An open and connected world.
Anthony, a twenty-five-year-old working for Facebook's Global Partnerships team in London.
“After being at Singularity University, I really got the impression that technology drives change in our world more than anything. After being there, I wanted to work for a mission driven organisation that was using technology to change the human experience, and I really felt like Facebook was doing that.”
In isolation, the story of how Facebook grew to change the world has been told many times. One man in his bedroom, coding for days, a Harvard school dropout. Rapid growth throughout university campuses, a whole world takeover, and now within years, a Facebook empire touching your life in a multitude of ways each time you pick up your phone.
If you give the story some more context, it starts getting less clear as to what exactly Facebook is changing in the world. It’s almost changing everything - from how we work, to the way our relationships play out, to the commitments we make ‘for the gram’ (when was the last party you went to that went undocumented?). There are thousands of birthdays remembered each day now because Facebook exists; election results shift; perspectives morph; disaster response starts on social. We rage, we react, we remember, we stand in solidarity and rise against the big guy, all with Facebook and their other mediums - each action propelled by our ability to connect with likeminded individuals around the world.
The story is no longer just about the growth of one company, but a reflection of how society itself has grown and changed over the past fifteen years. Accelerated by the world of digital and social media, global culture has evolved to be more integrated and open than it ever has been before. Simply, 2017 is what it is today because companies like Facebook exist.
There have been some other factors at play over the years too. It’s not causality – Facebook hasn’t caused the shift in cultural attitudes (for better or for worse), but it is helping to accelerate the convergence of cultures around the world. The exponential growth of new technologies in the early millennium, followed by a period of mass globalisation has also contributed to the interconnectivity of individuals in recent times. In the wake of this shift, modern politics have divided around issues of immigration, privacy and cultural identity. We live now in Facebook's flat world, and there are those around who fear the globalisation, and those now who embrace it.
For New Zealand born Facebook employee, Anthony McGuire, who now lives in England but has spent years living in America, the Philippines, England, Japan, Russia, and China over his life, it’s clear that this is why Facebook’s impact counts. When we’re all so connected and mobile, Facebook is a chance to connect with many different homes. It’s a community you can foster irrespective of location - friends across borders, shared understanding with strangers, a way to find out about new cultures and ideas and to interact with them. Your everyday normal is no longer just defined by where you are in the world, but rather who you connect with.
"I really like that people can connect with Facebook and can be challenged by new perspectives. Even with the echo chambers that are created if you’re mostly following friends who are just like you – the medium still allows for greater idea sharing than what we’ve ever seen before.”
Anthony has been with Facebook for just close to four years now. He started there because of the mission – for the way that their technology is helping businesses, people and communities get stronger and closer together globally. Now a 38 year old woman from Canada with an interest in art can meet a 26 year old man from Australia, or a 28 year old man from Vietnam, both with the same interests in art as her. Their friendships can be defined by their common interests, and not just by the colour of their skin or where they are living in the world. The idea of nationhood is slowly becoming irrelevant to how individuals are forming their identities.
The problem arises where national or cultural value sets start getting murky. The regulation of the internet is a hot topic of this century for this very reason. Governments are starting to catch up now with how the internet and social media is playing out (or so they think), and so new rules and standards are quickly creeping into policy and laws. But as tolerance for privacy breaches, anonymity, and accountability for actions taken online varies between people within countries (and across borders), the questions begin to get asked - does it make more sense for regulation to occur on a national or international scale? Should we be born with the right to digital privacy, or the right to anonymity online? Should we even regulate the internet at all?
It’s possible that through shared experiences with technology, we’re heading towards a universal culture where our day to day life looks similar regardless of location (e.g. using Google to search, Facebook to connect, Uber to get around). But it's also likely that some governments won’t be ready to give up their own rules or to negotiate what global terms are reasonable by the time we get there.
“If we’re connecting with each other based on our interests and not solely on our location – does it still make sense for each country to define their own rules for the internet? Should nationhood really be the guiding principle in how we decide what is right or wrong?”
For Anthony, this is one of the more interesting conversations companies like Facebook are sparking as they go. There’s two key ways it could all play out – either we continue to hold onto our cultural identities and racial stereotypes fiercely, even as our lives start looking the same, or, in the long- (or maybe long-long-) run our shared experiences and ease of communication could unite us all as one race, guided by some common humanist norms. The most likely outcome is a happy medium between the two – but even this is likely to turn out different to what we can expect.
Ironically, what Facebook gives us is the chance to show ourselves as individuals, even as it draws us closer. We build a digital expression of who we are, what we believe in, and what we enjoy, all documented easily over time. We express ourselves online often carelessly or carefully - forming into movements, jumping on hashtag waves, or sharing our views on what we think is right or wrong. The flag debate in New Zealand in early 2016 was largely waged on social media, with personal opinions sharing the wall space along with photos from house parties, videos from our childhoods, and recipes shared by our grandmas. It all gets mixed together – so that while Facebook is helping to shake up the global culture and increase understanding, it’s also giving us a better way to express our personalities.
"It’s a new way of carrying an identity. I like that our great grandchildren can look up and see what we think about the world. I love that they can see a photo from the year 17 and see what it is like right now. I think intuitively we can all find a way to see the good in that. It’s freedom of expression."
The concept of permanent identity is still new. For the politicians and leaders of the future, their digital history comes into office too. Their fifteen year old decisions can come back up, their twenty three year old antics are captured, their breakups are forever immortalised over Facebook Messenger.
“Social media becomes the great equaliser. We can know what our leaders are really like as people, and not just what their campaigns tell us. Now at least, when we get to filling those big societal roles in twenty years’ time – all of the millennials will be in the same boat. Facebook makes us more human”
There's still a long ethical debate on what comes next for the regulation of the online world, before we emerge in a world that knows how to teach kids to use social media responsibly, and how to manage the change that it is constantly bringing. Fortunately, all it takes for one millennial to share his opinion with the world today is an account login, a profile picture and an internet connection. It's the open and connected world that makes the debate itself (whether on identity, flags, cooking or otherwise) possible.
1. Driven by an international perspective + a grounding belief in the power of technology and a mission -"After a childhood living in Russia, New Zealand, Philippines and the US, I chose to study economics and political science. I decided I wanted to work somewhere where the overall mission was about impacting on the world. I was sincere in my desire to do that, and so I was employed by Singularity University, and then by Facebook in New York."
2. Found workplaces set on amplifying ambition - "At Singularity University, the companies forming there are taught to take a problem and amplify their solutions impact by 10^9. The idea is that they should impact on a billion people in ten years. The environment there, it can be bubbly. It made me delusionally-optimistic – but I'm actually really proud of that."
3. Encouraging participation and discussion globally - "It takes more people being more participatory in these issues. People being more aware and willing to talk about the things that affect the bigger picture. It’s figuring out what the key is on a macro level to get people to care."
4. See the cultures shift. Contribute meaningfully - "There are so many questions to ask now, but the stand out for me is this: does it even make sense for countries to set rules in a globalised world? How does regulation by country limit the growth of the internet around the world? What does this world value, and are we going to be monocultural in the end?"
5. Change the human experience - "This is ultimately what is so cool about working with Facebook. I saw it at Singularity University. I got the impression technology drives the world more than anything. The companies pushing the boundary of human experience are the ones who change it, and I see Facebook as being there and doing that."