x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Facebook brings out the inner Neanderthal in all of us

The Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al Faisal made one of the more poignant, if unlikely, observations in the recent debate about Facebook and Twitter.

The Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al Faisal made one of the more poignant, if unlikely, observations in the recent debate about Facebook and Twitter. In an interview with Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, he was asked if technology would diminish the role of privacy in the kingdom. "How can you have privacy when you have the computer, Twitter and all the others?" he responded. Privacy was less of a concern than the number of those who have to "worry about how to be alone".

Rather than spending his hours on Facebook, Prince al Faisal appears to have been reading Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century polymath, who wrote that "man's miseries come from not being able to sit alone in a quiet room". The point Mr Faisal makes about the computer age is instructive - and so is the fact that others in different ages have expressed something similar. From the postings on the walls of Facebook users, to the handprints that early humans left on the walls of their caves, people want to be remembered. It's not just today that people crave belonging. The danger of social networking sites is that they risk amplifying these age-old anxieties rather than making something meaningful out of them.

And, yes, for all that humankind has accomplished since leaving our caves, it can be difficult to find much evidence for it on Facebook and Twitter. As The National's editorial director and resident curmudgeon Martin Newland wrote in a column earlier this year: "If I were a passing alien bent on bagging an inferior civilisation or two, one glance at the Twitterscape would have me reaching for my intergalactic bugle and yelling: 'Charge'."

Mr Newland is right: there's plenty of human debris on display on Facebook and Twitter. Most posts appear to be products of vanity rather than an existential yearning to be remembered. But if social networking has one redeeming quality, it is in how it showcases the experiences of users rather than their possessions. Advertisers may see the personal data on the sites as a gold mine but most members don't go on Facebook to brag about what they own or where they shop - not yet, anyway.

At their best, networking sites allow members, through their friendships and interactions, to understand that people are more than what they purchase. There may be a particular need for that today. Many of the young people in the West who are the most frequent users of social media face the prospect that their generation will not be as well-off as their parents'. They must temper their material expectations. Being well-off doesn't have to mean being well-heeled.

But if materialism does take a backseat to experience on Facebook, it is perhaps because celebrity is now the ultimate possession. Part of the draw and the danger of social networking sites is that they allow users to become celebrities in their own minds. And there is certainly a demand for that. As Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt in the film Fight Club, explained: "We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't ... And we're very, very pissed off."

It's interesting that the director of Fight Club is now behind The Social Network, an unsympathetic portrayal of Facebook's founder and CEO, Marc Zuckerburg, who rose from college dropout to 20-something tycoon. The movie will be released this week. For all his brilliance and money, the film paints him as a lonely young man. The man who enabled so many "friendships" in the virtual world is portrayed as having few real friends of his own.

Mr Zuckerberg recently gave $100 million to troubled schools in Newark, New Jersey. Cynics will say this is more of a public relations gambit than a gift. Still, this is not the only gift that Facebook is responsible for, something I discovered for myself when I logged into my own account a year ago. Just moments after I learnt about the death of one of my former students, I quickly found a memorial site in his honour on Facebook. Over the next few days, there were hundreds of tributes from people around the world. Sure, most of them lacked the thoughtfulness of a personal note; internet posts will never have the intimacy of condolences expressed at a wake or a funeral. Still, Facebook provided a forum for people to come together that wouldn't have been available a short while ago.

There is plenty of room to abuse the spaces that Facebook provides. They won't solve the dilemmas that Pascal or Prince al Faisal raised. But like any new technology, Facebook's flaws reflect our own. What we do with them, and with the technology, is our own responsibility. pgranfield@thenational.ae