Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg published a note on Facebook called “Building Global Community.” The note is over 5000 words long and is a window into Zuck’s thoughts on the future of Facebook and the implications of an ever-increasingly interconnected world.
To say Facebook has had a rough year would be putting it lightly. They haven’t had a rough year financially by any means, but they’ve had a rough year as far as public relations is concerned. The company has had multiple issues with video statistics, the debacle about the curation about its “trending” feed, and the discussion about whether or not it should allow fake news to exist (and be promoted) on the platform.
Over the course of the last 24 hours, I have somehow found time to read through all 5000+ words of Zuck’s article. Here are my five key takeaways, with quotes from Zuckerberg under each one:
This takeaway didn’t come from the Zuckerberg letter, actually; it came from an interview WIRED had this week with Zuck.
Cade Metz, the author of the WIRED article writes:
In our conversation, he says his model for an online community might look something like Saddleback, the evangelical Southern California megachurch led by pastor Rick Warren. It’s a surprising example from a man who seems steeped in the liberal pluralism of Silicon Valley. But the key for Zuckerberg is that Warren built a community in which tens of thousands of people gather under a capable leader’s guidance, but also divide themselves into smaller groups by interest, affinity, and aspirations.
Zuckerberg has been meeting with faith leaders, I’m sure for multiple reasons, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is partially to learn how people of faith do community.
Sorta makes me wonder if Facebook is going to start operating with a baseball diamond diagram. 🙂
It is clear that Zuck’s dream for Facebook is to take the interconnectedness it has created it and begin to move forward with “social structure.” Facebook is an ever-changing platform, and it is only going to weave itself deeper into the lives of people. He writes:
For the past decade, Facebook has focused on connecting friends and families. With that foundation, our next focus will be developing the social infrastructure for community — for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all.
Our job at Facebook is to help people make the greatest positive impact while mitigating areas where technology and social media can contribute to divisiveness and isolation. Facebook is a work in progress, and we are dedicated to learning and improving. We take our responsibility seriously, and today I want to talk about how we plan to do our part to build this global community.
The future of Facebook is to leverage the massive interconnected universe they have created to motivate people to action.
It is clear in the note Zuckerberg wrote that he does not want Facebook to act as a sort of alternative, online reality separate from the real world of human interaction. He writes:
Our goal is to strengthen existing communities by helping us come together online as well as offline, as well as enabling us to form completely new communities, transcending physical location. When we do this, beyond connecting online, we reinforce our physical communities by bringing us together in person to support each other.
This is refreshing to me because it will make it feel less like the online and offline world are two different worlds.
This is concerning to me because the online world is much nastier than the offline world and I wonder if it would seep into the real world even more than it already has.
Facebook is a force of nature unlike the world has ever seen, and with this force comes the possibility of people using it for harm. Zuck is very concerned with that:
To help during a crisis, we’ve built infrastructure like Safety Check so we can all let our friends know we’re safe and check on friends who might be affected by an attack or natural disaster. Safety Check has been activated almost 500 times in two years and has already notified people that their families and friends are safe more than a billion times. When there is a disaster, governments often call us to make sure Safety Check has been activated in their countries. But there is more to build. We recently added tools to find and offer shelter, food and other resources during emergencies. Over time, our community should be able to help during wars and ongoing issues that are not limited to a single event.
As we discuss keeping our community safe, it is important to emphasize that part of keeping people safe is protecting individual security and liberty. We are strong advocates of encryption and have built it into the largest messaging platforms in the world — WhatsApp and Messenger. Keeping our community safe does not require compromising privacy. Since building end-to-end encryption into WhatsApp, we have reduced spam and malicious content by more than 75%.
Without a doubt, the safety of its users’ data is perhaps Facebook’s biggest liability.
This is good, but I think it pretty impossible for an organization like Facebook to improve online discourse. The existence of Facebook and other platforms like it are part of why our discourse is in the sad state it currently is. Zuck writes:
Social media is a short-form medium where resonant messages get amplified many times. This rewards simplicity and discourages nuance. At its best, this focuses messages and exposes people to different ideas. At its worst, it oversimplifies important topics and pushes us towards extremes.
Polarization exists in all areas of discourse, not just social media. It occurs in all groups and communities, including companies, classrooms and juries, and it’s usually unrelated to politics. In the tech community, for example, discussion around AI has been oversimplified to existential fear-mongering. The harm is that sensationalism moves people away from balanced nuanced opinions towards polarized extremes.
I am really so thankful that the creator of social media (in the modern sense) realizes that the platform he created “discourages nuance” because I think this is one of the biggest problems of the digital age.
It’s pretty clear from Zuck’s note that he wants Facebook to start motivating more people to action, rather than just connecting them with friends and family. One of the ways he wants Facebook to foster action is in civic-engagement. I am sure that, if it were safe and possible, Zuckerberg would love for people to be able to vote through their Facebook accounts. Here’s part of what he says:
Giving people a voice is a principle our community has been committed to since we began. As we look ahead to building the social infrastructure for a global community, we will work on building new tools that encourage thoughtful civic engagement. Empowering us to use our voices will only become more important.
It will be interesting to see how Facebook does this moving forward.
Finally, in the last portion of the note, Zuckerberg addresses the issue that reared its ugly head on social media this election season: the troll problem.
Twitter, admittedly, has much more problems on this front—because it’s easier to be anonymous there—but Facebook definitely is not exempt from hateful online discourse.
While platforms like Facebook want to prevent bullying, they want to maintain an “open internet” free of content policing that would create an inauthentic, artificially-clean experience. This is an incredibly difficult tension to maintain (see the latest PewDiePie debacle).
In the last year, the complexity of the issues we’ve seen has outstripped our existing processes for governing the community. We saw this in errors taking down newsworthy videos related to Black Lives Matter and police violence, and in removing the historical Terror of War photo from Vietnam. We’ve seen this in misclassifying hate speech in political debates in both directions — taking down accounts and content that should be left up and leaving up content that was hateful and should be taken down. Both the number of issues and their cultural importance has increased recently.
The idea is to give everyone in the community options for how they would like to set the content policy for themselves. Where is your line on nudity? On violence? On graphic content? On profanity? What you decide will be your personal settings. We will periodically ask you these questions to increase participation and so you don’t need to dig around to find them. For those who don’t make a decision, the default will be whatever the majority of people in your region selected, like a referendum. Of course you will always be free to update your personal settings anytime.
Facebook is the baseline definition of “social media.” Sure, other platforms existed before it, and thousands of platforms have come after it, with a few sticking here and there. But, when Mark Zuckerberg writes about the future of Facebook, he’s writing about the future of social media.
Facebook is looking to weave itself ever-deeper into the lives of its users. It has a terrifying amount of information on billions of us. Soon, it looks as though it wants to start putting that information to more use than it ever has.