He was determined to pull the plug.
The question he posed: can a traitor become a savior? Or, at the most fundamental level: can good arise from evil? Can we prevent the urge for communication and gossip from being sucked into an Orwellian business model where everything is exposed and where mercantile logic renders profit as the ultimate goal of all innovation? How important is morality? And can the lack of moral considerations destroy a business idea?
If you take the movie at face value – as my son did – and consider the portrayal of Zuckerberg as an autistic, nerdy, and emotionally challenged character, the reaction is probably negative. When the future of Facebook is at stake, Zuckerberg begins to resemble Stalin. His voyeurism seems limitless. From the comfort of his office, he observes the flirts, fights and bursts of joy among Facebook members. He witnesses rants and lyrical musings, spanning the whole range of human emotions while remaining detached himself, like a scientist studying the mating habits of butterflies. What started as a game has suddenly become utterly sincere.
The innocent enthusiasm that drove Facebook during its earlier days has now – and especially with the involvement of the grey-suited and gray-faced men from Goldman Sachs – turned into an icy bitterness. It blows through the anarchistic and chaotic culture of the youth like a cold wind.
The loss of the cocktail party flair
Thus far, the appeal of Facebook was grounded in the lightness of being, the network resembled a cocktail party: One could meet new people and expand the circle of friends. How else would Facebook have attracted half a billion users? Friend requests were only briefly scanned to rule out racist or anti-Semitic content. Everything else was fair game. Now, interactions are dominated by concerns. Might an innocent friend request conceal illicit or criminal activity? Is someone trying to steal my data or compromise my career?
Protective shields replace innocence. We are hunkering down, ready to defend what is ours. Facebook will become reduced to a platform for the exchange of trivialities – or conversations will be coded to such an extent that they resemble the underground networks usually found in totalitarian systems. One thing is sure: the party is over. If I were Goldman Sachs, I would wait to put Facebook into my portfolio. Cars and laundry machines will be around for decades, but public sentiments can wither quickly.
Facebook is supposed to be worth 50 billion dollars, more than Volkswagen and Thyssen-Krupp combined. Sure, Facebook is innovative – a buzzword of the first internet bubble. But innovation can also over-extend itself. And once the first safety breach becomes public, users will begin to abandon the network.
How did you delete your profile?