It’s hard to know how much real access sly old Facebook gave the BBC’s Horizon team for their documentary about the future of the company, Inside the Social Network: Facebook’s Difficult Year (16 July, 9pm). A voiceover – delivered, as ever, by a tense and doleful-sounding Steven Mackintosh – boasted that this was the first time Facebook had ever let cameras in. But I also noticed that we glimpsed its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, and his wing-woman, Sheryl “Lean In” Sandberg, only twice, the same brief clip of them scooting through the office used on both occasions. Did no one think to shout out a quick question? Or even to block their way by placing a boom strategically in their path? Obviously not. Yet here we were, being told again and again, that Facebook’s entire mission is based, not on making money, but on openness and connectivity.
Zipping by, Zuckerberg looked more than ever like he’d just emerged from a box of Playmobil, while Sandberg, her mom jeans friendly and suburban but her blow-dry and jaw set firmly to “power”, was clearly trying hard to exude righteous determination. Well, I suppose it’s understandable. We all know about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the fake news, the hate speech, the criminal scams. They have an awful lot to do. In recent months, thousands of staff have been hired, with more than 30,000 now policing the platform to which a third of the world’s human beings are currently signed up.
Meanwhile, there are also the two-thirds of people who don’t yet have an account to consider. Facebook will, we learned, get to them eventually. In London, 50 new engineers join the company every week. The scariest moment in the entire documentary – apart, that is, from the sight of a grown man kicking back with a spreadsheet or two in a chair shaped like a toy racing car – was when someone explained how the company intends to reach remote communities in the developing world using outdoor military-grade Wifi and high altitude drones. This fiendish plan they then sugar-coated with some pious-sounding but scarcely credible guff about subsistence farmers who would – I’m not joking – henceforth be able to research sustainable irrigation online.
The film caught the fact that there is a whiff of the cult about Facebook. It may well be unusual and a touch marvellous that change within the company is driven by, say, engineers rather than managers. But it also seems a bit creepy to me that employees are encouraged to celebrate not only birthdays, but their “Faceversaries” (the day they started work there), and that every few months its offices have 24 hour lock-ins or “hackathons” where staff devise new ideas (it was in one of these that someone came up with the “like” button). “We don’t tolerate dicks,” said a hipster type with a beard and a checked shirt to a bunch of “newbs” (Facebook-speak for new recruits). The trouble was that he sounded like a dick himself: all up-speak and empty platitudes. I’m inclined to think that only dicks skateboard indoors – and we saw more than one of those.
But perhaps my focus on all the Nathan Barley stuff was just displacement activity. The longer I watched, the more anxious I felt. The sight of a nerve centre in Texas, the size of four American football fields, where your data (not mine; I’m not on Facebook, thank God) is stored made my chest tighten. So, too, did the knowledge that the company’s department of “social good” was about to connect potential blood donors in India with those in need of a transfusion, so long as the latter opened a Facebook account. We learned that the police contact Facebook every day asking it to issue alerts for missing children, and so on. It has become, as someone put it, “a kind of emergency service”.
I wonder: is any aspect of our lives off limits for it now? Somehow, in spite of Zuckerberg’s encouraging recent talk about government regulation, I doubt it. Facebook made $55bn in ad revenue last year. Half a million people sign up every day. It owns our memories. It has helped undermine our democratic processes and our trust in expertise. Next stop: everything else. Into its ravenous maw all must blithely stroll, ignoring the stench, hoping like mad for likes.