Monday 9 December 2019

The full impact of social media remains to be seen

Sheryl Sandberg arrived in Dublin to spread the word – but is this really the kind of religion we want?

Facebook guru: Sheryl Sandberg has a smile like the spring breeze. Photo: Mark Condren
Facebook guru: Sheryl Sandberg has a smile like the spring breeze. Photo: Mark Condren
Sandberg is the yin to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s yang

Julia Molony

Sheryl Sandberg is great PR for Facebook. She is the yin to company founder Mark Zuckerberg's yang. He is controversial, unknowable, and has been the subject of a less than flattering film in which he was portrayed as a kind of vengeful uber-geek; socially excluded and contemptuous. Not exactly a characterisation in keeping with the spirit of the world's most famous social network.

So no wonder Sandberg, a networking pro, has been pushed to the front of the organisation. She has a smile like a spring breeze, which was employed to great effect on the cover of her latest book. Her catchphrase is "Lean In", her approach is to lead with charm, and, crucially, she is all about the women. Like the best of the technorati, she aims to represent a new world order – one that is progressive, where gender parity is attainable and where there is such a thing as a work-life balance. She is the new face of an elite corporate class which considers itself to be on the side of the righteous – a force for the good. At a time when big business is seen by many as the enemy, the grand ambassadors for the digital industry set themselves apart from the capitalist wolves in the financial sector. They pitch themselves as for the people. In Facebook parlance, they are our friends.

Judging by the warm reception given to Sandberg when she arrived in Dublin last week, we rush to treat her accordingly. It's easy to see why; this is a relatively young woman, formidably bright and now worth a billion dollars. With her caramel voice, straight-talking manner and approachable, upward-inflecting way of talking, she seems like our representative in the corridors of power.

She talks straight and she talks sense – she speaks of a "motherhood penalty" for women, and she's a champion of personal choice within business and society, maintaining "it's good for our employers".

Her public position as global equality guru is of priceless branding value to Facebook as a company. Her values, we assume, reflect the company's values. This, no doubt, forms no small part of why they pay her many millions of dollars a year. Which is not to discredit her business acumen – her first three years at the head of the company saw 10-fold growth in annual revenue.

And as she breezed into Dublin as part of a transatlantic charm offensive, we all felt lightly bronzed by the glow of her charisma. But we must not rush to drink the Kool-Aid. We must undazzle ourselves from this public relations assault, no matter how persuasive, because the company she represents has some serious questions to answer, on a wide variety of issues.

On the day of Sandberg's visit to the European headquarters in Dublin, figures were released that demonstrate the average Facebook user logs in an average of 14 times a day. This is a resource that has gone to the very heart of how we live. But it has exacted its price – the most profound of which, as was revealed by Edward Snowdon, is to our privacy. This problem is built into Facebook's basic business model, which is to exploit our need to connect and our vanity, in order to turn us all into living, breathing product – our personal data into a commodity that can be packaged off and sold. Never has consumerism been so perfectly realised, or so comprehensively penetrated to the very centre of our existence.

What's more, this allows Facebook, alongside firms such as Google, an unprecedented amount of raw power. But we gleefully sign away our rights, because we care more about showing off how hot we look in our holiday photographs than the fact that we are as good as committing our personal lives, for all eternity, to the supermarket shelves.

The full impact of all of this is yet to be seen – on our society, on our inner lives (this was the month in which the compulsion to take 'selfies' was connected with mental illness) and on our democracy. In describing the company's plans for the future – Sandberg led with the philanthropic: "one thing we're really focused on is our partnership. Which is about getting the next billions of people connected to data that they don't have now," she told a supportive Dublin crowd.

Sounds right on, Sheryl, but with Facebook at the helm of this enterprise, what will be the cost?

Sunday Independent

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