Is Facebook the way to world peace?


It’s no secret that Facebook is sold to us as the lovechild of globalisation and innovation. It’s heralded across the Western world as a way to bring together businesses and buddies, countries and cultures into a participatory and egalitarian community. Zuckerberg is seen as a modern-day wizard genius extraordinaire, and in many ways Facebook is talked about as though it’s synonymous with the entirety of the Internet itself (as we saw earlier this week when the ‘Internet’ was brought down by an error in Facebook’s Connect code).

But just how much of this is actually true? I mean, maybe we’ve just fallen for Facebook’s clever marketing. Or maybe its marketers were helped along by the fact that Facebook itself fits seamlessly into a preconceived idea we’ve all grown up with, a sort of self-advertising narrative of progress through globalisation. Either way the question stands, just how does Facebook bring the world together?

The picture below was compiled by Facebook engineer Paul Butler way back in 2010, and it fits into this narrative like a final jigsaw piece. Each line represents a relationship between two people – the brighter an area the more concentrated those online relationships. It’s truly breathtaking.


Thousands of images just like this one are presented to us daily as a form of documentary reinforcement for the triumph of globalisation, a fact many of us wouldn’t second-guess. But when we take a critical step back from our discourse, you can’t help but notice a very different picture hiding inside this one.

All you have to do is stop looking at the faint blue lines and instead concentrate on the vast empty spaces between them.

Notice specifically the giant black holes in Central and Northern Africa, Russia, the Middle East, Central Asia, China and Oceania. If this image shows the extent of Facebook’s reach, there’s a significant portion of the world which isn’t represented here. And of the relationships Facebook facilitates, the majority of them are remarkably insular, occurring intensely within a country but less so outside its borders and immediate region.


It’s a peculiar pattern supported by this highly-recommended data visualisation published by Facebook Stories last year. Almost every country you click on, the largest bubbles are of its immediate neighbours, with the sort of exceptions you’d expect (Spain-Latin America, UK-Australia-India etc.). Most of these links are remnants of a pre-Internet age, from things like European colonialism and post-WW2 migration – but as for any new, radical, quirky or novel cross-cultural exchanges, there just isn’t the volume you’d anticipate. This isn’t the profile of a vast, interconnected network –  it’s more like a chain, or a series circuit.

A lot of this is explicable by what media theorist Joseph Straubhaar has called cultural proximity, “the tendency to prefer media products from one’s own culture or the most similar possible culture” (2003, 85). Because of this Straubhaar notes the formation of certain media markets and that:

These markets might more accurately be called cultural-linguistic or geocultural markets rather than regional markets because not all these linked populations, markets, and cultures are geographically contagious.” (2007, 171)

For the most part though, voices like Straubhaar’s haven’t been absorbed by the zeitgeist. Instead, talk and images of how Facebook is the ultimate global village cum democratic network, how we are all connected, how a combination of the Internet and technology will save us all, and so on, can leave us with a compromised image of the actual world around us which systematically under-represents the majority of humanity and overstates the role of the Internet.


We’re often reminded that Facebook, if it were a country, would have the third largest population on the planet, with something like 1 billion active monthly users. That sounds impressive on paper – until you remember that this means 85.7% of the world’s population is NOT on Facebook.

This isn’t the way it’s talked about though – Facebook is touted as being synonymous with the Internet itself. But looking at these figures, this would be like saying the entire world was Hindu.

What’s more, the minority which is on Facebook isn’t spread evenly across the world. About one in two people in the US use Facebook, giving it the highest number of national users. Brazil comes in second with one in three. India comes in third with almost 63 million users, but this is only 5% of India’s population.You can’t look at the volume of users alone and conclude that Facebook has reached the same level of cultural penetration abroad as it has in the US, now effectively one nation under Facebook – yet you’d be forgiven for thinking that it has.

To see more of how global Facebook users are distributed check it out here.

Internet Users by Percentage of Population

At this point, it’s sobering to remember that the Internet is not as far-reaching as we’d imagine. Only a third of the world is online. It’s weird to think, given how self-propagating it is, for a discursive two-thirds of the world’s population the Internet is largely non-existent. In fact, graphics like the one above compel us to paint a portrait of the Internet which is drastically lopsided.

