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Facebook: a reality check

Facebook will not democratize society. They don’t claim they will and they don’t claim they can. “We know we don’t always change the world, but Facebook’s ability to connect people can have an impact. We believe in democracy,” says Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer for Facebook. I had the opportunity to hear Sandberg speak at the Empire Club of Canada on Tuesday this week, which was enjoyable if not particularly illuminating.

Facebook is a cultural monster and one of the most successful enterprises of this past decade. We know this, but here are some stats to drive the point home.

  • In Canada, there are 15 million registered users and 10 million of these users log in every day
  • In 2010, Facebook passed the 500,000,000 registered user mark globally. That’s compared with 80,000,000 active websites.
  • 50 million people “friend” somebody every day

That gives you a sense of the power of this social network. Sandberg herself is almost as impressive as the company. Sheryl was Vice President of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google. She also helped launch Google’s philanthropic arm Google.org. Prior to Google, Sandberg served as Chief of Staff for the United States Department of the Treasury. In addition to this resume, she’s hard not to like. At the age of 40, she’s considered middle-aged by her co-workers, a fact she kicked off her speech with and which immediately endeared her to most of the room.

While she spent most of the hour talking about the advertising potential of the network, it was during the Q&A that we heard some of the more interesting comments. When somebody asked about social media’s ability to build democracy, I thought Sandberg’s answer was honest and appropriately humble. The power of Facebook is in its ability to connect people, and this has resulted in some pretty amazing stories. Sandberg told the story about a woman who was experiencing kidney failure and looking for a donor on Facebook. A random person saw her post and made the life-saving donation.

More recently, thousands of “It Gets Better” videos have been produced and sent around the world on Facebook assuring LGBTQ youth that life does get better beyond high-school. These stories are golden for a company that’s making money hand over fist in advertising revenue. It humanizes the monster. But I think Sandberg knows as well as we do, that it’s not Facebook that’s driving these acts of human kindness. It’s facilitating it and it’s happy to do so. However, it’s the human desire to connect and to care that makes the technology so important.

Every year the Social Innovation team at MaRS in Toronto convenes Net Change Week and co-creates several events that discuss, teach and explore social technology’s power to facilitate social impact. Whether it’s through Facebook, a wiki or mobile technology, people are intrinsically motivated to affect social change locally and globally. That’s why it’s powerful. I know there’s a lot of debate around Facebook and it’s privacy settings that we should be wary of, but beyond that or despite that, social technology has given us the means to make a positive impact. It’s how we use it that counts.

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Geraldine Cahill About Geraldine Cahill

Manager, Programs and Partnerships, SiG National

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