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Facebook: The worst thing that's ever happened to humanity

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during a news conference at Facebook headquarters on October 6, 2010 in Palo Alto, California.
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during a news conference at Facebook headquarters on October 6, 2010 in Palo Alto, California.
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OK, maybe not the worst thing. But according to Harvard Business Review blogger Daniel Gulati, not exactly a force for happiness:

When Facebook was founded in 2004, it began with a seemingly innocuous mission: to connect friends. Some seven years and 800 million users later, the social network has taken over most aspects of our personal and professional lives, and is fast becoming the dominant communication platform of the future.

But this new world of ubiquitous connections has a dark side. In my last post, I noted that Facebook and social media are major contributors to career anxiety. After seeing some of the comments and reactions to the post, it's clear that Facebook in particular takes it a step further: It's actually making us miserable.

He goes on. This is my favorite part:

[Facebook is] creating a den of comparison. Since our Facebook profiles are self-curated, users have a strong bias toward sharing positive milestones and avoid mentioning the more humdrum, negative parts of their lives. Accomplishments like, "Hey, I just got promoted!" or "Take a look at my new sports car," trump sharing the intricacies of our daily commute or a life-shattering divorce. This creates an online culture of competition and comparison. One interviewee even remarked, "I'm pretty competitive by nature, so when my close friends post good news, I always try and one-up them."

If I were to distill Gulati's point of view to a catchphrase, I'd say he's a purpose guy — which makes sense because he has a book out called "Passion and Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders." So he looks at Facebook and asks a reasonable question: Is this potentially $100 billion company...building immense value off all sorts of emotional and psychological inadequacies?

In other words, is it robbing us of purpose?

I'm not one to attack Facebook. I find that it serves a very useful purpose for me, personally and professionally. It's become an excellent way for my colleagues and co-workers to engage communities and bring perspective to conversations that matter to me. For example, I wrote an early post about banks raising their debit cards rates and based some of it on the simmering rage that was expressed when we put the issue to KPCC's Facebook community.

But using Facebook has become something I don't get much out of in my free time. I like to post photos using the mobile app. But the actual website has become a sloppy visual salad for me, as Facebook crams more and more features onto the page. What was appealing about it in the beginning, lo those many years ago (2004, a misty time...), was its clean-ness, absence of clutter and simple premise. It now seems to be pitching itself as a parallel Web, based on relationships and sharing rather than content (the value is in the connections). This is driving me back to email, which still has that refreshing 1996 look.

This has got me wondering if what Facebook is really doing is creating a form of social television. I'm no TV hater, but I can see what TV has also contributed to making people miserable. In fact, when I ponder what TV's biggest future competitor might be, Facebook pops pretty quickly to mind.

Facebook could in many ways be worse, because TV is such a passive experience (that's not a judgment — sometimes you want to be pleasantly passive for a while). Facebook requires much more effort. You can't just turn in on and zone out. It's of the Web (although it's rapidly breaking away), which means that it requires your participation. That makes it an advancement over video games — in a sense it is a kind of socially powered online game. And of course games have been very successful on Facebook. Zynga's possible $1 billion IPO next week is proof of that.

Of late, I've become very interested in the idea that happiness is an economic concept. I'm not new to this idea — USC economist Richard Easterlin has made it his life's work and may win the Nobel Prize someday — but I have been thinking about it more urgently since the financial crisis. Now that Facebook is an enormous, everyday part of our existence on this rocky sphere, I think we have to ask if its growth is making us happy or encouraging us to do things that make us, ultimately, not happy.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter.