Turn off FarmVille for a second and imagine you’re sitting in a lecture hall with 300 students listening to a professor drone on about particle physics or “The Canterbury Tales.” In any case, you are bored. However, your professor allows computers in the classroom, strictly for note-taking purposes. Well, what the professor doesn’t know won’t hurt him, and laptops aren’t transparent. You are free to take notes — or browse the Internet.
It is almost startling how different a lecture hall would look from the front of a room versus standing in the back. If you stood in the front and looked out, you may see a large room filled with diligent students furiously clicking away at their keyboards while taking notes. But if you run up the stairs and stand at the very back of the hall you’ll see students scrolling through pictures, commenting on statuses and poking that cute girl sitting on the other side of the room.
The cult of Facebook began roughly six years ago in the dorm room of a Harvard student in Cambridge, Mass., and now it’s an international phenomenon. What was once an exclusive Harvard-only sign of superiority has become the quintessential means of communication worldwide. During this year’s Super Bowl, almost every advertisement encouraged viewers to visit their Facebook page, rather than their company’s home page. The Middle East and North African head of marketing for Google, Wael Ghonim, was instrumental in the Egyptian revolt earlier this month, and was referred to by Newsweek as the “Facebook Freedom Fighter” because of his employment of social networking for political purposes. Even President Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign used Facebook to reach out to a powerful youthful demographic.
How much a company produces, its scope and its efficiency are qualities that encourage investors to place their faith and money into a company. It’s difficult to quantify Facebook’s progress and success rates, yet Goldman Sachs found enough value to invest $1.5 billion in the company earlier this year, after having determined the overall value of the site to be in the $50 billion range.
Users are the blood of Facebook, and connection is what they strive for. One of the many things Facebook offers is information about other people’s lives at a speed and depth rarely paralleled. In several interviews with University students, the impetus to log on was the same. It’s good to connect with friends, they said.
One of the major selling points of Facebook is that it’s free. The site is so proud of this fact that it’s the first thing you see on the homepage. Right under the headline, “Sign Up,” Facebook assures you, “It’s free and always will be.”
But as the saying goes: Nothing in this life is free, especially if you are a student.
According to the University’s financial services, tuition costs $5,824 per semester for an in-state LSA freshman and $17,906 for an out-of-state LSA freshman.
In an average 15-credit schedule, students spend roughly $388 per credit. Divide that by the amount of weeks in the semester —12 — and you find that you’re spending about $32 for each credit hour or about 50 cents per minute you sit in class. Triple it if you are an out-of-state student.
In an online survey of 92 Facebook users conducted by The Michigan Daily, 71 percent said they go on Facebook while in class. Sixty-two percent said they are only on for a few minutes, 10 percent said they are on for half an hour and 7 percent said they are on Facebook for the entire class.
So if time is money and class takes time, you could instead be spending at least a few dollars if you are a light user, $15 if you are a medium user and $30 to $50 dollars if you are a heavy user during an hour-and-a-half class. Maybe Facebook isn’t so free.
Next time you are in a lecture hall and find your finger drifting toward the Facebook bookmark on your Internet browser, just imagine Mark Zuckerburg, in all his reclusive glory, slipping into the seat next to you and reaching his hand into your pocket to pluck a pair of shiny quarters.
Amy Hassan, an LSA freshman from San Diego, says she uses Facebook “too much” during class. She admitted she can be on Facebook for a full hour during a lecture period. When she was asked whether or not she would go on Facebook for an hour in class if it cost her $50, her response was immediate.
“Definitely not,” she said. “Not nearly as much.”
In the survey, 36 percent said that Facebook was “pretty important” to their lives and 12 percent said that it was “very important.” Eighty-three percent of respondents said they visit Facebook without consciously making the decision to do so.
LSA freshman McKenna Green said it’s definitely possible to be addicted.
“I’m compulsively checking it on my phone or on my computer all the time,” she said.
She also echoed the response from the student survey, saying she sometimes found herself on Facebook without making the conscious effort to go to the site.
To call something “addictive” is attaching a pretty sizeable red flag. There are many examples of non-chemical activities that have been known to be addictive (like what?). The Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders refers to these as “process addictions.” Gambling, sex, and binge eating are examples of addictions that studies have shown to overlap with chemical-related addictions.
“It’s a question of what’s going on in the brain,” said the James Olds Collegiate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Kent Berridge. “People who are compulsively eating, gambling or compulsively pursuing sex could have some of the same features a drug addict has.”
The modern definition of addiction has changed over the past few decades. The more outdated qualification for addiction was grounded in withdrawal effects or the “compulsive nature of addiction —that it becomes uncontrollable, it persists even when a person tries to quit,” according to Berridge.
The Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders does not recognize a “Facebook Addiction,” but it does recognize an Internet addiction disorder.
“One symptom of Internet addiction is excessive time devoted to Internet use. A person might have difficulty cutting down on his or her online time even when they are threatened with poor grades or loss of a job,” according to the Encyclopedia.
Facebook makes it difficult to quit. You cannot delete your account. It is not an option. Instead, Facebook offers the option of “deactivating.” By deactivating you are preventing yourself from receiving notifications — and that’s about it. It is essentially the same as logging out of your account. When you feel the itch to return all you need to do is click “login.”
The site’s mission statement is to “give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” However, when it comes to power there seems to be a significant incongruence in its allocation.
Try calling Facebook’s head offices in Palo Alto, Calif., and you will be directed to an automated voice machine, which will offer a set of options. Every single option will lead to another voicemail that will encourage you to send them an e-mail, or visit their website.
Considering its privately held stocks, circuitous voicemail and reclusive founder, this company hardly seems to be the paradigm of openness and connection it claims to be. When it comes to understanding the phenomenon of Facebook, we have a limited view of its profile.
Mr. Zuckerburg could not be reached for comment.