Of all the ironies abounding in our time, the Facebook user complaining about Facebook on Facebook is, arguably, one of the most common and hilarious. Unlike rebels in war-torn states who are born into totalitarian regimes with nary a say in the matter, these Facebook users have a choice. They could have simply not registered for a service for which they were charged nothing; and they can always, at any time, leave for another less evil social networking website. Instead, these users choose to stay on Facebook, contributing to the success of the very thing they purportedly abhor.
The typical complainant sounds like this: "Facebook is really sneaky. It wants to steal all our private data. How dare they!" This complainant does not realize that the main person responsible for her loss of privacy is herself. Indeed, most Facebook complainants lack this awareness. It is not enough that Facebook is free, can be quit by the user at any time and only accepts information that is proactively given to it (i.e. it does not scan your hard disk remotely for child pornography). No, this complainant wants more. This complainant is unhappy that Facebook is ... doing something. "Why can't Facebook be like oxygen?" she wails. "Oxygen is free and enhances my life, but gains nothing in return. Why can't Facebook accept that it shouldn't be enriched in any way? I know that servers need money to run and coders have to be paid, but seriously, isn't it time Facebook started behaving more like oxygen?"
Saddeningly, the culture of complaining about the free appears to have taken root in broader society as well. People who do and who have done nothing, complaining about others who have expended considerable time and effort in contributing to society. You see it everywhere. When YouTube first came out with mandatory periodic advertisements, the general YouTube community's first response was not "About time - at least now we know YouTube will be sustainable going forward", but rather "WTF f***king adz i wan mi old YOOTUBE bak!!!! It'z supposed 2 b abt YOO n not CORPORASHIONS?!!" Even the YouTube videos themselves, usually edited and uploaded by volunteers, are not spared: on one instructional video on how to play a certain piano piece, for example, most of the comments were of the "y dun u tell uz ware u got de score frm? ur selfish" variety. The danger lies in more than ungrammatical vitriol: what we are witnessing is the latest chapter in the systematic erosion of societal values.
To exist, a society needs to have not only outstanding individuals who work hard in paving the way for its continued existence, but also plodding members who appreciate all that is being done around them for them. These mediocre members of society try their best to contribute as well, but in the main they support society by not reneging; by being thankful, empathetic and generally helpful. If someone performs a piano piece on YouTube for the benefit of learners, these members are grateful; and if they are unimpressed, they keep silent. (It is no surprise that most of the troublemakers on YouTube do not upload any videos of their own - hence, their lack of empathy.) Because they make up the majority of self-regulating society, these members are invariably the gatekeepers of societal value.
Prior to the onset of the culture of entitlement, it used to be that "cheap and good" was good enough for these members of society. These days, however, even "free and excellent" struggle to pass the bar. Historically, as a community we appreciated ingenuity, hard work and good intentions. Today, however, the individual reigns. When will I get it? Is it free? Why is it so slow? Is there a better version elsewhere? The ubiquity of questions such as these shows us what we have devolved into: a "community" of unappreciative, non-empathetic and indolent sharks. In particular, where the opposite number is a big, faceless corporation, these members are only too happy to let rip with nonconstructive whining. "Facebook sucks!" says Jack. "My dad works there - would you like to have a word?" replies Sally. "Oh no, that's alright," backtracks Jack, suddenly empathetic. "I'm sure your dad is different."
Jack's initial lack of empathy is characteristic of most people on the Internet. Faceless, free things bring out the worst in us - nobody feels bad taking paper napkins from the physical dispenser in McDonald's, but everyone feels bad filching the old lady's share of tissue paper. A corollary to the general decline of empathy in society, however, is the disappearance of individual senses of responsibility. Modern society has grown so large and responsibility for its continuation so diffuse that everyone does pretty much what they want to - and expects to be patted on the back for it. "The life of a musician is unrewarding and tough," volunteers one Facebook member, linking to a New York Times article by a kindred querulous spirit. "Still, I will persevere, to fulfill my dreams. For me, it is not money, but rather passion that will drive me on." What sounds noble and grand at first blush is quickly revealed to be nothing more than a self-congratulatory, self-affirming jaunt: I would venture that the life of a postal clerk is even more "unrewarding and tough". But our musician friend does not see it this way. Despite his music being utterly useless to most people (fewer than 0.1% of full-time artistes actually ever cut a recording deal), he still feels the need to trumpet his non-utility to the world at large. In the meantime, office workers sans rockstar lifestyles go to work dutifully and quietly, humbly contributing to the viability of society one Excel spreadsheet at a time.
"People just need to blow off steam," one might say. "Give them a break." For sure, modern society is a highly stressful one. But this stress is universal; not one of us walks around without carrying a weight on our shoulders. An empathetic, evolved society would be made up of individuals who help one another overcome stress by mutually respecting and encouraging each other. Constructive criticism would be welcome; indiscriminate verbal abuse, not quite. We are seeing, however, the creep of a society of individuals that deals with stress by placing that stress on his neighbour's back. Perhaps this is inevitable; in an era of get-rich-quick finance and Internet-speed gratification, there is no room for self-awareness, let alone empathy. People feel that they deserve things, not because they have worked for them, but because "surely 3 MB/s is faster than this!" In our fixation with delivery, we have conveniently forgotten the message.
And what might the message be? It is simply this. We can choose to complain every time we perceive a first-world problem arising in the course of a free experience or service. Or we can choose to provide humble and constructive feedback towards the people who have been ingenious and hardworking enough to bring us something free and useful. And we can look in the mirror and ask: how have I been useful today?