Till last week, Mark Zuckerberg’s best-known piece of writing was a blog post composed in October 2003 that began, “Jessica Alona is a bitch. I need to think of something to take my mind off her… I’m a little intoxicated, not gonna lie.” The post was quoted verbatim in David Fincher’s 2010 hit The Social Network, with a few changes: Jessica Alona, a woman who has never been identified, became Erica Albright, the Boston University student who dumps the future founder of Facebook in the film’s opening scene. Facemash, the website Zuckerberg built that night to take his mind of Jessica Alona, asked visitors to rate Harvard students’ images for hotness, irrespective of gender. In the movie version, Jessie Eisenberg uploads only female faces, exponentially intensifying the venture’s douchebaggery.
Zukerberg took the hit with more grace than his fictional self could ever have mustered. I’ve wondered ever since if his earnest public persona is at some level an over-compensation for the misogynist jerk depicted in The Social Network.
Over the past few days Facebook’s founder and his wife Priscilla have been posting images from a road trip through the Southern United States: meeting a Louisiana shrimp fisherman who struggled through Hurricane Katrina and the British Petroleum oil spill; visiting the office of a local newspaper in Selma, Alabama; and conversing with Anthony Ray Hinton, an African-American incarcerated for 30 years for a crime he did not commit. Before leaving for the Deep South, Zuckerberg published a long manifesto obviously not composed while he was half-drunk. He called it “Building Global Community”. The essay as well as his southern jaunt seem at some level an attempt to compensate for the role Facebook and its most pricey acquisition Whatsapp played in the elevation of Donald Trump to the US Presidency.
As last year’s election was entering its final phase, Republicans complained that the editors of Facebook’s trending news column favoured stories slanted towards the liberal side. In response, Facebook fired its editorial staff and turned the job over to an algorithm and engineers with no discretion. The result was a spike in fake news that played a role in Trump defeating Clinton.
Zuckerberg’s 5,731 word essay is a plea in favour of globalisation and openness against nationalistic barriers of the kind Trump is raising. A number of commentators have taken his arguments apart, and if I was to recommend one good critique it would be this one. I’m interested in an aspect of the essay that few commentators have touched upon, which is the very idea of community contained in the piece. The word occurs 81 times by my count, invariably with positive connotations.
While reading the essay, I was reminded insistently of the first time I heard the term used the way Zuckerberg does. As a graduate student in England, I developed a close friendship with an American housemate who lived for two years in the room next to mine. We spoke frequently about politics, and though I was more keen to impose my views than absorb his viewpoint fully, I came to appreciate his perspective in the years after we returned to our respective homelands. He often spoke about the need to build community, a concept I found entirely alien.
Thinking back on our conversations about community, I relate them to a section of Milan Kundera’s celebrated novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Kundera explains the gulf between a character named Sabina, raised in communist Czechoslovakia, and her lover Franz, a Swiss university professor, through a “dictionary of misunderstood words”. The lovers’ dissonant outlook, shaped by the contrary political circumstances of their upbringing, is encapsulated in that small dictionary. It is a schematic view, but useful nevertheless.
Borrowing that schema, my American friend was shaped by being a second generation migrant brought up within the atomised individualism of secularised, metropolitan California. He longed for formations that, while politically progressive, created emotional bonds and a sense of belonging. I, on the other hand, grew up in a society where family connections, emotional bonds, obligations and duties felt oppressively dominant. The word community was inextricably linked to caste and communalism. I reacted by prizing transparency and the rule of abstract laws.
The flip side
Mark Zuckerberg, it seems to me, sees community from the same perspective as my college friend did, and fails to comprehend its double-edged nature. When he speaks of catering to, “Community Standards that reflect our collective values for what should and should not be allowed”, or the need to “build supportive communities that strengthen traditional institutions”, would that include khap panchayats and other structures which provide members with security and a sense of comradeship but also represent reactionary prejudices?
MK Gandhi struggled for decades to conceptualise an India that retained positive aspects of its rich, community-centred life while shedding the many inequities integral to those communities. He made only marginal progress. I doubt if Zuckerberg and Facebook’s increasingly Artitificial Intelligence-driven algorithms can outdo Gandhi in fostering transformations that respect and preserve traditions while simultaneously cleansing them of bigotry.
Since Zuckerberg’s biggest plans, at once grandiose and disarmingly naïve, are doomed, we will continue to have splintered communities finding small nooks and niches within social media ecosystems. Echo chambers and filter bubbles will not disappear, for any concerted effort to eliminate them would alienate and ultimately drive away large, politically-committed groups, something that a commercial organisation like Facebook can ill afford.
On the positive side, it appears that Zuckerberg will no longer present himself or Facebook as a perfectly neutral arbiter. Instead of abdicating editorial control, he will place his thumb on the scales in favour of liberalism and tolerance, not firmly enough to drive away zealots, whose dollars are as valuable as anybody else’s, but in subtle ways that might help social media discourse to grow more complex and less polarised.