Hugo Rifkind

Hugo Rifkind: What is Facebook? 

The beheadings furore shows we forget that social networks aren't public spaces — they're profit-seeking firms

26 October 2013

9:00 AM

26 October 2013

9:00 AM

I’d never noticed that there aren’t any tits on Facebook. The place always seems brimming with right tits to me. But no. According to this week’s mumbling bien-pensant scandal, the world’s largest social network has decided to allow newsy videos of murder and beheading and all the rest, but still not tits, and this is an outrage. Strangely enough, it’s mainly regarded as an outrage by the sort of people who are normally to be found slamming publications such as men’s mags and the Sun because they minimise the proper news and have tits all over the place. Honestly. Anybody would think these people just like to be cross, or something.

In fact there’s very little to get properly cross about on Facebook. It only feels like there might be because nobody, especially those who use it, is quite sure what Facebook is. This is a phenomenon noticeable with pretty much all internet giants. They play a vital role in modern lives, and because of that we have a tendency to consider them mighty and responsible institutions, perhaps like government departments or the NHS. Or at the very least as facilities, like Thames Water or Scottish Power, still with an element of public service embedded within their mission. But they aren’t that at all. They have no mission. Theirs is not a quest for your trust or your love or your vote. Theirs is a quest for your money.

Sometimes, granted, they seem to forget this themselves. Google, particularly, at times behaves like a liberal arm of America itself; a sort of US version of the most John Birt-ish aspects of the BBC. This week it unveiled a host of services designed to allow people in oppressive regimes — Iran and Russia and suchlike — to dodge local internet restrictions. Why? I don’t know why. Perhaps they’re genuinely nice people. Perhaps they want everybody to think they’re genuinely nice people. Perhaps it’s a cunning beach-head into otherwise untappable growth markets. It’s a blurred line, either way. It’s a corporate power acting as a diplomatic power.

Not, admittedly, in a bad way. If more multibillion dollar multinationals wanted to work to undermine horrid regimes, I’d be all for it. But I worry, naggingly, that we are forgetting that this is the situation. We carry these companies around in our pockets all day and stare at them on screens, and we begin insidiously to think that they are ours. Or when Iranian politicians start engaging with the world on Twitter, as they have been of late, we think of this as being neutral space; a notice board in the global village. But it isn’t that either. It’s somebody’s. And not ours. These are our new public spaces and they are not, in fact, public spaces at all.

So it is with Facebook, which is a profit–making enterprise, and a fairly mercenary one at that. The seeming disconnect between allowing headless clothed bodies but not perfectly healthy naked ones, I suppose, is the result of twists and turns undertaken to not look anti-American; not to stifle free speech, but also not to pump porn at the young. Both, though, are commercial decisions rather than moral ones. Or, if not, they might as well be.

Personally, I’d rather Facebook didn’t show tits or corpses unless there were particularly good editorial reasons for either, but that’s me projecting my own preferred identity onto the company like everybody else, and considering it a publisher. But it isn’t quite a publisher, is it? Should it censor or should it not? Should it preach? Nobody knows. It’s a whole new sort of thing, squatting over everything. Empowering us all enormously, but not being for that at all. By now, there will probably be a Facebook petition seeking to use the power of Facebook to lobby Facebook to change Facebook. And then when it doesn’t, people will go on Facebook to complain about it. Honestly. Bunch of mugs.

A curious lack of prominence, this week, given over to the news that Saudi Arabia has rejected the chance of a two-year seat on the UN Security Council. Mainly, the Saudis are miffed that nobody has bombed Syria yet. According to the Saudi foreign ministry, this inaction sanctions ‘the continued disruption of peace and security, the expansion of the injustices against the peoples, the violation of rights and the spread of conflicts and wars around the world’.

Some chutzpah, the Saudis. Not, I suspect, that they’d much like the word. Is there any nation on earth less justified in complaining about the ‘violation of rights’? Next to them, the Russians and Chinese look like mighty paragons. Never mind for a moment, the Facebook-friendly head-chopping, the systemic abuse of imported domestic workers or the utter absence of freedom of religion of any sort. Consider, instead, that this Saturday women across the Kingdom are to partake in an act of unprecedented civil disobedience. They are going to do this by driving cars.

Very possibly the authorities will turn a blind eye, because King Abdullah himself has made positive noises about the ability of women to drive, which is big of him. Maybe within another couple of centuries they’ll be allowed to exist without male guardians, or speak to men they aren’t related to, or do athletics without wearing wetsuits, or leave the house without being dressed as Darth Vader. And then, should the Saudis ever again feel the urge to lecture the UN Security Council about human rights, they might almost have a leg to stand on.

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Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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