Jun 15, 2015 ยท 5 minutes

Do you hate Facebook? Do you love Facebook? Is it both from day to day, moment to moment? Or do you merely put up with Facebook?

Let me put it another way: Do you hate your electric utility? Or do you love it? It's probably neither, and yet you draw from its power every day. What about the entity bringing hot and cold running water into your home? The real triumph of Facebook isn't so much that its stock has risen 146 percent from its IPO – although it is indeed quite an accomplishment – it's that Facebook has quietly, and without us even thinking aloud about it, become another utility in our everyday lives.

Only Facebook the company doesn't think the way a common utility company does. No utility in the history of capitalism wants to take over the world. Facebook does. If there is a coherent vision to Facebook in the spring of 2015, it's to take over the world one problem at a time. By solving problems no one else has been able to solve.

I haven't been a fan of Facebook for several years. I stopped trusting it and pretty much stopped posting there, but I will log on to see how my friends are doing. And it's like this weird fourth utility in my life: Water, electricity, natural gas, and information about my friends. Only I don't get a monthly bill for that last service. And yet we know what it's costing all of us.

A lot of users don't give a second thought to sacrificing every detail of online behavior to Facebook and its advertising partners, but many of us do. And why? Because it's always been very good at solving problems no one else could. Like this problem of staying current with people in our past.

For anyone coming of age in the past decade, Facebook has solved this problem. Consider that, in 1994, Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise conveyed memorably what happens when two people connect in an almost mythical way. In 2004, the year Facebook was officially founded, Linklater released Before Sunset, a sequel with a plot that hinged on a chance meeting of the two lovers. Okay, not entirely by chance, because one had to write a best-selling novel to contact the other.

In this pre-historic era of the early 2000s, people had to accept that we'd fall out of each other's lives, never to be heard from again. Jesse and Celine reconnected through some force of fate, or some heroic act of creative writing, or both. Today, they'd drunkenly slap the keys necessary to type a name in a Facebook search box and sit back. Facebook solved that age-old problem, whether we like it or not.

Is this better? As Facebook muscles its way into the future, I see a similar template being applied: You, the world, have failed to solve a particular problem, so Facebook is going to solve it for you. Only it's going to be on Facebook's terms.

This mentality of enforced benevolence is why Facebook employees act so wounded and defensive when people criticize the company as evil. Everything that has become a relentless complaint about Facebook is seen inside Facebook as a small price to pay for a larger good the company is achieving.

And so, Q: Is Facebook intruding on our personal privacy? A: People are shy about personal details because they don't yet understand how natural it is to share so much of their intimate lives with strangers!

And again, Q: Are the dehumanizing algorithms and the reductive interface an acceptable way to communicate with the people we love? A: This is what works best on a scale of 1.3 billion people. 1.3 billion people can't be wrong!

You can shake your head at this arrogance, a mindset more corporate than human. But you also have to admit there is a certain and steady logic behind it, even if it's bloodless. Here we are connected with our old friends, in ways that were never possible before and yet in ways that are eternally unsatisfactory. Because every problem that Facebook solves is meant to benefit itself first - and everyone else second.

This is evident in innovations that Facebook has been pushing this year. Take Instant Articles, which on its announcement was seen as a death blow to the financial independence of publishers. But the thing is, Instant Articles bypasses crappy ad tech and makes stories load faster. Time will tell whether Instant Articles will help or hurt news publisher ad revenue. But amid the initial uproar over the move, one subtle point was lost: If news sites didn't want Facebook drinking their ad-revenue milkshake, they shouldn't have let their sites become so bloated with intrusive, slow-to-load and glitchy ad tech. Now Facebook has solved that problem for them.

Or take Internet.org, which was widely seen as a violation of the principle (if not the definition) of Net neutrality when its zero-rating strategy became apparent. Zuckerberg's defense was that Internet.org brings cheap mobile connectivity to a billion people – a billion not yet served by the mobile Internet. For these people, will Facebook become a utility-like social network on the Internet, or it will be the de facto access provider for the Internet?

Facebook's solutions inevitably prove less useful to others than they do to Facebook. Internet.org will only allow some sites to be shown, and it just so happens one of them is Facebook. Instant Articles will load news stories onto mobile phones quickly, but it just so happens this will only happen inside the Facebook app, and in an environment that could cede control of news distribution to Facebook.

It makes you wonder: Does Facebook have the talent and resources to make the Internet a better place for all? Or is its mission somehow weirdly constrained into a vision where the good of anyone outside of Facebook is by necessity subjugated to the good of Facebook itself?

Like many companies, Facebook (admirably) sponsors philanthropic initiatives, like the recent drive to support victims of the Nepal earthquake. Yet every strategy the company embarks on seems blindly focused on the paramount goal of benefitting Facebook, even when that strategy is spun as something that benefits others. That might be explained away as business as usual, but it's also a little more than disingenuous when the power gap between Facebook and the rest of us is growing larger with each passing month.

So yes, Facebook is solving more and more problems, yet every solution Facebook comes up with just happens to be one that benefits Facebook more than anyone else. The lesson here seems to be: if you don't solve the Internet's problems in the right way, Facebook will solve them for you. And when it does, you may not love the results.