For example, most of the websites on the Internet are in English (about 57%), but you’d be mistaken to think that 57% of Internet users come from English-speaking countries. I know – that’s just logical, yet this seems to be the prevailing belief. In reality, the number of Internet users in China dwarfs the number of those in the US by more than double. India, Japan and Brazil follow respectively.

Of the top 20 countries sorted by the number of Internet users, only 3 are officially English speaking. (source)

Internet users as percentage of world population

It’s when you see statistics like this that you realise our rhetoric is wrong and talk is cheap. We talk about ‘the West’ and ‘the Third World’, and a divide between the developed/developing world, but in light of honest inquiry these terms can’t help but seem condescending – and more fundamentally – inaccurate.

Undoubtedly Facebook seems all-pervasive and unavoidable. But when we take a step back and look at the bigger picture, it turns out that Facebook is used by the minority of the minority of the world, about a third of a third (1 billion users). That’s significant yes, but on equal footing with (if not slightly below) the combined cultural force of Chinese microblogging and social networking platforms QQ (712 million users), Qzone (>400 million, part of the QQ network) and Weibo (>300 million). This is a side of the coin we’re rarely presented with – and if we are, it’s downplayed.


The closer you look, the more it seems that the Internet is not one unified, globally aware cultural force, but that there are in fact many different Internets separated by cultural proximities that rarely come in contact with one another. The Internet looks very different to many different people. Commentators refer to this phenomenon (although with slightly different connotations) as cyberbalkanisation, or my personal favourite, the splinternet.

There’s a disparity here between reality and what we perceive. And this should be alarming – especially when so much of discourse is weighted toward the antipodal, dreamy-eyed vision of globalisation – because it gives us a false impression of the world around us. It seems to pander the minority, and seems to value their role in shaping global discourse disproportionately. And it compels us to whitewash the globe with a narrative of all-inclusive connectivity which can only ever be understood as progressive, regardless of the truth.

Graphics like Butler’s are elegant but ultimately deceptive, and they tend to oversell the unifying power of Facebook (and more broadly the Internet) in our modern world. As an analogy, Facebook increases the sensor size without increasing the megapixels – we’re given a bigger picture but with no greater resolution.

If anything I hope this post helps us avoid tripping into the pitfall of conflating what occurs on Facebook at a local level with what’s happening on the global level, and encourages a humbler inspection of the true breadth and depth of globalisation.

But what do you think? Does the discourse surrounding Facebook enrich our global consciousness and work toward world peace? Or does it give us a more parochial and pixelated view of the world? 

Looking forward to seeing your thoughts.





Does Facebook bring us closer?

What does Facebook do

Poke. Poke. Like. Tag. Like. Comment. Stalk. Share. Message. Backstab. Poke. Like.

Ok, that was a tad simplistic (I forgot Farmville), but this pretty much sums up a day in the life for many of Facebook’s 584 million daily active users. And it’s pretty normal to us now.

Being around since 2004, Facebook is way past the point of novelty and has become a ubiquitous fact of modern life. 1 billion registered users would make it the third largest country in the world, and 604 million daily active mobile users would make it one of the most fast-paced. It’s undeniable that today a large part of our lives are lived beneath that cosy blue banner.

For these posts though I want you to take a step back and out of your comfort zone by asking just how, if at all, Facebook works as a surrogate for social presence. And I want to look at this question on a few levels, first the local, then the global (part 2) and finally the commercial (part 3).

In the rise of Facebook (and other social networking sites), we’ve sort of tacitly assumed that a comment on someone’s timeline is directly equivalent to a comment made face-to-face, or that a ‘like’ is the same as giving a holla by tipping your hat (as though we live in some Dickensian fantasy-world). In fact this is the only way our behaviour on Facebook makes sense. If we stop thinking of a mouse-click as a symbolic action synonymous with an actual social activity, the whole framework falls down. It’s only because we attach a face to the click that the click carries actual social weight.

Wanted Cursor

A lot of this seems unnoteworthy, and you’re right. For the most part this suspension of disbelief is harmless and is useful in facilitating, replicating and even substantiating our social networks. I’ve talked about how interactions over Skype are neurochemically watered-down versions of face-to-face contact, and in many ways our interactions with one another on Facebook are an even more diluted version of that. Written sentences and mouse-clicks can never fully capture things like body language, subtle changes in tone, or that irreplaceable feeling we get when being physically present with people we know and love. But they do help humanise the otherwise impersonal task of personal computing.

