Zuckerberg and the Anthropologist: Facebook, Culture, Digital Futures

“Sitting Here in California”: Introduction

On February 16, 2017, Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg published an unprecedented 5,732-word post, “Building Global Community.” Observers—many of whom appropriately termed Zuckerberg’s missive a “manifesto”—soon noted troubling aspects of his vision for Facebook’s role in the world. In this essay, I add to that response by discussing, in reverse order, the three terms making up its title.

I take the perspective of an anthropologist, someone who studies culture for a living (here and here, for instance), to explore assumptions behind this manifesto. Cultures vary but one universal is that culture largely takes the form of tacit knowledge. Most of us cannot explain the grammar we use with every sentence we speak. More broadly, our cognitive and behavioral frameworks primarily take the form of common sense that is hard to articulate—not because of repression or secrecy, but because culture is not transparently present to consciousness. This point cannot be overemphasized in our digital age, when it is so often assumed our ways of thinking and being are self-evident, available for posting, tweeting, and tagging. And this common sense is indeed “common,” irreducible to individual opinion. Zuckerberg admits he writes from a situated perspective—“sitting here in California.” The cultural frameworks shaping his perspective merit investigation precisely because they represent far more than the idiosyncrasies of one Silicon Valley executive. They reveal patterns of thought reshaping our emerging lifeworlds and politics, online and offline.

“Community”: Two Imaginings

“Community” is Zuckerberg’s pivotal term, appearing in the manifesto’s title, salutation (“to our community”), and 80 additional times in the text. The manifesto’s five sections are “supportive communities,” “safe community,” “informed community,” “civically-engaged community,” and “inclusive community.” The final sentence begins “Thank you for being part of this community.”

Let us pause to reflect on that alternative to “community,” “network.” Given that Facebook is usually identified as the largest social network site (the Hollywood biopic was, after all, The Social Network), the term is conspicuously absent (appearing only four times, always in passing). This is striking because as terms like “internet” and “world wide web” indicate, the network concept has long been central to the digital. Yet here, with nary a word of justification, “network” is displaced by “community.”

This silent shift may have immense consequences for notions of authority, inequality, and representation. For instance, “community” links this manifesto to the conflict surrounding Donald Trump, conflict Zuckerberg hints at throughout something intentionally published in the wake of Trump’s election. In this regard, perhaps the most important text to revisit is Benedict Anderson’s classic Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Among other insights, Anderson showed that “print capitalism” and the rise of vernacular media languages (Spanish, German, or English rather than Latin) were pivotal to the rise of nation-states as imagined communities where citizens feel a shared identity with fellow citizens they never meet. Anderson became a major influence on my thought during my first major research project, on sexuality in Indonesia. I used his insights to investigate how in the second half of the twentieth century, transnational mass media shaped the conditions of possibility by which Indonesians identified as lesbi or gay, saw these as national concepts (not mere foreign impositions), yet also identified transnationally. I drew from Indonesian notions of the nation as an archipelago to analyze how gay and lesbi Indonesians might participate in an “archipelagic” global community calling into question any assumed isomorphism between difference and distance.

Zuckerberg’s manifesto reminds me of my Indonesia fieldwork due to this engagement with the deeply contested notion of community. In its original formulation (let’s call this “Community 1”), community implied physical proximity and shared institutions (in Zuckerberg’s words, “churches, sports teams, unions or other local groups”). In the last few decades, another notion of community has arisen (“Community 2”), implying collective identity (for instance, “the gay community”). Originally this second notion of community implied physical proximity and shared institutions (for instance, gay bars, gay newspapers), but it does not require it.

Zuckerberg’s vision is that a global Community 2 can lead us back to Community 1, to “the millions of smaller communities and intimate social structures we turn to for our personal, emotional and spiritual needs.” Terming this vision “Make Community Great Again” might exaggerate, but he is deeply invested in the kind of nostalgia that has long shaped conceptions of community. In this manifesto, community is connection, pure and simple. This links up to ideas of online and virtual community as old as the internet. But its implications differ in the current context of corporate domination and the rise of a racist populism that claims the “imagined community” in its own image.

“Global”: Time and Progress

Like the notion of community, the notion of the global has a long history in digital culture. The web, after all, was envisioned as “world wide” early on. But when “community” starts to eclipse “network,” how does the “global” change?

Zuckerberg assumes that sociality begins at the local, moving outward to the regional and national, culminating in the global. (“How do we help people build an inclusive community that reflects our collective values and common humanity from local to global levels?”) He then maps this linear movement from local to global onto a timeline where locality is older and global more recent. The combining of these two teleologies—local to global, past to future—lies behind his claim that “history is the story of how we’ve learned to come together in ever greater numbers—from tribes to cities to nations,” as well as his warning that “the path ahead is to connect more or reverse course… progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.”

