Mark Zuckerberg, head of Facebook, recently released 5,700 words about the future of “our global community”. 5,700 words….on a platform he admits is known for short blasts and headline grazing.
At least the media spent time reading it. Most read it quite differently than the author intended - Zuckerberg for president, the suggestion to reform Facebook around “meaningful groups” led by passionate doers would be one other way for the next Donald Trump to surface and gain traction. One even said it spells the end of journalism.
While steering clear of specifically referencing how Facebook and social media in general played a co-starring role in the 2016 election, he opted to open by touting the good global instant communication was able to accomplish from Amber alerts, to fund raising for natural disasters, to leading individuals with a unique need to find community.
Zuckerberg then appears to long for when communities were made up of humans interacting and engaging face to face in social structures that formed to fill the space between the family and government. He makes no specific reference leaving the reader to speculate that these may be churches, sports, block clubs, volunteering among others. He sees the next wave of Facebook engagement as playing a part in restoring these devalued or missing groups.
More than once he signals that the global community will come together for the common good. Zuckerberg states that one way to broaden people’s opinions is to find the magic (my word) algorithm that will give each person the mix of posts they really want along with enough posts all along the opinion spectrum without turning them off. For one who lives at the center of the digital zeitgeist, how can he believe a few more toggle buttons on a user’s profile will build a bridge to what this NPR article identifies as a cultural divide that sees little hope of coming together?
"Intellectually and emotionally weakened by years of steadily degraded public discourse, we are now two separate ideological countries, LeftLand and RightLand, speaking different languages, the lines between us down. Not only do our two subcountries reason differently; they draw upon non-intersecting data sets and access entirely different mythological systems."
If it is indeed true that the term fake news has come to mean something different for a conservative than a liberal, it could be one more sign that the LeftLandian and RightLandian languages — and the people who speak them — have moved one more inch apart, into increasingly different realities.
If Barack Obama, with his army of data miners, used the Internet to win the presidency then Donald Trump won using Social Media by succeeding at better leveraging one group’s ideology. His use of Twitter and Facebook helped grow his followers enough to elect him president. His skill appears that he capitalized on the new way we are swamped with media to not only lead the news cycle but also lead the narrative that made his opponents into caricatures and our country in a state of massive failure.
During this bruising presidential campaign I watched as Facebook posts led friends with different politics to hurl comments back and forth to bolster their points with no one coming away with the “Oh yeah, now I get what you are saying…” epiphany.
If there is no hope for bridging this divide, rather than offering yet another set of buttons to help Facebook code in more about your life preferences to further micro sort you for their advertisers, how about Zuckerberg goes directly to his 2 billion users and try crowd sourcing ideas for some of our biggest problems - hunger, poverty, slavery, terrorism, or health care. Crowd sourcing is the internet phenomenon that seeks mass input for a clearly stated end. In one example of many, it is helping science by enlisting gamers to play on platforms that create thousands of answers to a vexing scientific problem in days rather than years.
The sheer number of anonymous contributors from all cultures and social strata could lead to several substantial solutions worth considering. Surely Mark can direct his legion of coders to develop algorithms to weed out the trolls and staunchest members of each side of the cultural divide that would try and turn this effort for the common good into one more dark joke. The solutions could be offered back to the communities of action he is suggesting form around causes and interests.
As much as Zuckerberg appears to hope, Facebook is not a neutral platform any longer. His new tools of gently broadening a user’s ideology is an earnest effort at remaining benign, but that ship has sailed. If, in his letter, he offered the world-wide force of Facebook users up for ideas to the problems listed above rather than more finely sorted consumers to assist his advertisers one might believe that Mark’s head is really in using social for the common good and not where it’s always seems to have been - seeing humanity and computer code interchangeable.