Facebook’s online community of monthly active users (1.39 billion by the end of 2014) is expected to overtake the present population of China (1.4 billion) in the next quarter of 2015, but is this a significant milestone, or just a rogue comparison? I can’t decide. On the one hand, sensationalism will out: the trimillenial cradle of civilization meets Zuckerberg’s virtual empire, which is now entering its second decade (is that all?!). China gave the world paper, tea and the compass, while Facebook ushered in the age of cyberbullying, zombie sentience and “smart boredom” (a wonderful phrase borrowed from a tweet by the Belarusian commentator, Evgeny Morozov). But then, the population of China is not commensurate with the demographics on Facebook. The Facebook experience is, by its virtualized nature, homogeneous: it’s the same experience in Kuala Lumpur as it is in Kidlington. And what is it, really, but a promiscuous distraction, the interaction of avatars masquerading as people who are themselves stripped of all their contingent characteristics?
We’ve heard this all before, of course. But I can’t be the only one who still feels rancour against Facebook for becoming such an essential part of our social furniture. The wanton individualizing, the social ever-presence, the plain ridiculousness of formatting biography and lived experience by means of projected simulacra – it’s a drag. But then again, I do want to hear about that party, and I do want to see those photos from last night. Let’s try another set of statistics, this time relating to consumption.
A typical Facebook visit lasts for 18-20 minutes, the highest traffic occurs mid-week between 1pm and 3pm, and on average 48 per cent of daily active users log onto Facebook as soon as they wake up (cf. 28 per cent who log on before they get out of bed, Facebook). Admittedly these data can skew: a “checker” is not a “user”, but how many times do you “check”? I catalogued my checks yesterday – Messenger, a quick scroll on the move, Alt & Tab on Chrome – and I tallied 27. 27!? And I would claim to be a “responsible” user. Does the argument of ease and convenience not belie laziness? Does all that passive, voyeuristic clicking not conceal a bit of a dissatisfaction with self?
For what it’s worth, we’re too far gone. If Facebook were hacked and terminated tomorrow, would not a mass psychic crash of some unprecedented nature ensue? Blood on the streets? Probably not – but certainly a widespread social disenchantment and, in some individuals, a virtually (being the operative word) pathological anomie: on an unprecedented scale, yes, but not impossible. Who knows? Maybe we are already sowing the seeds of our own social destruction. For the all-empowering present moment, though, fingers crossed for some likes.