About 25 years ago, “face time” was a new phrase. In 1994 or thereabouts, news came that in cutting-edge workplaces of the US, the term denoted time actually spent in the company of other human beings – and was, by implication, a symbol of how that most basic aspect of human interaction was being lost. As they became immersed in email and the nascent worldwide web, it was rumoured that the most modern people were increasingly removed from even their friends and families – something crystallised in Douglas Coupland’s 1995 novel Microserfs, which moves from Microsoft’s HQ near Seattle to Silicon Valley.
Midway through the book comes an angst-ridden email written by one of the key characters. “So many people no longer have lives that you raeally [sic] have to wonder if some new mode of existence is being created which is going to become so huge that it is no longer on the moral scale – simply the way people ARE,” he says. “I only need 2 hours of people a day. I can get by on that amount. 2 hours of FaceTime.”
As so many of life’s fundamentals fall away, this is the one kind of human interaction that will be strengthened
As a pointer to the future, it was hardly misplaced. There is grim symbolism in the fact that “FaceTime” eventually lost its original meaning, and became the name of the video-phoning app launched by Apple in 2010 – ironically enough, a mere approximation of face time in its original sense. But in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, this is how millions of us, of all ages, are living.
For the foreseeable future, ours is a world in which extended, in-person social contact is simply reckless, and the replacement of socialising with time spent online is an everyday fact. And beyond all those newly ubiquitous platforms for video calling and conferencing, arguably our single greatest collective tool is also the one people like me have spent the last four years maligning as increasingly monstrous, out-of-control, badly led, central to many countries’ journeys away from liberal democracy, and damagingly addictive to boot.
For Facebook and its senior management, all those things remain in play. Beyond the current pandemic, the company’s culture and practices are being tested once again by the looming US election. But life is never without contradictions and ambivalences, and we all know the positive things Facebook can facilitate, arguably as never before. The Covid-19 moment demands a means of bringing people together while they largely stay in their homes, and ensuring that whatever limited time they can spend in the real world is used as constructively as possible. Given that 2.5 billion human beings have Facebook accounts, the solution has arrived as a matter of inevitability.
Facebook’s PR people are keen to big up its new “information centre” that puts reliable material about the virus at the top of people’s news feeds. Its moderating machine, they emphasise, is aggressively tackling misinformation about the virus – though its systems have already mistakenly clamped down on legitimate material, and the weeks to come will surely test them to the limit. Facebook-owned WhatsApp is another means of communication that the outbreak has made indispensable, although there are questions to be asked about the misinformation people are using it to spread.
But here is some unalloyed good news: in the UK alone, Facebook has facilitated the formation of an estimated 300 local Coronavirus support groups, whose combined membership now totals more than a million people.
Late last week, I spoke to Edd Withers, a 33-year-old resident of Canterbury, who is one of three administrators of a Facebook group called Canterbury Residents. It was founded in 2014, with the intention of bringing together a small university city, and “bridging the gap between the student population and the resident population – getting over this kind of clash of worlds”. The group now has 37,000 members. “It’s had a massive impact on the whole way the city learns and communicates about news, and what’s going on,” he said.
The group has now spawned a Facebook offshoot called Canterbury Coronavirus Assistance, which has gained more than 1,000 members in a week. In the immediate moment, Withers told me, lots of people were volunteering to run errands and check in on others. “But there will still be people who are self-isolating in six months’ time. Things might calm down, but there will still be really vulnerable people feeling the effects of all this.” He emphasised how important it is that these assistance networks operate safely: “It’s not about going in gung-ho and introducing stranger A to vulnerable person B.” With that in mind, he and his colleagues are linking people to already-existing local charities and community organisations. Via a Facebook chat group, he is also being advised by a group of wise heads that includes the leader of the council, and representatives of local churches.
Whatever Facebook’s serial transgressions, there is something at the heart of such initiatives that holds out the prospect of a kind of social organisation beyond the “traditional” state and the paternalism of charity. It is one of the most remarkable sociological aspects of this crisis that as so many of life’s fundamentals fall away, this is the one kind of human interaction that will be strengthened. And yes, there is a cruelty in the fact that as so many large and small businesses hit the wall, Facebook and the other titans of big tech will probably emerge from this crisis even more powerful. This issue was pre-emptively answered by Facebook’s decision to use a $100m fund to help small business in 30 different countries; but the problem will still likely flare up again as the economic crisis triggered by the virus deepens.
In early 2017, amid the first stirrings of a conversation about Facebook’s mismatch of power and responsibility that would go nuclear later that year, Mark Zuckerberg began to zero in on the theme of community. He talked about “social infrastructure”, and how important it is to feel “comfort that we are not alone and a community is looking out for us”. In his commencement address that year at Harvard University, he sounded positively evangelical: “Change starts local. Even global changes start small – with people like us. In our generation, the struggle of whether we connect more, whether we achieve our biggest opportunities, comes down to this – your ability to build communities and create a world where every single person has a sense of purpose.”
Very quickly, this stuff felt like so much cover for the arrogance and oversights that would be decisively revealed by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. But in the midst of such awful global events and the way millions are responding to them, Zuckerberg’s words also just about ring true, and underline what Facebook enables millions of us to do. Sooner or later, we will have to resume the conversation about whether the company – along with the other tech giants – should exist in its current form, whether to forcibly pull its social functions away from advertising, and all the rest. But for now, our world is inescapably cast in its corporate blue and white, and millions of us know one thing as a matter of daily experience: that without it, even more things might fall apart.