If Facebook were a country, its population would rival the single most populous country on Earth.
That’s one eye-popping takeaway from Facebook’s Q3 earnings report Tuesday, in which the site announced that its monthly active users cleared 1.35 billion — roughly equal the population of China, and 9 percent larger than that of India. By these numbers, nearly 20 percent of the world’s population logs into Facebook once a month. And if we just look at the world’s Internet users, roughly half of them — every other person with Internet on the planet — use the site actively.
This is great trivia, needless to say. (I look forward to whipping it out at my next dinner party.) But stacking Facebook against real-world states isn’t just a handy numerical comparison — it also underscores exactly how much power “Facebookistan” has over the online lives and identities of its users. A power that, some legal scholars and media critics have argued, is quite analogous to the ones real-life governments exercise over their citizens.
In her 2012 book “Consent of the Networked,” and again in an essay for Foreign Policy, the journalist and technologist Rebecca Mackinnon has argued that Facebook’s top-down, paternalistic, and totally opaque governing structures look … a whole lot like those of dictatorships abroad. Facebookistan tells its citizens who to be; it collects and collates their data; it insists, above all, that it knows what’s best for them, even going so far — as in one highly publicized experiment — to manipulate their feelings.
More importantly, of course, Facebook also has an enormous influence over political and activist movements, media literacy, and privacy. But as a for-profit company, bent on the bottom line, Facebook doesn’t necessarily consult or inform its “citizens” on these issues in anything but a perfunctory way. (One attempt to “democratize” the site, in 2012, failed spectacularly.)
“Facebook is not a physical country,” MacKinnon wrote at the time, “but with 900 million users, its ‘population’ comes third after China and India. It may not be able to tax or jail its inhabitants, but its executives, programmers, and engineers do exercise a form of governance over people’s online activities and identities.”
Now that Facebook’s population rivals China’s, and soundly wallops India’s, those issues have only become more pressing. Half of all Internet-users live in “Facebookistan” — but how much do we understand this new dictatorship we’re in?