Community, not Coalitions: Open Letter to Ev Williams and Mark Zuckerberg

We have lost the bustle and chaos of community. Can you help make new space for it? Photo: National Museum of Denmark

Dear Sirs:

I challenge you to build a platform for human community to survive into the digital age. But first, you need to understand what community really is. By both your recent developments, its clear you don’t yet understand but want to.

This is important work. It is not beneath you, it is right in front of you. The greatest question you could look at right now. You have an opportunity to fix what got broke while you were building social media.

If you don’t rise to this challenge, your children will grow up in a world that none of us would recognize. Children now are already experiencing it, and unless the digital world changes soon that will be the only reality they know. The result will be — is — less social communication, balkanization of people by belief and class, and the inability to create accord.

It would sound dire and a little overstated if I had written that a couple years ago, huh?

Mark, I saw your interview on CNN (“We have a responsibility to do more”). I sensed your sincerity but every time you said “community” I heard you referring to coalitions.

A group of people who share goals, beliefs, and interests is a coalition. The apps you two have created and enable are excellent at enabling coalition-building. I truly appreciate it. I use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Medium to keep up with people I value and to inform them about me. It’s a meaningful social experience, but it does not fit the complete definition of community.

People have positive feelings about the word community for very good reason; the outcome of community is really positive. Many health and anthropology researchers have shown how good a healthy community is for an individual. I think you have a sense of how good healthy community is to societal health as well.

I believe that while the outcome of community is good, people’s memory overlooks the fact that the experience of actual community is tough work. Its unpleasant at times. Its a struggle to create and maintain. Community needs to deal with elements that do not resolve. Community knows about your not-so-pretty parts, but it holds you anyway.

We have good community when individuals interact with people and elements that don’t immediately feel good, that don’t resolve cleanly. They learn from this. They create empathy, negotiate middle paths. Small conflicts prevent larger conflicts.

To other community members, the individuals in a community are not simple heroes and villains. They are in agreement on some topics and unresolved disagreement on others. They can not completely reject or mute another member of the community. If they disagree they have to hold tension. In tension, community learns.

It is easy to picture what I consider community in a physical space, a small town or a walkable city or a place of business. No one has yet coded an environment for digital community. On Twitter and Facebook, we can block those we find unpleasant. The result is coalitions: algorithms bring us pleasing confirmation bias and more content about our existing interests. Again, these are great attributions for coalition building, but they erode the mutual understanding that community relies upon.

I am 42 years old (My Hitchhiker Year!). I recall the appearance of the internet, I recall the first edition of Wired Magazine. Mark, I was no longer in college when Facebook came out. I remember when you opened it up to all us schlubs who were not paying tuition.

Like a lot of people, I thought all these platforms would elevate our civilization. It seemed that open access to information and leveled communication would create peace and awareness and understanding.

So far, that seems to be a pretty poor prophecy. The platforms we have are ill suited for discourse. They simply allow any coalition to form rapidly and survive despite opposition, geography, or even validity. The ad-selling motivation of the businesses that run these platforms really don’t seem to want to elevate civilization anyway. Activity is measured in volume, not quality.

So, let’s be honest; people use these platforms for reassurance. There is always reassuring content available for whatever someone wants to believe.

Sometimes, community needs to point out that you are wrong. Twitter, Facebook, and Medium don’t do that.

I don’t know the solution, but I feel we have to work towards it. There are so many tools before us to start improving the situation. Of course, we all tend to first think about code, applications, software, platforms. Maybe so. But perhaps our tools as communicators, as marketers, or as leaders can be significant. I am confident that there is some great social science research to inspire progress. I am open to visions.

You are smart guys, and you have a lot of resources. You can work not from fear but curiosity. You can reach for a greater challenge. This is the next challenge for our world: envision and build real community into our digital world. Help humans better be humans.

I will print this message and package it, along with a copy of the book Healing the Heart of Democracy for both of you. But hey, its a digital world, so I am going to put this letter here for you (and everyone) to read. Thanks, Ev, for this great writing platform, Medium. I’m a fan. I even pay for it! I don’t get much quality discourse, but it helps me find people who agree with me.

Mark, if you created an ad-free, data-mining-free version of Facebook, I would pay for that, too! As it is, I use Facebook regularly, understanding that it is my tool for reassurance, not community.

Download the epub of Parker J. Palmer’s book if you prefer, and donate the paper version to your local library.

Just, please, do something. You know you can make it better, and few of us are in the position you are to make a dramatic positive change.