Mark Zuckerberg posted an open letter on Facebook, the social network he created and now serves as C.E.O., which responds to some of the recent controversies Facebook has faced, particularly accusations that it helped polarize the public and spread “fake news.”
The sprawling letter runs over 5,800 words and ponders how Facebook can help people build communities that are supportive, safe, informed, civically-engaged, and inclusive. Even in startlingly strange world of 2017, these are fairly non-offensive goals, but Zuckerberg begins the letter by pointing out how quickly such things change.
“Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community. When we began, this idea was not controversial,” Zuckerberg writes. “Yet now, across the world there are people left behind by globalization, and movements for withdrawing from global connection.”
Zuckerberg does not specifically name Brexit or Donald Trump’s election victory, the twin political events of 2016 most indicative of the counter-reaction to globalization. The fact that Facebook was implicated in both is central to the letter but also never explicitly acknowledged.
“In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us,” Zuckerberg writes in what must be an important sentence, as it is the only one bold-faced in the letter’s entirety. Yet its meaning is difficult to pinpoint.
Assessing the letter, Will Oremus, the senior technology writer at Slate, tries to dive deep into the phrase “social infrastructure,” which appears 14 more times outside the boldfaced sentence, concluding that while some readers could rightfully believe it doesn’t mean anything of significance, the two words are purposefully chosen and imply important distinctions:
By choosing “infrastructure” as the noun, Zuckerberg shows that he still views Facebook as a technology—a set of tools—rather than a media company responsible for creating or curating published content. […]
On the other hand, Zuckerberg’s manifesto makes it clear that he no longer views Facebook as fully neutral. He recognizes—at last?—that his technology molds how its billion-plus users read, communicate, organize themselves, and form ideas about themselves and the world. And he no longer views openness and connectedness as ends in themselves.
“Social infrastructure,” then, must mean something different from mere “communications infrastructure.” It means that Facebook sees its purpose as facilitating certain kinds of interactions and social arrangements.
Yet even this attempt to find meaningful significance doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. How is a “social infrastructure” different from a “communications infrastructure”? Wouldn’t the latter also be about “facilitating certain kinds of interactions and social arrangements” since that sounds like a (rather dry) textbook definition of communications to begin with?
Oremus’s ultimate takeaway is simply that it’s good that Zuckerberg is thinking seriously about how Facebook can make the world a better place, but the efforts are certainly flawed, perhaps doomed, due to “the undefined jargon, the unacknowledged conflicts, and the uncritical optimism about Facebook’s ability to meet the needs and desires of all of its users at once.”
Refusing to acknowledge problems, using unclear language, and trying to please everyone at the same time? Sounds a lot like 2016’s also-ran, Hillary Clinton. With rumors of Mark Zuckerberg’s presidential ambitions increasing by the day–he even ends the letter (inoffensively!) with an Abraham Lincoln quote–he’d better review his public persona if he truly wants to claim the Oval Office. Of course, the eighth richest man in the world is still one darn good consolation prize.