Is Facebook a Community? Digital Experts Weigh In

Mark Zuckerberg delivers the opening keynote at the Facebook f8 conference on April 30, 2014 in San Francisco. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

When Mark Zuckerberg talks about Facebook, he constantly uses the word “community” to describe the internet platform. In his 2017 manifesto, Zuckerberg famously argued “Progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.” Indeed, “Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community.” In his testimony before Congress this week, he again used the term several times. “My top priority has always been our social mission of connecting people, building community and bringing the world closer together,” he told the Senate.

The notion of this community of more than 2 billion users worldwide, and over 200 million in the United States, seems core to Zuckerberg’s conception of the platform, and perhaps his own identity. But is Facebook a community? And if it is, on what terms?

Surprisingly, Zuckerberg is rarely confronted with this question- and the Senators did not put it to him on Tuesday. “As far as I can tell, not once in his apology tour was Zuckerberg asked what on earth he means when he refers to Facebook’s 2 billion-plus users as ‘a community’ or ‘the Facebook community,’” noted academic Zeynep Tufekci.

To get to the bottom of it, I asked several notable Facebook observers to respond to this question. Here’s what they said:

SANDY PARAKILAS is an advisor to the Center for Humane Technology and a former Facebook employee:

Facebook has a community of users, but unfortunately the company has not always treated those users with the respect a community deserves. For example, a lack of transparency about Russian interference in the 2016 election and a failure to adequately handle the Cambridge Analytica issue when it was first discovered both show a lack of respect by Facebook for its users.

At an even more basic level, Facebook treats its users as a commodity to be hooked into the system, surveilled and then monetized.

“The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good.” wrote Facebook Vice President Andrew Bosworth in an internal post from 2016 that recently leaked.  “That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.”

If Facebook wants to enable users to build true communities on its services, it must prioritize the interests of its users. To accomplish that, Facebook must alter its business model so that it makes money from things that build connection and community, rather than on surveillance advertising which can be used to divide and manipulate people.

JOSE MARICHAL is professor of political science at California Lutheran University and author of Facebook Democracy from Routledge Press:

No. And no.  Further, it is problematic and dangerous to think that it can be.  What FB gives us is the feel of community, what one might call a “synthetic community.”  A synthetic community isn’t necessarily bad (it’s better than no community), but it is not a substitute for the real thing.  A Facebook community, by itself, is stripped of the relational elements that make community real. A Facebook like cannot substitute for the personal effort required to take dinner over to a sick friend.  That requires the physical act of cooking a meal, driving over to the house, engaging in what might be banal chit chat, etc. Facebook’s synthetic community has elements of connection through disclosure typical of real intimate relationships, but it lacks the unmanageable contingency of being “in relation” to those in your “real” community.

In real community you are often in temporally synchronous, face-to-face communication where a friend may sting you with a criticism or reveal an uncomfortable truth.  You must respond in the moment. This unpredictability is what reminds us that our community connections are not like choosing items from a cafeteria menu. To substitute synthetic community on Facebook for “lived community” is to do what Renee Marlin-Bennett calls “flattening emotions,” we program ourselves to scroll past the mundane to find posts that either elate or infuriate us.  We can’t ignore the fact that this “flattening” is built into Facebook’s business model, one that is designed to make you known and predictable so you can be packaged to advertisers.

Lived community requires physical space.  For community to have any significance, it must have spatial and temporal boundaries.  It can be a diaspora separated by distance, but it must be identifiable and partly practiced in place and, more importantly there must be a zone where “the community” is absent: where one can go to “get away” from their community.   With the ubiquity of mobile communication, that space of “no community” has been eliminated. Take the instance of someone on vacation who feels compelled to create selfies to post online. Theorist like Nathan Jurgenson who question the utility of a “digital divide” are right to point out that perhaps we are never “offline.”  What that means for community is never having the true space away from the community to reflect upon its health and bring useful ideas back into it too. A permanent state of synthetic ambient community where you are never “not in community” but never fully “in community” leaves one fraught with doubt, about the true fealty of one’s friends or about the fundamental legitimacy of one’s adversaries.

