I took advantage of a sick day yesterday to watch BBC 2's documentary about the rise of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg: Inside Facebook saw presenter, Emily Maitlis granted access to Facebook's headquarters in California and given one-to-one interviews with Zuckerberg himself, plus a number of his top executives. But, following the programme's airing on Sunday night, there was a storm of complaints from viewers, who criticised the documentary as being like "an hour-long advert for Facebook" and there being "more shots of Emily Maitlis in sunglasses than interview time with Mark Zuckerberg."
During the course of the programme, it is true that Maitlis changes her outfit - each more fashionable than the last - at least five times and that this is quite distracting, a fact not helped by the many lingering shots of her, which seem contrived and a bit unnecessary. But the complaint that the show lacked substance seems a little unfair. Yes, the story of Facebook and how it came about - something most of us are familiar with - was re-told, but there was plenty material there to keep me interested too.
For starters, it was great to see what Facebook headquarters actually look like. Despite the fact that Facebook now has 800 million users worldwide, the offices still seem to retain the style and atmosphere of a start-up with lots of casually-dressed young people lounging around working on lap tops, the company's unofficial motto 'Move Fast and Break Things' emblazoned on the walls and Zuckerberg's desk set in amongst everyone else's (trademark hoodie slung over the back of his chair) on the open-plan floor.
Zuckerberg, says Facebook's COO, Sheryl Sandberg (whom Zuckerberg poached from Google back in 2008) is completely unmaterialistic and he does come across as the same nerdy 'code' geek he was back in Facebook's early days. That said, there have always been questions marks as to whether sharing more about ourselves - something Zuckerberg says is a good and positive thing - is better for us or better for Facebook and this is something Maitlis tackles well in the programme.
One of the primary problems with Facebook - the thing that could turn its users against it long-term and ultimately destroy its position as the most visited site in the world - is advertising and the way in which Facebook is increasingly used by businesses to tap into their core demographic. As Sandberg says, Facebook is "the most valuable market research tool that has ever existed" and it is all achieved by utilising what users have willingly revealed about themselves.
Today, people signed up to Facebook can 'like' brands and, in doing this, give their permission for that brand to give them information and, to an extent, 'advertise' on their wall, which many clearly don't have a problem with - there are currently 36,316,683 people, for example, who 'like' Coca-Cola. What I didn't know was that if you 'like' a brand, that brand can then pay Facebook to display a little box in the right hand box of your friends' pages saying that you've liked it alongside your profile picture - and you can't opt out.
One of the highlights of the programme is when Maitlis tackles Elliot Shrage, Vice President of Publicity Policy at Facebook, on this, expressing the concern, which no doubt a lot of us feel, that this is using people in adverts without asking their permission. When I say I 'like' something on Facebook, says Maitlis, I'm not saying I 'advertise' this. Shrage flounders. "So let's pause," he says. "That's an interesting..." Long silence. "You're asking a profound question - what's advertising?" He goes on, but fails to truly justify this practice and Maitlis' point is made effectively: mixing social activity with commercial messages is a sticky issue.
Of course, what we might feel uncomfortable sharing about ourselves now may be different to how we feel in three years' time and it was interesting to hear Jessie Hempel, Technology Writer for Fortune magazine's comment, "If you look at the products which caused the most tension say three or four years ago, all of those products exist in various facets of Facebook today and nobody's talking about them, because, at this point, culturally, we're all comfortable with them."
How far can Facebook go in using personal information without its users feeling exploited? To what extent can commercial messages be incorporated in our social activity? And is it normal to share so much or would Facebook have us believe this to suit its own ends? For anyone interested in Facebook (and that's half of us here in the UK) and the balance it must strike between growing as a business while retaining users' trust - then this programme is well worth watching. Just consider Maitlis' stylish wardrobe a visual bonus.
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