I remember when Facebook was an invite-only network. Those were the good old days, before nearly everyone created a profile on Facebook, including for their pets and probably for some inanimate objects as well. The world itself was a simpler place back then and social media was an add-on to our existence, not an essential component of our interaction with the world around us.
All that has changed dramatically. With almost a billion users worldwide, Facebook has transformed the social media landscape and created a phenomenon that is here to stay. It is a positive force in many ways, bringing a sprawling globe together in a few keystrokes and enabling us to share our lives and experiences like never before.
But there is a dark side to all this, and Facebook also represents this in spades. I am not talking here about the dilution of human relationships because of digital media or the craziness that ensues as a result of 950 million voices being heard at the same time. I am talking about the power that social media, and Facebook in particular, now has to shape the course of our destinies.
As a blogger, I not only use Facebook to share my blogs and views with the community, but also rely on it to do so. It is a great forum to reach a lot of people quickly and is also a place to find like-minded souls with whom I might create a productive friendship. And I am not just talking about updating my profile either. One of the best features of Facebook is its community "page" that allow people with similar views, concerns or interests to meet up digitally, much like a flock of birds. There are thousands, and probably millions, of such pages -- large and small, throughout Facebook, and are a great way to reach total strangers who you might have something in common with.
The system, however, is also fraught with dangers, since people can arbitrarily deem your content "spam" and report you. This can cause Facebook to suspend your ability to post or even ban you altogether, seriously hampering your ability to share your ideas with others. Given the volume of users and content, my guess is that the system is entirely automated by computer. In any case, there is no user-friendly system in place to question Facebook's actions or to clear your name, so to speak.
On the face of it, it is not an unreasonable policy; with so many real spammers out there, Facebook would be inundated with garbage if there were no restrictions. But when dealing with people's thoughts and free speech, Facebook needs to be more flexible. By blindly applying policies, Facebook is inadvertently harming the very users whose lives it seeks to enrich.
What the company must realize is that they are no longer just a scrappy kid on the block but one of the largest public companies on the planet, and a force of nature. And as the now-famous quote goes, "With great power comes great responsibility" (and no, this was not first used by Spiderman but very likely by the French philosopher and writer Voltaire in the 19th century). Facebook has the power to make or break people's social lives and businesses, and so it must exercise restraint in how it treats its users. It must also, difficult as it might be, provide more human customer support. That is not just good policy but good business. The current customer service experience consists of navigating through a byzantine online maze of FAQs that often leads to nothing but more confusion and frustration.
Facebook does provide the ability to promote yourself through paid advertising, and it is a very effective tool, but part of what makes the site so appealing is the fact that you can share your ideas with the world for free. Hopefully the company will not reduce its accessibility for the sake of ad dollars. Can you imagine if Facebook had forced the protestors in Egypt to buy ads to promote their cause, or tagged their pleas as spam?
Mark Zuckerberg has created something amazing and valuable for the world in Facebook, but as the company's user base and power grows, so does its responsibility to the public it serves; it is high time that the Facebook team took a long, hard look at how it could truly make the so-called Facebook Nation a better place. Clarifying and humanizing their guidelines on posting and friending, as well as providing more responsive customer service, would be a great place to start.
And that is something I know people will not just "Like" but love.
Sanjay Sanghoee is a former banker and the author of two thriller novels. His Facebook Page can be found at Candid Politics & Business Blogs.