When Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg launched facebook.com in February 2004, even he could not have imagined the forces it would unleash. His intent was to connect college students. Facebook, which is what this website rapidly evolved into, ended up connecting the world.
To the children of this connected era, the world is one giant social network. They are not bound – as were previous generations of humans – by what they were taught. They are limited by their curiosity and ambition. During my childhood, all knowledge was local. You learned everything you knew from your parents, teachers, preachers and friends. If you were privileged and had access to a library or an encyclopedia, you could learn a little more. You surely could not follow and reach out to the people that you read about; learn what people all over the world had to say; or ask the difficult, uncomfortable, questions.
With the high-quality and timely information at their fingertips and encouragement from each other, today’s children are rising above the fears and biases of their parents. That is why youth in the Middle East are fermenting revolutions and the Chinese are getting restless.
Adults are also participating in this revolution. India’s normally docile middle class is speaking up against social ills. Silicon Valley executives are being shamed into adding women to their boards. Political leaders, such as US President Barack Obama, are marshalling the energy of millions for elections and political causes. All of this is being done with social media technologies that facebook and its competitors unleashed.
As does every advancing technology, social media has created many new problems. It is commonly addictive and provides a tool for stalking children. Social media is used by extremists in the Middle East and elsewhere to solicit and brainwash recruits. And it exposes us and our friends to unsavoury spying. We may leave our lights on in the house when we are on vacation, but through social media, we tell criminals who may want to rob us exactly where we are, when we plan to return home and how to blackmail us.
Governments do not need informers any more. Social media allows government agencies to spy on their political masters, their own citizens, in a way that would make Big Brother jealous. We record our thoughts, emotions, likes and dislikes on facebook; we share our political views, social preferences and plans. We post intimate photographs of ourselves. No spy agency or criminal organisation could actively gather the type of data that we voluntarily post for them. We tell governments our friends’ names, email addresses and contact numbers, and we tag photographs of them. And as computers become more powerful, they will be able to analyse our social-media information and correlate it with what our friends and acquaintances say about us.
The marketers are also seeing big opportunities. Amazon is trying to predict what we will order. Google is trying to judge our needs and wants based on our social-media profiles; it wants to be our personal assistant. We need to be aware of the risks and keep working to mitigate the dangers.
Getting back to the bright side, major changes are happening in fields such as health care because of social media. Already, by analysing Google searches, researchers can track the spread of disease across the world. Patients are able to converse with others who have had the same ailment as they now have and learn which remedies or methods worked for others and which did not. People all over the world are providing each other with advice and moral support.
The might of social media already has the Chinese government trembling. Its people are informing each other of local government officials’ atrocities and their abuses of power. In New Delhi, we witnessed a political revolution happen as an anti-corruption party came out of nowhere to gain power in the state elections. Political scandals in the US have become more common because people speak up immediately.
There is no greater force for democracy than social media and this will empower the masses. So far, only about two billion of the world’s seven billion people have come online. During this decade, another three billion will gain connectivity through cheap tablets. Devices that have capabilities similar to iPads will be available for less than $50 (Dh183.9). Already, basic tablets with 7-inch screens are available for as little as $40 in China and India. Before last Christmas, Datawind made them available in the US for as little as $38.
It is likely that the majority of the rising billion will use social media. However, the winner will not necessarily be facebook. People will use social networks that are special-purpose, geared towards local communities and in local languages. In parts of New Delhi, for example, localcircles.com is gaining popularity. It connects neighbourhoods by allowing them to exchange information about water availability and domestic help; find blood donors; and report corruption. In China, Renren, Weibo and Weixin – which have their own specialties – each have hundreds of millions of users.
Regardless of what social media people use and whether we celebrate facebook’s next 10-year anniversary, one thing is certain: We are in a period of exponential change. The next decade will be even more amazing and unpredictable than the last. Just as no one could predict what would happen with social media in the last decade, no one can accurately predict where this technology will take us. I am optimistic, however, that a connected humanity will find a way to uplift itself.