Beats | February 24, 2017

Seeing and Raising Mark Zuckerberg’s Big Bet on ‘Global Community’

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Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg took a big swing with last week’s 5,700-word post, “Building Global Community.” Hell, in the current environment, simply coming out in favor of global approaches to urgent challenges counts as a courageous move.

“When we began, this idea was not controversial,” Zuckerberg writes at the beginning of the piece. “Every year, the world got more connected and this was seen as a positive trend. Yet now, across the world there are people left behind by globalization, and movements for withdrawing from global connection.”

The 32-year-old billionaire was less articulate, and less ambitious, about what he meant by “community,” even though the word appears 81 times. Good on him for committing Facebook to moving beyond connecting friends and families to “developing the social infrastructure for community.” And he deserves credit for recognizing that the answers “won’t all come from Facebook.”

But his ideas for supportive, safe, informed and civically-engaged communities mostly envision modest digital-age tweaks to fragile traditional institutions. (Not that Facebook-fueled voter-registration might not be the best counterweight to voter suppression. In the last election, Zuckerberg says, Facebook helped more than 2 million people register and vote, “among the largest voter turnout efforts in history, and larger than those of both major parties combined.”)

It’s only when he gets to “inclusive” that Zuckerberg starts to break new ground. He wonders how to build something that “reflects our collective values and common humanity from local to global levels, spanning cultures, nations and regions in a world with few examples of global communities.” He wants to “explore examples of how collective decision-making might work at scale.”

He admits the complexity of Black Lives Matter, hate speech and fake news and other developments overwhelmed Facebook’s processes. His fix combines “a large-scale democratic process to determine standards with AI (artificial intelligence) to help enforce them.” He says he’s willing to invest in “a worldwide voting system to give you more voice and control.”

It soon becomes clear, however, that Zuckerberg’s is primarily preoccupied with solving Facebook’s challenges, not those of the global community more broadly. Offended by nudity, violence, graphic content or profanity? With Zuckerberg’s approach, your feed won’t be polluted by such posts.

Beyond Facebook
But what if you want to sustain global momentum toward a low-carbon economy? What if you think practical solutions and major investments in jobs, water, food security and social cohesion could appeal to young people more than violent extremism? What if you really believe the world could reach the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (№1: “End poverty in all its forms everywhere”) if only we all worked together?

As it happens, in the waning days of the Obama administration the National Intelligence Council, charged with coordinating U.S. intelligence across agencies, sketched an outline of what such a proactive global community might look like. In its quadrennial unclassified global trends report in January, the NIC sketched three scenarios for the future circa 2030. (See ImpactAlpha’s, “Will the next 20 years be defined by ‘islands,’ ‘orbits’ or ‘communities’?”)

The NIC’s “communities” scenario is worth a second look, even if not all of the implications are positive. Looking back from 2035, a future mayor of a large Canadian city writes that the rise of sub- and transnational structures seems inevitable in retrospect. “Information and communication technologies are now key to defining relationships and identities based on shared ideas, ideologies, employment, and histories, rather than nationality,” she writes.

Local governments, it turns out, were better attuned than national ones to social trends and new centers of power, including commercial ones. Transactions that did not rely on government intermediaries became more common, and people grew increasingly comfortable working through nongovernmental channels. More critical public services were privatized and businesses built intense customer loyalty that transcended borders. Large corporations increasingly provided “public goods” and funded global research.

“City leaders, like myself, increasingly worked with our counterparts from around the world to develop new approaches to common problems, such as climate change, education, and poverty reduction,” the mayor writes. Commercial, religious and civil society groups became “multi-stakeholder coalitions.” Regional and inter-regional groupings “create alternative venues for driving positive change.”

“The term ‘Free World,’” the imaginary mayor concludes, “now defines the networked group of state, substate, and nonstate entities that work cooperatively to promote respect for individual freedoms, human rights, political reform, environmentally sustainable policies, free trade, and information transparency.”

The reaction to Zuckerberg’s proposals demonstrated some of the obstacles to such a network, in which nobody is in charge and everybody is suspect. “Facebook is a publicly traded firm that already encompasses billions of customers and wants to rope in the rest of humanity for what is at root an ad-based business,” Scott Rosenberg wrote on NewCo Shift. “It doesn’t look like a community, and it doesn’t behave like one.”

The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance worried that Zuckerberg’s vision may impoverish the global community more than enrich it, for example by sucking the value out of journalism, an essential element of any supportive, safe, informed and civically-engaged, not to mention inclusive, community. “Most news organizations would describe themselves the way Zuckerberg describes Facebook — as ‘not just technology or media, but a community of people,’” she writes. “In some ways, Zuckerberg is building a news organization without journalists.”

Community effort
There’s more than a grain of truth in those criticisms and others, but I think they miss the point. Facebook and the rest of the technology-cum-social infrastructure will clearly be a part of whatever comes next as traditional institutions crumble. Zuckerberg has put a stake in the ground for “global community” and that’s a good place to start. As to building out that community, that’s up to all of us.

“My thesis is that there’s this infrastructure that needs to be built for our social and civilization to reach the next level and transcend the current tribalism we have,” Zuckerberg told Backchannel’s Steven Levy as he was writing the manifesto.

I agree with Levy the post is worth reading “both as a powerful and thoughtful individual’s attempt to grapple with a global ‘Winter is Coming’ moment and as a corporate strategy meant to link a company’s ambitions to a wider social movement that it portrays as a global benefit for all humanity.”

“There’s no one whose job it is to go build this stuff, right?” Zuckerberg told Levy. “There’s going to have to be a number of folks who play a role in helping do this and we want to do the part we can.”

Photo credit: Facebook