Facebook cannot replace lived community.  Relationships are intersubjective, personal, subject to contestation, serendipitous and uncomfortable at times.  Individual relationships are built on mutual trust and shared experience–they require gestures: physical sacrifices, emotional engagements, extended attention.  The greatest damage that Facebook has done to democracy is to give the impression that the rewards of community can be gained without the hard work of being “in relation” to one another. It is the “factory farming” of community building and it has produced similar effects.

ROGER MCNAMEE is managing director founding partner at Elevation Partners and an early investor in Facebook:

Facebook is no more a community to its users than United Airlines is to passengers or Hilton is to hotel guests.  Facebook is a network with more than 2 billion individual Truman Shows.  Community is possible at small scale on Facebook, but more often the platform is a tool for existing communities to communicate, rather than one for growing new ones.  

The incentives of the advertising business model cause Facebook to promote psychological addiction and appeals to lizard brain emotions like fear and anger, both of which make users vulnerable to manipulation and make Facebook a suboptimal platform for community.

When Facebook talks about community standards, the focus never seems to be on the needs of users.  Instead, the focus is on pleasing whichever governmental agencies might otherwise impede the company’s growth. One consequence is that Facebook has become an attractive platform for authoritarians looking to suppress opposition.

KAREN KORNBLUH is Executive Vice President of External Affairs at Nielsen and Senior Fellow for Digital Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations:

The way to build strong, safe, inclusive communities is by creating trust systems, not just by connecting people — and social media has helped undermine existing trust systems.

We build communities beyond our family, neighborhood, or place of worship through  norms, codes, laws, standards, institutions, shared experience — that build empathy and trust. It is the tragedy of America that mainstream white America still red-lines African Americans out of full membership in the American community.

This and other strains in the American social fabric were present before social media, but it has added to the strain – by, for instance, treating the news organizations that follow established professional codes the same as purveyors of conspiracy theories or allowing special interests to hide their sponsorship of ads and to use individual data to micro-target voters. Now the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the 2016 elections have undermined trust in Facebook itself.

If Facebook wants to build more and better communities it needs to work with others to build the necessary trust systems – and to repair the damage done to existing trust.  

MAYA WILEY is Professor of Urban Policy and Management at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy at The New School, and she is co-founder of the Digital Equity Lab:

I live in a neighborhood that is one of the most racially and ethnically diverse in the country. It’s economically mixed too. Haitian, Salvadoran, Pakistani, Jewish and White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. That’s only a smattering if the incomplete, but impressive collection of peoples from around the globe. Is it a “community?” Simply because it exists?

There is some meaningful interaction in my neighborhood across that diversity, but only some. Language, religion, class and even world views can create invisible walls that make meaningful relationships and interaction very difficult.

So a 2 billion person global community thanks to Facebook is ridiculous. And then there’s Facebook’s behavior. Remember Free Basics – Facebook’s attempt to on-ramp people in developing countries to the internet. According to research by citizen media and activist group Global Voices, which looked at Free Basics in Colombia, Ghana, Kenya, Mexico, Pakistan and Philippines, found big problems. Languages were inadequate, a glut of services from third party private companies stripping metadata and violating net neutrality principles make Free Basics a form of on-line colonization.

Facebook can be a tool for connection and communication, but communities have responsibilities to support, nurture and protect one another. Facebook is more like a commercial bus where the cost of the ride is your commodification. And interestingly, more and more of the younger generation I encounter don’t want to have anything to do with it.

JOAN DONOVAN is the Media Manipulation and Platform Accountability Research Lead at Data & Society Research Institute:

In 2008, I was moving from Montreal to San Diego. At my going away party, friends asked that I join Facebook for fear that the 3000 mile distance would mean we’d lose all touch all together. So, I signed up for Facebook under an alter-ego, thinking I’d use it to kept in touch with those I already know. My first FB friend is now my wife and my current BFF was also my first FB comment way back then.

When I moved, I enjoyed sharing quips about ‘weirdo San Diego’ with my old college friends. Being on Facebook also let me join up with new friends, where I found out about punk shows and new bands. For a site focused on social networking, Facebook as a tool worked well for bridging my former community and opening a new one. However, Facebook as a company is no more a community than the Yellow Pages.