We would do well to question this linear framework in which the only alternatives are moving forward or reversing course. Globality is not an evolutionary capstone, for humans have always been mobile—following food sources, moving with the seasons, engaging in trade and long-range migration over continents and oceans. Local communities can exclude and oppress some of their members (as queer folk know all too well). National imagined communities can be sites of powerful identification, greater than one’s local context. And there are many forms of distributed communities—as I encountered with gay and lesbi Indonesians, but we see as well with, for instance, transnational religions like Christianity and Islam. Digital communities have been regarded as new forms of such distributed communities: let us call them “networked.” This is one reason why Zuckerberg’s shift from “network” to “community” is so stunning: it represents an emergent theory of digital culture that rejects the network metaphor in favor of “global community,” precisely at a time when corporate and state forms of online sociality seek dominance.

“Building”: Infrastructure and Scale

“Community,” then, is the core noun of the manifesto, “global” its core adjective—and “building” its core verb, the action realizing Zuckerberg’s vision. To quote his thesis (originally formatted in bold, to ensure we don’t miss it): “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.” Here and elsewhere, Zuckerberg displaces the act of building from Facebook to its customers. This notion of giving people tools is an old trope in Silicon Valley, one that distracts from the power of technology companies. Indeed, at several points he admits that Facebook itself will be “bringing us closer together and building a global community.”

Regardless of who is doing the building, for Zuckerberg this involves “infrastructure.” The notion of infrastructure has been of great interest to digital scholars in recent years, for several reasons. Normally, infrastructure is taken for granted save to the maintainers who keep everything running. For the rest of us, infrastructure usually becomes visible only when it breaks down in some fashion. Infrastructure thus draws attention to materiality and power, as well as questions of tacit knowledge. Zuckerberg seems to understand the current political polarization and cultural division as social breakdown, and new social infrastructure as the solution. He oddly defines “social infrastructure” as “communities, media and governments,” without explaining how, for instance, governments are social (humans are involved in them, but terming governments “social” is certainly incomplete).

Zuckerberg envisions this new social infrastructure operating “at scale.” This notion is a fascinating conceptual artifact from the world of technological futurism, appearing with increasing frequency in this era of big data. It is the dream of something as big as its object—the census not the survey, the Borgesian map as large as the territory. For Zuckerberg, social infrastructure must be global so that it can be “at scale” with the community it builds.

When responding in the manifesto to criticism regarding Facebook’s role in spreading propaganda (a term I find more accurate than “fake news”), Zuckerberg states “these mistakes are almost never because we hold ideological positions at odds with the community, but instead are operational scaling issues.” Here, the notion of building “at scale” supports another well-worn Silicon Valley trope—turning political conflict into a technological bug to be fixed. However, what is being “built” is not just global community, but a whole set of assumptions and practices regarding agency, power, and technology that must be vigorously contested and debated.

Conclusion: Locking-In Facebook

In this essay, I have used Zuckerberg’s manifesto to explore assumptions about the future of digital culture. Anthropologists often engage in forms of activism, advocacy, and applied work. However, like other scholars, anthropologists also try to shine light on broader patterns of thought, habits of practice, systems of interaction. Such forms of inquiry are vital in an age when languages of crisis threaten to short-circuit them, for they can point to problems and even solutions difficult to grasp otherwise.

In You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier developed the notion of “lock-in” to address how technologies can create persistent norms that influence thought and practice. Early decisions about MIDI technology shape how musicians think about sound; notions of files and folders shape how computer users think about writing. Lanier notes that lock-in can also involve ideas—for instance, the notion of anonymity. His concern is that once protocols or ideas get locked in, they become technologically and conceptually difficult to change: they pass into common sense. As an anthropologist, I share Lanier’s concern. In that light, I have explored notions of community, spatial scale, and social infrastructure that represent the foundation on which Zuckerberg’s claims rest. It is precisely at this foundational level that the danger of what I might term “cultural lock-in” is greatest.

Demonizing Mark Zuckerberg is not my goal; he is clearly a careful thinker. But none of us, even those among us who are technology billionaires, can completely explain the worldviews that structure our thinking. Responding to this manifesto requires exposing policies and actions that threaten our collective good. Responding to the broader debates this manifesto represents thus requires exposing cultural frameworks regarding collectivity, the good, and the digital itself. Anthropologists and other social scientists can contribute to understanding how such cultural frameworks shape our digital worlds—and their possible better futures.

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