Bike lanes and World War III
The Facebook Manifesto in a Time of Crisis
My family and I live in a neighborhood in Brooklyn where we are not in the least representative of the majority of the population. While my wife is proud of her Tejano roots, we are on balance a white family in a Caribbean and African-American community. We live with the conundrum of being sensitive to gentrification while at the same time embodying it.
Perhaps an early signal of changing demographics, a while ago someone set up a neighborhood parent group on Facebook. It quickly swelled to a few hundred users, mostly young parents. The racial mix was skewed slightly white- the group seemed to attract new residents in the neighborhood first and foremost. Most of the chatter there was typical- a steady trade in baby stuff, neighborhood events and festivals, local news, etc.
New York City has participatory budgeting, a democratic process in which city council members work with their neighborhoods to decide how to spend part of a public budget. During a recent round of participatory budgeting, someone posted a notice to the Facebook group, inviting ideas. Several were proposed, including, notably, bike lanes on one thoroughfare. Bike lanes are often seen as a sign of gentrification, and this prompted a debate.
To boil down the exchange, which occurred over several days, a long time resident of the neighborhood made the important case that the Facebook group was itself not a representative group, and thus not a group where a substantial conversation about the needs of the neighborhood could take place. The user rightly pointed out that the group was not a replacement for the Community Board, not connected to any of dozens of non-profit organizations that had worked in the community for decades, and certainly not a part of the mechanisms set up to decide how participatory budget funds would be spent.
In short, the user was concerned this unrepresentative group was using the platform to organize as a special interest to spend public resources without understanding the needs of the actual community. The incident resolved with the group largely accepting this argument. The group has since gone back to a place largely for exchanging toys and things- political discussion is taboo.
The incident highlights major trends in America, largely driven by Facebook. The average American consumer spends nearly an hour on Facebook and its platforms every day. 79% of American adults use Facebook. Most folks in media consider this through the lens of media habits- engagement with Facebook and other social platforms has, of course, eaten in to consumption of other forms of media.
We rightly worry about the spread of fake news and filter bubbles. But as some scholars have noted, Facebook does something even more insidious. It replaces the public sphere with a space that seems public- like the neighborhood parent group. José Marichal chronicles this phenomenon in his excellent Facebook Democracy: The Architecture of Disclosure and the Threat to Public Life:
… technology challenges our conventional understandings of public and private, by creating mediated publics that have characteristics of publicness but are not quite public in that they are filtered, be it through shared interest in a subject or by kinship or some other factor.
As users we embrace these ‘mediated publics’, and because the transactional cost of engaging in them is so low and the user experience is maximized to increase the time we spend on platforms, we run the risk of convincing ourselves participation on social media is the same thing as democratic participation. This may seem rich coming from someone with a chronic Twitter addiction, but it is kind of simple: the more time we spend on social media, often convinced we are ‘engaging’ in discourse, the less time we have to participate in the actual hard work of democracy.
When he looks at the future, Mark Zuckerberg sees Facebook as part of the solution. In a +5500 word manifesto this week, he laid out a vision for Facebook as a platform for a “global community.” He addressed the decline of participation in offline communities directly:
Our goal is to strengthen existing communities by helping us come together online as well as offline, as well as enabling us to form completely new communities, transcending physical location. When we do this, beyond connecting online, we reinforce our physical communities by bringing us together in person to support each other.
A healthy society needs these communities to support our personal, emotional and spiritual needs. In a world where this physical social infrastructure has been declining, we have a real opportunity to help strengthen these communities and the social fabric of our society.
In another section, he goes on to discuss the role Facebook can play in driving engagement in the political process, and in “establishing a new process for citizens worldwide to participate in collective decision-making.” Some read this manifesto and conclude that Zuckerberg “seems to have awakened to some of the unintended consequences of the mega-platform that he has built.”
Sounds great. Yet there is something deeply troubling about it all. Put aside the effects we are witnessing at the local level- the disagreement in a neighborhood group, and extrapolate to the broader global picture. This is a moment of profound danger all across the world, as democracies stumble and nationalists rise. Polarization is a major problem. Inequality seems intractable. The US State Department reports that freedom of expression and freedom of association are on the decline worldwide. Serious people worry we are on the verge of World War III.
What a crazy thing to imagine. All of us, never more interconnected, all over the globe, sharing our ideas and our selfies, while democracies crumble and World War rages. What responsibility does Mark Zuckerberg have in this context? What steps can he take given the commercial logic of Facebook, driven as it is by increased engagement and time spent on the platform?
Kara Swisher interviewed Zuckerberg after he published his manifesto, and she summed up the key questions it prompts:
The question going forward is whether Facebook supports this massive Mark Manifesto — which is precisely what it is — with just money and long letters. Or does it fundamentally change the way it works — as an attention slot machine that turns that attention into money — in order to support the ideas Zuckerberg has outlined.
I think we need to regard this as an emergency- in our neighborhoods, and in our nations. Time may be running out. There is a great urgency to the discourse on media, technology and democracy. Lives are at stake.
Yale law professor and novelist Stephen L. Carter wrote in his novel Back Channel, a fictionalized account of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, that “in a crisis, time was always the enemy.” In the future, looking back on today, will we revise that? Will it read, “in a crisis, time spent on social media was always the enemy”?