In 2011, my blackberry and I bloomed as power-users across multiple platforms. Being very active in the Occupy Movement, I was an administrator on a number of Facebook pages, while also operating a set of Twitter accounts, Tumblr blogs, LiveStreams, and IRC chats. Since then, I’ve kept a personal relationship with these communication technologies and nurtured a political one by making social media content for movements. Collectively, movements practiced both social networking and social media simultaneously. Yet, these are different modes of participation entirely. While social media requires social networks, social networks do not need social media.

By participating in and researching social movements, I am more familiar than most with the pros and cons of using social networking to create communities. I watched as changes to Facebook decimated movements’ communication by making it more difficult to see groups, events, and pages in the newsfeed, served advertising over friends’ posts, and did not heed recommendations about user privacy. Pages and groups I relied on for comfort and calls to action during crises have devolved into dens of conspiracy or clickbait. The paranoia that pervaded movements in the wake of the Snowden leaks has given way to a suspicion of every platform that preferences profit over privacy, ignores harassment in favor of abstract commitments to speech, and does not take responsibility for the power it commands.

While the move from social networking to social media was a quiet one for Facebook, it did much to change how communities communicate. Becoming social media was not simply a change in style of interacting, but also in scale and kinds of possible connections. Now, I can be just as connected to news outlets, entertainers, and celebrities as I am to my wife and best friend. In that shift, much about what we imagined social networking could do to strengthen community ties was lost to market forces, pay to play metrics, and a sea of disinformation.

And still, I am not hopeful that the return to personal connections, or what we used to call social networks, will support the global villages we once envisioned. Our data doubles have been mapped, traced, mirrored, and sold; marketing community as a cheap commodity. However, I do believe that free communication is a fundamental human right and these tools are powerful agents of social change. It is our collective responsibility to remake them. DefendOurMovements.org is a response to the present condition.

JONATHAN ZITTRAIN, Professor of international law and of computer science at Harvard, a co-founder of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and the author of The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It:

“Community” is used all the time by social media and other Internet companies to describe their users. It’s a poor choice of words, adopted no doubt because it makes the relationship between subscriber and company seem less transactional than it really is. A community is a group of people who recognize some shared interests and goals, along with a measure of interdependence and mutual responsibility. Some people are born into communities, such as by the accident of geography; others choose or achieve community, such as by choice of fraternity, sorority, or guild; and others have community thrust upon them, such as through response to a common foe. I’d put, say, Jimmy Buffett fans at the edge of community’s heliosphere. So maybe a Jimmy Buffet fan club group on Facebook is or feels like a community — but all two billion Facebook users surely are not.

What should be understood for full context for Mark Zuckerberg’s use of the word is that he has in the past genuinely sought to think of Facebook users as a polity, and therefore a kind of community. He built a model where Facebook users would vote on major platform governance changes — and abandoned it perhaps because a quorum (requiring millions of users!) could not be achieved, and no doubt because others were telling him that he might regret devolving power that way. I wouldn’t put it past Mark to try this again. So he might resolve the dissonance between the word “community” and the reality of Facebook by changing the reality rather than abandoning the word.

MELISSA RYAN is a visiting fellow at Media Matters for America, chronicle the rise of the alt-right via her newsletter, Ctrl Alt-Right Delete, and in 2017 launched the Factual Democracy Project, an organization pioneering a multi-disciplinary response to the extreme right coalition and the weaponization of the Internet:

If Facebook is a community the basis of that community might be frustration at Facebook. As CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent PR apology tour shows, Facebook finally realizes just how upset its users are for a host of offenses from Russian propaganda, to data breaches, to playing a role in the Rohingya genocide. Facebook’s users are holding it accountable and the outcry is global. I have no doubt that Zuckerberg’s desire for a global community, connected by Facebook is sincere. What a great irony if that community is finally realized as an unprecedented global consumer movement against Facebook, using Facebook’s own platform to make their voices heard.

 

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About the Author(s)

Justin Hendrix

Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. Opinions expressed here are entirely his own. Follow him on Twitter (@justinhendrix).