WHEN Mark Zuckerberg set up a college website asking which of two classmates was “hotter”, did he have the faintest idea what he was starting?
Revolution in Egypt, Tunisia, maybe Bahrain, perhaps Libya – could be Iran next?
No, of course he didn’t.
He had no plan either of making himself one of the richest young men on the planet. Yet all those things have apparently followed as a consequence of what may have started out as a nerdish prank to get back at a girl he thought had insulted him.
OK, that’s roughly the Hollywood version of how it began, so probably to be taken with several large pinches of salt. Nevertheless, it’s safe to assume Zuckerberg, then only 19, had no world-domination plans when he launched Facebook just seven years ago from his bedroom at Harvard.
Within four years it had made him the world’s youngest dollar-billionaire. And that’s one of the site’s lesser effects.
History moves fast these days.
That’s due in part to the sheer number of people on the planet. But it’s got more to do with the speed of communication. And a big part of that is the reach, power and speed of the internet.
It’s probably stretching it a bit to say Facebook is responsible for the wave of unrest across the Arab world, the overturning of governments across north Africa.
A similar domino effect was after all seen across formerly Communist Europe in 1989 and 1990. Zuckerberg had only just started school then, few of us had heard of the internet, and the worldwide web was merely a twinkle in the eye of Tim Berners-Lee.
But the net is a great unearther of views and passions that once ran deep but hidden. And there seems little doubt that it has played a huge role in enabling protesters to organise.
Three years ago thousands of people with nothing better to do descended on Liverpool Street station to sing and dance like Rick Astley. People most of whom didn’t know each other.
It was bizarre and at the time seemed almost completely meaningless – apart from the slight inconvenience caused to people like me, trying to catch a train home.
Yet in a curious way the pointless phenomenon of “Rickrolling” could now be seen as a precursor to the vastly more significant gatherings in Tahrir Square, Cairo.
One of the priorities of Egypt’s panicking government as Hosni Mubarak tried desperately to cling to power was to close down the country’s internet connection. An attempt which of course failed.
Perhaps the biggest tribute to the power of Facebook is that the people of the world’s biggest country are not allowed to see it.
Zuckerberg has a Chinese girlfriend, has been learning to speak Mandarin and recently visited Beijing. But his site is locked out behind the great firewall of China.
And what China’s rulers most fear, of course – as do the otherwise very different rulers of Libya, Bahrain, Iran etc – is democracy.
Not just the democracy that consists of giving people an electorate choice every few years between two similar parties of government. But the democracy that gives real power to real people.
In Britain, the LibDems like to claim they are pushing for democratic reform.
They seem to think the offer of a referendum on a minor change in voting method is worth their support for the most extreme programme of change to things that actually matter put forward by any UK government in most of our lifetimes.
If the Alternative Vote makes any difference at all in British politics, it will merely be to give us more of what we have now. More power-broking by the third party.
The ballot box has never been more than a very clumsy tool for delivering democracy. The net can provide a much sharper edge.
Without a campaign spread via Facebook would the government have had to climb down over their shocking plan to flog off our forests?
Without the spread of information and opinion through a massive Facebook group, could the appalling plan to build Europe’s largest factory farm – an intensive dairy farm at Nocton in Lincolnshire – have been stopped?
That is democracy in action. I hope the mass extermination of badgers on the scientifically discredited grounds of a link with TB in cattle can now also be halted.
I wouldn’t mind a bit of regime change here, either, before the Cameron-Clegg conspiracy destroys too much more. But that, perhaps, is too much to hope for just yet.
CARE homes and libraries to be closed. Evening, weekend and bank holiday bus services shut down. The eXplore card, which until this week gave young people half-price bus fares, abolished. School crossing patrols scrapped. A 27 per cent slash in cash to maintain and repair pavements and footpaths.
All these despicable decisions by Suffolk County Council are rightly condemned in a leaflet put through our letterbox this week by the local Liberal Democrats.
As they say: “These savage cuts are aimed at the elderly, the young, and the disadvantaged.”
What they don’t say is that they stem from the cynical policies of a government their party put in power and continues to participate in.