Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect is a journalistic approach to the development and changes in Facebook as a platform and company since its inception. The book is easy and fairly quick to read, and chock full of details. At times, I think it was a bit too heavy on advertising approaches and financial issues, but overall, it was enjoyable. The book also serves as a nice counterpart to the dramatized The Social Network, and provides some factual accounts that the movie glosses over, dramatizes, or changes for filmic and dramatic effect.
Kirkpatrick spends a chapter chronicling the beginning of Facebook, from Zuckerberg’s Facemash (23-24) to the development of Thefacebook at Harvard, which he notes was “from the beginning driven by the hormones of young adults” with the ability to mark what one was “Looking for” and “interested in” (32). Later chapters place Facebook in the context of other social networks at the time, explore how they got investors and advertisers, changes in the platform and reactions to those changes, the move from Harvard to California, and other issues and experiences.
One of the issues that Kirkpatrick discusses is privacy, and the constantly shifting privacy policies and new privacy issues that Facebook constantly dealt with as they rolled out new features. Part of the reason people trust Facebook, Kirkpatrick claims, is that the platform relies on and requires a real identity. He quotes Chris Kelly, who heads privacy at Facebook: “Trust on the Internet depends on having identity fixed and known” (13). Zuckerberg also believes that to have multiple identities shows “al lack of integrity,” and that the world is becoming more transparent, so it’s pragmatic to have just one identity on a social networking site (198). Zuckerberg also attributes people’s willingness to be open and “real” on Thefacebook to the platform’s orderliness: unlike Myspace, which allowed users to do just about anything, Thefacebook was structured and ordered from the beginning (100). Kirkpatrick devotes an entire chapter on Privacy (Chapter 10).
With almost every new feature, Facebook was critiqued for harming privacy. For instance, the News Feed, which was developed to make content more easily accessible (because before, you had to go to users’ pages to see if they’ve updated), led to many feeling that Facebook was allowing for stalking. Facebook responded with new privacy features (188-194)
Facebook’s platform itself gets a lot of attention in the book. Zuckerberg had a vision of a platform where people would use it as they needed, and he understood Facebook as helping people “understand the world around them” and other people, not as a waste of time (143). He called Facebook “a utility,” attempting to get the platform out of the way so that people could just interact (144, 160). Aaron Sittig, a graphic designer who worked for Facebook, said, “We didn’t want people to have a relationship with Facebook so much as to find and interact with each other” (144-145).
This perspective is a bit ironic given how much they tried to create the “Facebook trance,” where people would just keep clicking through Facebook. In fact, the photos app that added was designed just for this: just by clicking a picture, not by clicking “next,” allowed users to fly through photos quickly and easily (154-155). However, it’s clear Facebook was about relationships, as the photos showed. Unlike Myspace, where photos were about self-presentation, on Facebook they are about showing relationships (156).
Zuckerberg seems to have a bit of a utopian perspective on Facebook, wanting to create a platform that could be the entire Internet experience. Also, interestingly, there’s a hope that Facebook could improve relations, that somehow getting more information about others “should create more empathy” (278) and that Facebook works as a gift economy (287-288).
Overall, this was an enjoyable and easy read.
Kirkpatrick, David. The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.
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About Michael J. Faris
Assistant Professor of English with research areas in digital literacy, privacy and social media, and queering rhetorics.
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