In 1945, representatives of 50 countries met in San Francisco at the United Nations Conference on International Organization to draw up the United Nations Charter. The Charter was signed on 26 June 1945 by the representatives of the 50 countries – Poland signed it later and became one of the original 51 member states and the UN officially came into existence on 24 October 1945.
The aim of the UN (within its Charter) is to maintain international peace and security and to develop friendly relations among nations on the basis of equality and the principle of self-determination. Its member numbers have risen in the past 61 years from the 51 it began with to 193, ranging alphabetically from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Depending on the criteria you follow, there are currently only three countries on our planet that are not part of the United Nations.
While the true value, achievements and failings of the UN can be debated endlessly, the facts are as cited above – and, as far as I can see, it is the first effort by our species to form a collective governance for the planet. It is remarkable how the UN has grown to include virtually every country (and by extension almost every citizen) in the world, with 98.5% of the world’s population effectively part of the UN via their nation states. Given that there are 7.4 billion people on earth today, that means only 112 million (1.5%) of the world are outside the UN.
Born out of the ruins of the Second World War, the UN was an attempt geographically and politically to unite and connect nations within a shared governance. The focus in 1945 was on the integration of physical geography within an accepted framework and, for all its shortcomings, it is clearly here to stay.
Which brings me on to Facebook. Rather like the UN, we can all debate the merits of Facebook. Does it connect us to family, friends and ideas across the globe or has it just initiated a social media distraction from “real life”? We can each mull over and decide about this, but what is not in doubt is that currently 1.7 billion people are on Facebook and, perhaps even more remarkably, more than 1.1 billion users are active on it every day.
At the end of 2015, 3.2 billion people had access to an internet connection. So, of the 43% of the world’s population who are online, 53% are on Facebook and 15% of all the citizens on earth use Facebook every day.
On holiday recently with different generations of friends and family, a few heated debates arose over the merits, or otherwise, of Facebook (strangely, no similar conversations about the pros and cons of the UN were tabled!). My main contribution was that the significance of Facebook is not whether it is a “good thing” or not, but rather that 22% of the world is already on Facebook – a fifth of our planet shares one single unified digital world. This, by any measure, is a major development. For the first time in human history, a fifth of our species shares one connected virtual environment.
Certainly, some of the demonstrations of this can at first glance seem trivial. Take the ALS ice bucket challenge, which went viral on Facebook and other social media channels in 2014, seeing millions participating in filming and sharing videos of themselves being dunked with a bucket of ice water and “tagging” friends to nominate them to take on the challenge next.
The challenge was initially started to raise awareness of the symptoms of ALS (a form of motor neurone disease), but soon took off as a global phenomenon in and of itself, with celebrities and politicians joining in. Dismissed by many as “slacktivism” at the time, this impromptu campaign actually succeeded in raising $115 million in just 30 days, money which led to a new breakthrough in ALS research and amounted to 40 times the amount raised for ALS compared to the same period in the previous year. The digital connectivity of Facebook, aided by the ease of sharing videos and tagging friends, played a huge role in this, with more than 28 million people joining the conversation between 1st June and 17th August 2014, and 2.4 million videos related to the challenge shared via the platform.
Another example is the Facebook Live video stream of #BlackLivesMatter. Diamond Reynolds recently used Facebook Live to live stream the aftermath of the shooting and killing of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, by American police. This video, at a time of heightened tensions between the black community and the police, was quickly picked up and shared globally by news channels and publications, and overnight the original video alone had attracted 3.2 million views.
While live streaming as a function has been available for a number of years, it was not until its rollout by Facebook (and also Twitter via its purchase of Periscope) that the channel has come into the hands of a wider audience. While as a society we’re still working out the ethics of live streaming, the implications for citizen journalism are huge, with normal people being able to live stream events to their network and even globally before they’re picked up by local news channels. However, this incident also highlights the question of the role Facebook has to play in all of this; the Reynolds’ video was initially taken down an hour after the live stream ended and reports show that Facebook has taken down other videos and deactivated accounts on request of the police.
Now, these instances are viewed as impressive by us but not completely remarkable. Just imagine though trying to explain these experiences to someone in Renaissance Italy in 1500. How many people could anyone, even the most well-travelled, wealthy trader, possibly make any kind of connection with in their lifetime? Even if that Renaissance man were a statesman or celebrated writer with access to the new printing press, he might at best be noticed by a few million people – and that would be an extraordinarily rare experience reserved for just a handful of people on the entire planet at that time. The idea that 1.7 billion human beings, irrespective of wealth, status or power, could connect with 1.7 billion others would have been utterly impossible to comprehend.