EDIT: In fact it’s been shown that engaging in a mental simulation of a physical activity, when done for a long time in multiple sittings, can produce to a slightly lesser degree the neurophysiological changes equivalent to those that would occur if you had physically done the activity itself. Put simply, by imagining something vividly enough, the brain can essentially rewire itself (but crucially, not as strongly as it would if actually doing the thing). So far this has only been documented in activities which involve fine motor skills, but considering how interrelated regions of the brain are, it may be the case, although this should be taken with a massive grain of salt, that socialising through a simulator like Facebook as a precursor for social behaviour may actually contribute net positively to our ability to socialise, not negatively as touted by mainstream media. If you’re interested in this area of neuroplasticity, I highly recommend checking out this great video by ASAPscience and this ARN article from 2005.

At the same time though, this mentally social mindset can come at a physical cost. Not a large one, but a noticeable one. Robert Putnam puts it neatly in his 1995 essay Bowling Alone when talking about television and its effect on ‘privatising’ downtime:

Television has made our communities (or, rather, what we experience as our communities) wider and shallower. In the language of economics, electronic technology enables individual tastes to be satisfied more fully, but at the cost of the positive social externalities associated with more primitive forms of entertainment.”

In the same way, our number of Facebook friends can easily skyrocket into the hundreds, but the lived reality of our relationships is always much humbler. What we have is width without depth. 

This claim is somewhat quantified by recent study. In 2011, researchers at Kent State found that although broadcasting the best of ourselves to a large number of friends on Facebook boosts our self image, when times get tough the perceived social support we need is just not there. Meanwhile, a more down-to-earth and others-orientated approach to using Facebook yielded smaller networks but an increase in perceived social support. Another paper in 2012 saw those low in self-esteem ‘friend’ people on Facebook more actively as a type of compensation, rather than a means to facilitate preexisting interpersonal relationships.

And in a Cornell study led by Matthew Brashears which gained considerable media coverage, it’s suggested that the number of people we consider close friends – when modelled – has steadily contracted since 1985 to 2010, from 3 down to 2.03. I should say, as Brashears himself stresses, that this doesn’t mean we’re becoming antisocial, or asocial. It simply means that social activities are becoming increasingly subsumed and supplemented by non-traditional forms in which closeness’ is positioned as a cog within a broader paradigm of ‘connectivity’.

Being connected, not necessarily close, has come to characterise the narrative through which we understand our relationships today.

Closeness Vs Connectivity

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we can’t and don’t have meaningful relationships with friends, family, neighbours etc. It’s obvious that we can and do. But when we talk about connectivity, and look at the ways that word is used today, it’s clear that it’s referring to something else while being equated to the type of interaction we experience with friends, family, neighbours etc., regardless of whether it’s directly analogous or not. When conflated in this way it becomes important to think about the new criteria for locating and categorising those real, meaningful, close relationships within a larger conceptual spectrum of relationships which aren’t so real, or not real in the same sense, yet still carry important social significance in today’s world.

This is getting quite dense. Let’s backtrack. On one hand we have relationships with real people in the real world – anything from soulmates to Starbucks to strangers. On the other hand, we also deal with close replicas of those relationships online, modeled off of profoundly different social dynamics (such as anonymity, absence, asymmetricity). Call it the uncanny valley of human interaction.

But we talk about them as though they’re the same, and we use the same language of ‘connectivity’ to talk about them both. This in turn makes us conceive of them in the same way. It seems these two distinct clouds of relationships converge and collapse in the metaphor of the ‘social network‘, which in many ways is the go-to, if not the only, descriptor for modern interaction. But is it helpful to entangle the question of modern personhood in computational analogies like these? Is someone’s connectability as important an attribute of their identity as their surname or portfolio?

I’m probably overthinking this. Probably. Definitely. Forget I said anything.

As with most things it’s hard to pinpoint what ultimate effect Facebook has on our immediate social networks, and just how much of those networks are inflated by empty space. I think a distinction between closeness and connectivity is important, but not sacrosanct, in conceptualising this issue. If closeness describes the depth, the quality of relationships, then connectivity describes the width, the quantity of them, and the activities associated with cultivating visibility.

If that’s the case, maybe Facebook doesn’t bring us quite as close as we think. But what do you think? On a local level is Facebook better at facilitating width, or depth? Or both equally? What functions of Facebook would you group under each category?

Til next time,