Facebook registered its five hundred millionth member this week, that’s five hundred million, the sort of figure you usually associate these days with the gloomy economic forecasts of a government that likes to make the voters flesh crawl.
The social networking site which launched in 2004 has added a hundred million members in the past six months alone. At this rate the whining claim made by the few teenagers not allowed to go to the digital party that ‘everyone’s on Facebook’ might soon be true.
The site has, in its short history, had its fair share of controversy, focussing mostly on its refusal to install a ‘panic button’ to allow younger users to report incidents of possible online grooming by paedophiles not to mention the vile tribute site to murderer Raoul Moat that briefly appeared last week.
Even so Facebook has been that rarest of all things, an online business that actually works, putting it ahead of other such sites like Myspace and Bebo, the only site that comes close to matching its appeal is Twitter.
Facebook and Twitter share something else apart from the love of the internet generation; the near universal loathing of the British media in its red top and broadsheet incarnations. Both are cited as destructive forces threatening to turn the next generation into dead eyed zombies, this week the BBC devoted a whole slot on its news channel to a debate over whether or not social networking sites are robbing teenagers of the ability to communicate in the ‘real world’ that never rose much above the level of the saloon bar.
Its possible to see in this the ugly face of an old moral panic dressed up in shiny new digital clothing. I’m old enough to remember when colour television, video recorders and Channel Four were all at various times seen as harbingers of imminent social chaos. With the exception of the television channel that gave the world Big Brother the threat was noticeable only by its failure to materialize.
At the risk of sounding like the sort of reactionary who started the rumour in the first place if today’s teens are fatter, more insular and less chatty than their parents were at the same age then I blame the parents, and not just for letting them sit in front of a computer all day.
It was parents not teenagers who turned a proper caution about the risk of abuse into a paranoia that has poisoned the trust that is the mark of a civilized society. It is parents who have become so obsessed with risk that climbing trees and even crossing the road unaccompanied is something many youngsters don’t experience until they leave home and go to university.
No prizes for guessing who it was that turned a generation of children into pampered pets ferried from Pony Club to piano lessons and back again without ever experiencing the combination of boredom and longing that make life’s good times truly memorable. You guessed it; the parents and while they were at it they turned the education system into an obstacle course of mostly meaningless tests so that they could brag about their little darling’s grades even though the education the poor creatures received as a result was almost totally without value.
Faced with that sort of pressure on a daily basis is it any wonder that a whole generation seems to have retreated into the safety of the virtual world?
I’m no lover of Facebook, as I pointed out last week their response to the furore over the tribute to Raoul Moat was both pious and irresponsible, but when it or anything else is damned by a lazy and self serving media egged on by the political establishment it is a devil for whom I am able to have a fair degree of sympathy.