The UN has brought a degree of political and legal integration to the physical geography we inhabit, but what other event since then matches the sheer numerical achievements of Facebook? Facebook’s scale is enabling conversation, interaction and connection in a digital world that is without precedent.
Facebook is also increasingly playing a role in how politicians reach their potential voters and electorate during election campaigns, with the platform viewed as a key channel for engaging younger voters. It was reported, for example, that there was a correlation between Facebook adding a reminder to UK-based users’ timelines to register to vote in the EU referendum and a spike in registrations from people aged under 35 that same day.
The power of the individual politician on Facebook can be seen in, for example, Jeremy Corbyn’s official Facebook page, which had attracted nearly 800,000 “likes” as of September 4th, 2016. Corbyn himself has spoken about the benefits of being able to speak directly to potential voters without the middle-man of the media. While the benefits are huge, there are, however, potential challenges and risks associated with the increasing role Facebook has to play in politics; for example, there is a potential for ethnically targeted campaign messaging and the fact that many pages are unregulated, creating fertile ground for trolling and cyberbullying.
Another example of the reach of Facebook has occurred in reaction to recent attacks and disasters: with 24-hour, real-time reporting and social media reach, news of such events spreads quickly and globally. Taking advantage of its huge scale and the ease with which people can use the platform to connect with family and friends, Facebook launched a Safety Check feature, which it can enable following emergencies and natural disasters. This feature has, for example, been activated following attacks such as in Munich (Germany), Nice (France), Florida (USA) and Istanbul (Turkey), as well as Hua Hin (Thailand) and Quetta (Pakistan). Officially launched in October 2014, the impact can be seen in the numbers who checked in following the Paris attacks in November 2015, when 4.1 million users marked themselves as “safe” within 24 hours of the tool being deployed, roughly one-third of the 12.1 million people living in the Paris metropolitan area. However, questions have been raised as to how and when Facebook chooses to deploy the tool, with criticism for its not being deployed following attacks in areas such as Beirut (Lebanon), Aleppo (Syria), and Cote d’Ivoire.
The darkside of connecting
Certainly, although there is a huge audience on Facebook, there is also the counter-argument that Facebook offers connection in theory but in practice isn’t really making us more connected as a species; instead, it’s been suggested that we all live in siloed echo chambers online, rarely coming into contact with people outside of our own physical network or beyond a set of strangers and pages with which we already agree. As with the UN, we can debate the value per se of Facebook as a platform, and there is an argument to be made that numbers alone aren’t enough; we also need to learn how to connect with people outside of our comfort zone and how to debate with them respectfully.
It is also true that the UN is not-for-profit while Facebook is a corporate organization. What is the social responsibility of Facebook as a commercial entity if it has that many people on its platform? And, just as there is a rich set of examples of Facebook’s beneficial effects, there is equally no shortage of illustrations of its more dark and potentially destructive side. People who want to connect with others may not always want to do so for reasons that we as a society overall find acceptable. But that’s all part of the experience – Facebook (like the UN) is work in progress.
Now, roll forward five years and the predictions around who (Google, Facebook, Elon Musk or Richard Branson, via balloons, drones and the like) will succeed first in enabling the remaining 57% currently offline progressively to come online. By 2020 most of the world will have access to an internet connection – and not some soggy dial-up modem but a hard-driving 1 MB per second. Imagine 7 billion (instead of 3 billion) people connected, and all with rapid speeds.
As we envisage and begin to experience a fully connected planet (and this will emerge despite the recent accident involving a Facebook satellite destroyed before it could perform its planned role as a digital connection for sub-Saharan Africa), we will see this new universal “digital geography” being harnessed at scale to bring high-quality education, healthcare, human rights and economic power to the poorest people and societies.
And, as people get connected, one of the seemingly trivial things they will no doubt do is join Facebook (or an equivalent service – but, since we are drawn to platforms with scale, the forecasts for Facebook are positive). However, looking forward, what might other mass-scale platforms, not even conceived of yet, achieve? Facebook may be the first global platform to utilize the scale of internet connection – but, just because it is the first, doesn’t mean it will be the best in years to come.
Imagine a platform at the scale of a future Facebook but focused on one of these areas:
- sharing unused resources – like a resources Airbnb, but free
- enabling the economically poorest people to access the best teachers
- allowing those in the economic top 1% (most people in the West) to share some of their wealth to the other 99%
- allowing healthcare to become universally accessible through artificial intelligence.
So… create the platform and scale, and let’s see where we can take the opportunities.