By Alexander O. Onukwue
Mark Zuckerberg is 33, has a social platform that is universal, and wants to reach all the ends of the earth with his message of Purpose. If it is all too cringy that his age and mission make him too familiar with The Man of Galilee, then wait for it:
Mark is precisely preaching the Gospel that Facebook could be the solution to restoring the loss of community and solidarity once provided by groups like Churches.
And why not?
Of the 7 billion people in the world, at least 2 billion are now connected on Facebook. When you consider that China’s 1 billion plus are not on Facebook, it almost amounts that 1 in 3 persons in the world is on Facebook.
It is not the single online medium that traffics the most users in the world – there are still more people who “Google” stuff than any social media site, but not everyone uses Android (which Google can track). We just cannot underestimate how huge Mark Zuckerberg’s little dorm room experiment has involved into an indispensable medium of communication, all within a dozen years.
Zuckerberg has made two big public features this year – three if you include the F8 address. The ‘Manifesto’ of February 16 contained his blueprint for what he wanted Facebook users to see as the organization’s vision; namely, giving purpose to all people. He would amplify this point in his second main public feature, as the deliverer of the 2017 Harvard Commencement Address. It was homecoming for Mark, after leaving Boston for Silicon Valley to follow the Facebook adventure. But it was an opportunity to show the world just how much he had become a symbol of Leadership by a generation empowered by the voice they created.
Essentially, Zuckerberg’s message of purpose is packaged in one substance: that there is more to life than existing in isolation, in fulfilling one’s own personal goals, in throwing money at a strip club – and even greater than CREDIT. He wants to build communities where everyone can belong, and feel like part of something valuable that transcends immediate success.
One of the more poignant parts of the Harvard Commencement speech was the reference to the Janitor and JFK:
“One of my favorite stories is when John F Kennedy visited the NASA space center, he saw a janitor carrying a broom and he walked over and asked what he was doing. The janitor responded: “Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon”.
On one hand, Zuckerberg was admitting to the inevitability of inequality. However, he chooses to not see this as a point of weakness but that everyone in every estate can be made to feel a substantial sense of purpose if they are connected to a community that strives towards some lofty human goals. It did not matter that the Janitor was on the lower cadre of the financial ladder; what was important was that he could interact and share moments with other people who were working on America’s greatest mission of the second half of the 20th century. That Purpose gave him happiness, and that Purpose came from being connected.
Facebook, with 2 billion people, is already a community. Significant relationships have been established or strengthened through it. It has disrupted blogging, television, and even YouTube is no longer the sole destination for video content. People bond and break boundaries through Facebook, getting access to persons across the globe with whom physical meetings could have been a barrier to.
However, two distinct features stand in the way of Zuckerberg’s dream to make his brands the de facto Community of the world: control and vulnerability. They are two of the most central questions in human and social life, and are often topics which almost do not find proper attention in technology.
While being steadfast to the principle of an Open Internet, the use of Facebook for violence, self-harm and “hate speech” has been a point of pain for the company, with increased investments in Artificial Intelligence to filter and scrub such occurrences. It necessarily raises the question: how much control will Facebook place over its communities, some of whose “values” and rituals may spark outrage and sentiments of targeted discrimination from others? Or will facebook, as suggested by Emily Zeyfuss of WIRED, be forced to employ an underlying core philosophy that binds all of its communities? In which case it is hard to see how that will remain an Open Internet.
But supposing that Facebook becomes the alternative to going to Church, will it cater for the vulnerabilities of the people?
By its nature of being online and the fact that every piece of information on the cyber space never gets deleted, Facebook makes it difficult to be vulnerable, whereas many aspects of religion do exactly the opposite. For instance, anyone who leaves a Confessional has a certain guarantee that his discussion with the Priest will remain locked away forever. It could be referenced in sermons but his identity will remain secret. On the contrary, even private chats online are not private; everything can be hacked, or stored for retrieval. Even beyond the issue of control, the basic foundation of religions and support communities is trust, and that is built on the ease with which one can be vulnerable with thinking of every being harmed.
And how can you be vulnerable in a community where everyone is anonymous, or will Facebook require every group to have blue-ticked members? Ring the Privacy-Invasion Klaxon!
The more you think about the possibility that Facebook or Instagram or Messenger could help build communities, the more an elevator pitch it looks. As Robert Shrimsley observes in the Financial Times, “Groups will keep people on Facebook seeing more ads. And this is Facebook’s true societal mission — to keep you tightly within its orbit, owning as many of your waking hours as it can.”
Second only to Google, Facebook makes the most from advertising in the world. It has grown from an internet page for finding lost friends, to a company that produces 360 degrees cameras, and is on its way to creating original content for television, joining the Netflix-Amazon market. While it aspires towards growth and expansion, it has found itself in competition with breakthrough players in the future of video, and as Shrimsley remarks, it is wary of its users becoming “lured by others, coming under the influence of false prophets such as Snapchat, Google or, heaven forfend, some offline organisation without a Facebook page”.
Ultimately, Zuckerberg will have to admit that he cannot eat this cake and have it. He struggles with the reality that he has become the fifth most favored beneficiary of Capitalism, while many of his age struggle with joblessness, unpaid rent, unfed families, uneducated children, and incurable disease (and that’s touching). Perhaps in his prophetic mien, he foresaw that there would be an anti-capitalist march in Hamburg this July for the G20 meeting. In that moment of revelation, he saw that these protests would be led by many in his age bracket who had grown disillusioned with the imbalance of wealth and the purpose of life. Zuckerberg spoke frankly to his Harvard audience when he said something must be wrong with the system if he could leave the prestigious institution the time he did and make billions of dollars barely 10 years later.
Kwame Nkrumah, in Ujamaa, did say that no one could be a good socialist and be a millionaire at the same time. In the process of comparing Nigerian and Ghanaian jollof, and jogging on Third Mainland Bridge, maybe Zukerberg got a small feel of the hamlet of Churches in Yaba; Bosun Tijani will have to confirm if he took Mark to fellowship. Perhaps, in the Nigerian context, the wave that was the HallelujahChallenge had been foreseen by Zuckerberg (or Nathaniel Bassey took up to prove Mark’s gospel right?). All of these realities are making a still young and materially comfortable Zuckerberg feel there must be more than the race to sit atop the Silicon Valley.
But he need not try too hard to convince. Facebook will not be the answer to re-kindling the sense of community. Staying online most of the day, glued on any assorted virtual reality or live video feeds will not equate to the value of one good hug or holding hands in prayer. It cannot exactly be said that Facebook has made us lonelier, but it certainly has made us go out less.
In public gatherings when young people are asked to meet and greet, they quickly escape to their phones to see the latest from Facebook “friends”, “follow a Live Story” on Instagram or “Join the conversation” on a Twitter hashtag. That is the real problem, and surely it cannot be solved by erecting a congregation online.
Even with a 33 year old Mark as titular Bishop of Reform Capitalism, wise as Socrates, and rich as Solomon as he may be.
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