Could Facebook Have Originated Outside America?

I was just listening to a talk by American novelist Donna Leon, who lives in Venice, Italy, and she said something that made me wonder if Facebook (or MySpace, the place for friends, for that matter) could have originated outside of the US. She was remarking on how it took her 10 years of close contact with a family to bring herself to address the matriarch of the household by the more familiar form of “you” in Italian. Like many languages, Italian makes a linguistic distinction between close friends and acquaintances, or between people who are peers and people who are superiors. French does the same thing, using “vous” for more formal uses, and “tu” for more familiar ones.

Leon bemoaned how in contemporary Italy that distinction is getting lost, so now even supermarket checkout staff will refer to her in the familiar form. She likes how, in the traditional mode, you feel a sense of accomplishment when you cross the threshold to the more familiar form.

In English, there is not that distinction — we use “you” for everyone. In America that linguistic concept has been taken to an extreme, and almost anyone you meet is instantly a friend. Only in America will you hear someone say “I’m inviting 500 of my closest friends to my wedding.” The hilly landscape of friendships and relationships that Italians see gets flattened to a thin layer of equivalency in America — at least when looked at superficially.

They say that when you learn a new language you gain a new perspective on the world, acknowledging that language subtly shapes our perceptions of the world, and our own behaviors. Clearly many other countries and cultures have embraced social networking sites, Facebook in particular, so there is something that resonates across cultures about social networking. So it’s not like the flattened concept of friend that social networking encourages is a big turn off for others. Nevertheless, I wonder if the uniquely homogenous notion of friend that exists in America facilitated the creation of social networking here, regardless of the technical enablers that are also present here (since those are quite globally dispersed these days).

While I myself don’t really like the homogenization of “friend” either, it does have its upsides. A recent report on social mobility in England points out the terrible downsides that can come from time-worn social norms that reinforce social divisions and cliques.

England is about the only country I know of where social classes are distinguished linguistically, specifically by highly differentiated accents. Working class people have accents that vary a lot by region, but upper middle class and upper class/aristocratic people all pretty much sound the same regardless of location, and very different from any working class person. (For the record, I grew up solidly middle class, and was frequently ribbed for my accent by my more working class school friends.) It is an affectation that has existed for centuries, and which is enforced by a small cluster of private prep schools and universities that are closed to the working class (not literally perhaps, but effectively).

It’s another case of language shaping perceptions and behaviors, this time with terrible consequences for squandering the talents of millions of people, simply because they didn’t happen to be born into families of sufficient privilege. Unfortunately, England seems to be regressing, according to the report, despite protestations for at least two decades that it has become a classless society…

The notion of friend in England is therefore constructed very differently than in the US. One does not (or often cannot) become friends with people in other classes, which seriously limits social mobility and the opportunity to move up the social ladder and get plum jobs.

Perhaps it is the very flatness, or classlessness, of social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, or LinkedIn that makes them so popular in countries where language encourages or enforces social divisions.