The sins of the social network

News flash: income inequality was on the rise before Mark Zuckerberg was even born.

Jonathan Glennie, in a piece actually titled “How the Facebook generation keeps people poor thinks that the lack of concern for pro-poor policy by the middle and upper classes in developing countries is driven by international relative income envy, aggravated by the by the closeness brought on by innovations like Facebook.

“The 19 million Facebook users in the Philippines, for instance, about 19% of the population, are generally comparing themselves to other Facebook users around the globe rather than the 50% of Filipinos living on less than $2 a day.”

Really? Is there any evidence to support this assertion? Facebook requires you to be friends with another user before you can really start comparing yourself to them, and it’s unclear that those 19 million Filipinos have friends in London and New York.

Glennie says that the middle and upper classes desire to live as those in the West do, and so nudge national policy to favour their own wealth creation to the detriment to the poor.

Are we witnessing the emergence of a new type of polarisation, not between countries as before, but between international income brackets? It seems that the goal of reducing inequality (and with it poverty itself) is set back when the middle-classes in poor countries set their sights on overseas living standards. But doing so is only natural – all most of them want is a better life and more opportunities for their kids.

So next time you get angry with rich Nigerians when they ignore the plight of the poor in their country, you might as well be angry with yourselves. Until we all start to share more, and rationalise our expectations in a resource-limited world, it is unrealistic to expect people in other countries to do so.

It’s a little hard to discern what Glennie is actually suggesting here. What does it mean to rationalise our expectations? Is even the middle-class lifestyle in developed countries really that unsustainable? Do we need to shut down Facebook?

I think it would be extremely difficult to prove that this envy has increased, or is based on some change in expectations of relative income, or, especially, that it is not just a desire for improvements in absolute income driving this whole story. `The man’ has done a pretty good job at keeping the poor down throughout all of history, so I’m having a hard time believing that it’s somehow now my fault for living a more visible middle-class lifestyle.

Furthermore, is wealth gain for the poor and upper classes necessarily mutually exclusive? China has seen a significant rise in inequality in the past 30 years, while also doing a better job at moving people out of poverty than any other economy out there.

The new Guardian blog on poverty has been a fantastic addition to the development blogosphere, but I do find their moralizing a little unnecessary and overcooked at times.

5 thoughts on “The sins of the social network

  1. Tom

    January 5, 2011 at 5:57pm

    It seems like an equally speculative post could be written about how Facebook connects people with those who the might not have been before and increase understanding about local and global poverty. Not really sure how to prove either, but the Glennie article seems to rest upon nothing other than the hypothetical without acknowledging it.

  2. boredinpostconflict

    January 6, 2011 at 7:05am

    1) I think TV and Film will probably have a far greater impact on fueling this supposed “international relative income envy”, than Facebook. This sounds like an old man trying to keep up with the times by writing something “cool” and relevant to popular culture.

    2) Is relative income envy such a terrible thing? Aside from the issue of stereotype threat, doesn’t that envy provide the motivation for those in the lower classes to strive for more.

    3) Is it so horrible that the middle-class of poorer countries strive for an equal standard of living as those in richer countries? God forbid those rich countries lose their position after such a long run.

    4) And what about the rich in rich countries? Aside from the saints such as Zuckerberg and Gates, when was it that they stopped ignoring “the plight of the poor in their country”? Who’s fueling their envy? Because apparently you need to have envy to act like a dick

  3. Ranil Dissanayake

    January 6, 2011 at 7:50am

    Is that a photoshop? If so my hat goes off to you, sir. That is an outstanding picture and comment.

    Re: Glennie’s article, I think he was just stuck for something to write, because it’s *very* stupid. It’s not like Facebook was the driving factor in Mobutu pilfering millions from the Congo’s resources, is it?

    He’s basically commenting on a very old phenomenon (the rich are far more likely to care about getting richer than to care about reducing poverty- as they have been, by majority, in every epoch and country in history), and giving it a new social networking angle, as is required in the Guardian these days.

  4. Ranil Dissanayake

    January 6, 2011 at 7:51am

    I just looked at the article, and now I’m laughing out loud! It’s a picture of shoppers in New Dehli! As if Facebook contributes more to this than Bollywood, which is a complete celebration of consumption culture and vacuousness.

  5. terence

    January 7, 2011 at 10:05am

    The new Guardian blog on poverty has been a fantastic addition to the development blogosphere, but I do find their moralizing a little unnecessary and overcooked at times.

    Yeah – although not so much the moralizing with me. Rather the fact that some excellent posts are interspersed with some truly awful ones. Glennie in particular manages to do both regularly.

    Oh, and how do I friend Kuznets on Facebook? 🙂

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