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BEING LIKED

To grow, in exactly a decade, from three hundred users to as many as the total population of India — roughly a seventh of the world’s — is an achievement that Facebook’s stubbornest resistors would have to grant its 29-year-old creator. What this means for the distinct, though inseparable, skills of programming and profiteering is not difficult to measure — and the word, ‘billion’, is indispensable to that exercise. But if, as Mark Zuckerberg puts it in his not-quite-inimitable way, the idea was to help “everyone connect with people and share information with the people they want to stay connected with”, what have these ten years of sharing and connecting achieved in more intangibly human, inward or interpersonal terms? And while reflecting on ten years of Facebook, it might be worth noting that today also happens to be the fifth birthday of the Like button. It is the magic G-spot that turns a social network site into an expanding laboratory for manipulating a general human desire to be liked — visibly, instantly, and by increasing numbers of people.

A life of public visibility — calling it fame would be to get too carried away — without having to forgo the comfort of the banal, and without entirely forfeiting the illusion of privacy, is perhaps the most alluring commodity that Facebook promises its burgeoning millions. More than any information, this levelling submission to the power of the Like button is what is most universally shared on Facebook. In today’s arenas of internet-driven globalization, growing numbers, even when they are made up of human beings, generate uniformity rather than plurality. This is a reduction, rather than multiplication, of diversity or difference, as systems of connectedness sweep the world into their ever-widening embrace. So, the whole idea of sharing, of the openness and commonness of what the internet gives access to, begins to take on a potentially dispiriting quality. The only form of difference that survives this homogeneity is the one between those who have access to the internet and those who do not. It is a difference that is difficult to celebrate in India, for it is born of an inequality that far outweighs the bonhomie of being liked.

It cannot be a coincidence that the person who glimmers into view most indomitably at the end of the Facebook decade is none other than Edward Snowden. In fact, Messrs Zuckerberg and Snowden begin to look like the obverse and reverse of the same phenomenon — the one that makes the success story of Facebook analogous to the more sinister, post-9/11 operations of the United States of America’s National Security Agency. Both use the more-or-less invisible gathering of private information to infer patterns of behaviour for the sake of what one calls commerce and the other, security. Perhaps, then, the price to be paid for enjoying the brief limelight of being liked is privacy itself, and all the mystery, good and bad, that comes with that archaic luxury.