Facebook wants a monopoly on human connection

By John W. Miller, 19 July 2021
Image: Barefoot Communications/Unsplash

 

Mark Zuckerberg loves to talk about community. His story, the founder of Facebook said in a 2017 commencement address at Harvard University, is that of a “student in a dorm room, connecting one community at a time, and keeping at it until one day we connect the whole world.” Facebook’s formal mission statement is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” In Facebook’s latest annual filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the word community appears 22 times.

Now, at the end of its second decade, Facebook nears a turning point. Its future success depends in large part on whether it can successfully continue to market a glossy image of community to users, politicians, journalists and regulators while maintaining a website whose sole purpose is to run a secret algorithm that manages what content you see to keep you coming back for more. Because Facebook’s marketing of community is only half the transaction. The second part relies on the rest of us logging on to the site every day and willingly supplying information about ourselves in exchange for free communication, information and entertainment.

But Facebook is selling something it can’t really build. A real community is made up of dozens of people—maybe a bit over a hundred, according to sociologists—who learn to get along over time, who endure each other’s differences because they live near each other or are related. “In a real community, you don’t get to choose who you’re in the boat with,” said Vincent Miller, a professor of theology at the University of Dayton. “You can’t block people at Thanksgiving dinner.” By offering endless opportunities to connect to people with shared interests, Facebook offers a version of community-based on choice instead of place. The website amplifies disagreements and keeps people returning to the site, without any avenue for the possibility of a shared experience that might mitigate them. There is no place to go to just be together in peace, only words clashing for eternity.

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John W. Miller is a Pittsburgh-based former Wall Street Journal staff reporter and co-director of the PBS film “Moundsville.”

With thanks to America Magazine and John W. Miller, where this article originally appeared.

 

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