Analysis Mark Zuckerberg's given Facebook a new mission statement: “To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together", in the process rediscovering The Social Network™'s original purpose and exposing web utopianism as hopelessly optimistic.
The new old direction was given to the world of Facebook on Zuck's own account and, ironically, to the rest of us the very old-school form of an exclusive CNN interview. The message is the same in both: Zuckerberg says Facebook has figured out “the most important thing we can do is bring people closer together.”
There's a difference between that and connecting people that Zuckerberg explains in the context of “meaningful communities” that “... don't just interact online. They hold get-togethers, organize dinners, and support each other in their daily lives.”
But Facebook's learned that just five per cent of users are involved in such communities. And now it's decided to get that figure to 50 per cent – a billion souls - by throwing some AI at the problem of getting people into such groups and giving “more leaders the power to build communities”.
Facebook started the community-building on Thursday with a revamped groups utility that among other things offers easier filtering of members and tools to schedule posts..
Zuckerberg thinks the new tools are important because he's seen research that the world has become less engaged in communities full stop, online or in meatspace. He also feels that if the world is to address big challenges – he mentions “ending poverty, curing disease, stopping climate change, spreading freedom and tolerance, stopping terrorism” - humanity needs to network people so they can act together in the real world.
This is a very retro thing for Zuckerberg to suggest, because in Facebook's early years it billed itself as “a social utility that connects you with the people around you”. Which it did brilliantly. My kids were pre-schoolers in the years when Facebook mushroomed and one of the reasons it did so was that it offered brilliant tools to do stuff like organise a play date or birthday party. No amount of emailing or mass TXTing worked as well. We all piled onto Facebook because it made things easier, not just because it had good cat pictures.
That idea of a social utility that made it easier to interact in the real world distinguished Facebook from the social networks of the day which mostly offered not much more than the chance to participate in threaded conversations. But the same kind of self-re-enforcing tribalism those networks thrived on have since infected Facebook and made so many corners of it spite-filled miasmas. Facebook only tolerates so much bile, so has also inadvertently created a market for fora that tolerate even more extreme speech.
It's therefore no surprise Zuckerberg wants his data sources - sorry, members - to feel the platform offers something more fulfilling than a version of the never-ending frenzy that is r/The_Donald. It's also clear Zuckerberg wants a place in history as more than an entrepreneur. This new direction gives him a chance of that place by making Facebook a secular Church preaching a connectivity gospel and sending its faithful out to do good works.
More surprising is that Zuckerberg thinks his platform can make a difference. Facebook quickly descended from social utility to coagulator of like-minded obsessives. As has nearly every other comparable platform.
Facebook also failed to deliver on the notion that the web would sweep away old hierarchies and enable new models of networked peers making real world change from behind their keyboards.
What we're really seeing here, therefore, is Zuckerberg realising that his ambitions for himself and his company have drifted during years in which it built a sustainable advertising platform while did doing nothing to enhance the service's value to members. And while Facebook drifted, its social licence was grossly devalued by their members' antics.
Zuckerberg's response is to get back to Facebook's roots, but in the service of better real-world civic dialog, conducted in familiar hierarchies. That, and the fact he still feels the need to offer exclusive television interviews to spread the word, shows that a decade of Facebook may not have made changes as profound as is often assumed. And that these efforts will likely also struggle. ®