Sunday, October 2, 2011

Social Networking, and Why Mark Zuckerberg is Not a Supervillain.

People complain about the ‘evils’ of social networking all the time. Not a week goes by where some television reporter talks about yet another way in which Facebook is invading your privacy, and why nobody needs to know about the fact that you’re eating 100 year old eggs, that your kid puked into your fish tank, or that your dinner tasted off, and you are heading to bed.

Twenty years ago, you had to be a super geek to have access to a primitive form of what we now know as email. If mere mortals wanted to communicate with people, you had two options. Write a letter, mail it, and wait a few years until you got a reply, or you picked up the phone and waited for your astronomical phone bill to arrive in the mail.

As a global nomad, one of the few certainties in life is saying goodbye to people, often for a very, very, long time, and possibly forever. People’s lives change. They move onto other things, other countries, marry and have kids. Some fade into oblivion, others become famous. Occasionally, someone ends up in jail.

Finding old friends became practical in the mid-1990s. You could do an Alta Vista search (the Google Guys were still getting their PhDs), and occasionally you’d have success. Along came ‘chat platforms’, which really shrank the Earth and made real-time ‘chatting’ from Granville, Ohio with your colleagues on Antarctica a reality. It was some time in 2007 when I started hearing the name ‘Facebook’ mentioned. I created my account in 2008 if my memory serves me right, and it pretty much took off from there.

At the time of writing, I have 464 Facebook friends and counting. Some people like to nag about that, and say that it’s a waste of time, and things like: ‘you only need about one or two good friends in your life’, and having online friends takes away from the face-to-face experience, and how much time I must be wasting keeping in touch with all these ‘friends’ of mine. Whoa! Time out here people! And before you ask, yes I do consider all of them friends to varying degrees. The vast majority, I have met in person. Those who I yet have to have a cup of coffee with are mostly friends of relatives, or ‘friends of friends’. Using this networking, I’ve gotten to know some truly astonishingly interesting people.

One of the first things I do in the morning when de-zombifying over a cup of coffee, is read over the previous night’s Facebook updates. Reading people’s updates is like reading the morning paper, with the big exception that every single ‘article’ is about people that you’re actually interested in. And since I have friends in virtually every time zone, my feed is getting updated 24/7. Even if it’s as simple as ‘I just bought such & such’, ‘twisted my ankle :- (’, or ‘is having coffee’, I enjoy reading it.

Some people find this stupid, but for the instant that I read that little update, I think of that person, and more often than not, some little memory of that person comes flooding back, and therein really lies the magic. These people are hundreds, or even thousands of miles away, and you don’t know when, if ever you’ll see them again, but in that instant, for those brief moments, they are a part of your life again. And I think that’s pretty damned cool.

One of the more intriguing aspects of my Facebook experience has been coming across people I didn’t get on with so well in school. The bullies and other dodgy characters that used to make my school life hell from time to time, also entered the information age... Out of curiosity I started ‘adding’ some of them. This is where it gets interesting. In many cases, individuals that were less than nice, have ended up becoming some pretty cool people. It is an eye opener to the fact that people do change, and everyone has their individual life path to lead. They had their own challenges and insecurities to deal with, and it led to growth.

I recently got back in touch with a girl (you know who you are) from high school, who was and still is one of my best friends, even though the last time I saw her in person was at graduation in 1993. We’re both rather eccentric individuals with a wide range of interests. We both volunteered in the Singapore Zoo on Sundays. Her passion was the big cats, and I was a reptile man through and through. About a week ago I had a long chat with her, and we discussed this teasing issue. Being yourself can come at a heavy price during those image-conscious high school days. As it turns out she ended up coming to the same conclusions, and her ‘friends’ list contains some former tormentors.

This is a fine example of how social networking breaks down barriers. Twenty years ago we would have been left with grudges and bad memories. Now, we can strip away layer after layer of assumptions and wrong conclusions. For me it has really helped letting go of issues from the past. You process the past, cherish the good experiences, work through the BS, and move forward.

People can complain about you and your company Mr. Zuckerberg. Or they can moan about other social networking sites like MySpace, Google +, and Twitter, but I will always appreciate what you and your peers have done and continue to do. Even if Facebook decides to start charging a nominal fee in the future, you’ll still be cool with me and I will gladly pay it. Thanks to you and your colleagues, I am able to reconnect with long lost friends and strengthen those bonds further. And that, to me is priceless.


  1. I simply LOVE this! It's very true, and cuts to the core of the common critiques people have. While I can't exactly say I've re-connected with people way back in the day (my way back in the day is just a few years), I totally connect with the "people change" theme. Some for good, others for worse, but I always know. And for some reason, social networking tends to bring out the 'realisms' of folks better than just a "hellogoodbye" before class.
    I don't 'Face' much any more, having moved on to twitter as a more regular past-time. And where people say Twitter is less personable, I've actually met some of my best friends on it. People are honest on social networks. It's their place to vent, to say what they mean, to be completely and totally themselves. And for me, being my completely and totally geeky, fantasy obsessed, procrastinating trekkie, social networks have been a blessing - because, finally, I know there are people crazier than I.

  2. I love your blogs Wout. And how true it all is. And while some people change, and grow up, there are those that do not. Unfortunately.
    Being in touch with you, is an amazing thing after 20 years. And that is the beauty side of the INTERNET. And while everything in the universe has a dark side and a light side, I rather concentrate on the good :)

    The saying " The world is your oyster" may be only a saying, but its that pearl I am after! :)

    Keep blogging my friend!