Building a Global Community
In 2017, Mark Zuckerberg wrote a long form blog post on Facebook in which he redefined Facebook’s mission thusly: our goal is to contribute to creating “a global community that works for everyone.”
It sounds nice–very Green meme-y (community, inclusiveness, etc.)–but is it true? My suggestion, notwithstanding the possibility that he is being earnest when he writes this, is that the project is actually bullshit.
Following Harry Frankfurt, I define bullshit as
- saying whatever is necessary to get others to believe that you know what it is that you’re talking about when you don’t actually know what it is that you’re talking about in order to leave others with a favorable impression of you.
In the context of a social media company like Facebook, we can say that Zuckerberg is trying to get others to believe that he knows what a “global community” is (in truth, no one does) and that he knows how to build it (ditto), and his aim is for readers and FB ‘users’ to be left with a favorable impression (here) of Facebook. Hence, the vacuous social entrepreneurial/social innovation language: creating “positive impact in the world.”
Why is what Zuckerberg writes, strictly speaking, bullshit?
Let community be defined as
- a group of friends or neighbors (or both) who are involved, in an ongoing basis, in shared care and concern for one another and for the common good.
By “friends,” I mean strictly what Aristotle calls “friends of virtue”: that is, those who care for one another not for what each gets but for the sake of one another. Friendship of this kind means that I wish for you to flourish and therefore that I conduct myself in ways that may enable you to flourish.
By “neighbors,” I don’t mean those who just happen to live next to one another for that, clearly, is insufficient. Rather, I’m referring to people who, not being as intimate as friends, nonetheless are able to see to one another in cases of genuine need. Being able to borrow flour from a neighbor signifies more than it says. A neighbor is someone who “sometimes comes to mind” when, say, I offer her some apricots from my apricot tree.
By my lights, this rules out most sports groups and other clubs that would properly be understood as forms of civil society. In many cases, these bonds may not be tight enough to count or long enough to last.
We can ask ourselves some simple questions to determine whether there is indeed a genuine community here:
- Without solicitation, will people call, write, or stop by when I’m sick not because it’s the obligatory thing to do but because they care about me?
- Can I call this person or these people up in the middle of the night when I’m really in a pinch?
- Do these people have my back and do I have theirs?
- Will they remember things that are important to me and will I, again unbiddenly, do the same?
The Impossibility of a Global Community
If the discussion above is moving along the right lines, then a “global community” is, by definition, unrealizable. It’s a failure in conception. Out of sentimentality, people might donate money to me if I’m very ill or if I’m trying to receive funding for something I’m manufacturing. But there’s a reason why they are strangers; they do not know me and neither do I, in an intimate sense, know them. Our relationship–contingent, interested, variable–is fastened together with ‘good feelings.’
Calling Out the Bullshit
What makes Zuckerberg’s claim bullshit, therefore, is both that a global community, sensu stricto, is impossible and that technological and economic advancements have, by and large, been eroding actual communities at least since the nineteenth century. That is, almost precisely the opposite of what he urges has been occurring during this stage of modernity.
Witness: forcible migration from country to the city (Polanyi, The Great Transformation), the hegemony of careerism in the twentieth century and the attendant diminution of civic spirit (Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart), the steep decline in organized religion, the rise of social atomism and, concomitantly, the profound sense of loneliness and alienation: these are the actual facts, the actual experiences of many modern individuals.
True, weird people like me have found numerous weird friends via technologies that are now online, yet, as I’ve suggested, having friendships, while important, differs from being in an actual community or actual communities. It may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, then many of us would have to admit that we don’t belong to an actual community and that we’re not even sure how one would really taste. This Socratic recognition of the truth would be the starting point for any earnest inquiry into how to create genuine communities in our time.