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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Connections made through Facebook have tangible value

For all its faults, there's no substitute for the social network

Facebook offers a useful way to gauge opinion. Dado Ruvic/Reuters
Facebook offers a useful way to gauge opinion. Dado Ruvic/Reuters

My reasons for wanting to quit Facebook were pretty standard: it’s a time sink.

It exacerbates my depression and, perversely, my sense of isolation. It knows (or thinks it knows) way too much about me. I do the work and Facebook gets the money. And what money; the firm delivered a much higher than expected quarterly profit, driven by a sharp increase in sales of mobile video ads, sending its shares to an all-time high.

Total revenue rose 44.8 per ent to US$9.32 billion from the same period in 2016, of which Facebook posted a profit of $3.89bn – up a whopping 71 per cent on the year before.

“We had a good second quarter and first half of the year. Our community is now 2 billion people and we’re focusing on bringing the world closer together,” said Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, annoucing its latest quarterly results in July.

Mobile ad revenue accounted for 87 per cent of the company’s total advertising revenue of $9.16bn in the latest quarter, up from 84 per cent a year earlier.

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Read more:

Facebook scraps new share class as CEO gives up proposal that would have let him serve in government

Facebook to overhaul paid political ads

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None of that was especially surprising, so it’s not clear what set me off. Was it the former magazine editor marvelling at the huge sums he’s now making on the speaking circuit? One too many posts from people throwing around words like “libtards,” “warmongers,” and “deep state”?

This London Review of Books essay highlighting the company’s dark, Rousseavian view of human nature? (“The idea was that people wanted to look at what other people like them were doing, to see their social networks, to compare, to boast and show off, to give full rein to every moment of longing and envy, to keep their noses pressed against the sweet-shop window of others’ lives.”) All of the above in rapid succession? Whatever the trigger, I was suddenly fed up.

“I’m thinking about leaving Facebook,” I posted earlier this month. “Your thoughts?”

But after reading more than 250 responses, I had second thoughts.The reasons help to explain why, despite widespread dissatisfaction and increasing controversy, Facebook continues to prosper.

For starters, the site offers a unique audience. By using my personal page rather than my public fan page, as a de facto blog, I connect not only with readers who follow my writing but with friends of friends, kids I grew up with, college classmates, and far-flung relatives.

This audience of about 5,000 (Facebook’s maximum), isn’t a random sample. But it’s a more socially, politically and geographically heterogeneous group than the stereotypical social-media echo chamber, and it keeps me from living in the proverbial bubble.

When these people comment, they use their real names and personas connected to their real (if selectively attractive) lives: their kids and pets; their favourite movies and sports teams; their hobbies and volunteer work; and – all too often for my taste – their eating habits. They have multiple dimensions. And sometimes the in-person and in-print connections cross in unexpected ways. Thanks to Facebook, I’ve become friends with one of my younger brother’s high-school classmates, who first followed me as a writer.

Facebook also offers a good way to tap the knowledge and opinions of a large group of people, whether to quickly solve computer problems, get contractor recommendations or find sources for articles. That is a plus for any user, but it offers particular advantages to a writer. Short of building up a huge blog audience, this advantage is hard to duplicate elsewhere.

The response to my question made me realise that Facebook had allowed me to create a distinctive forum, that people appreciate it more than I can usually tell, and that I’d miss (most of) these interactions if I left. It reminded me of the reasons to like Facebook: the connections it provides and the chance to easily share interests. So I’ve decided to stay, with modifications.

The exercise was a reminder of what often gets lost y on social media. For all their faults, services such as Facebook provide value by connecting people who wouldn’t otherwise be in touch

Tools exist to help users minimise the downside – you just have to look for them. Like any other form of abundance, making the most of social media requires conscious consideration. So I reserve the right to revisit the question next year.

Virginia Postrel was the editor of Reason magazine and is a columnist. Her books include The Power of Glamour and The Future and Its Enemies