Dear Mark Zuckerberg
In the days since Tuesday’s election, I’ve had hundreds of conversations with people about the results and there has been one common thread in all of them: “Why didn’t we see this coming?”
How is it possible that we missed the depth of anger, the disaffection and mistrust and resentment that so many Americans feel in the wake of the last eight years? We were aware that the economic recovery had been uneven; that workers in Rust Belt states were being displaced by technological advances. But the plusses so outweighed the negatives, didn’t they?
The momentous social change we’ve witnessed — the election of our first African American president, the defeat of DOMA and passage of the Marriage Equality Act — had us believing that the arc of history wasn’t quite as long as we thought, that it was bending towards justice right now, in this decade.
So many of the young women I work with took their daughters to the polls with them on Tuesday to make sure they, too, were part of this historic moment when we elected a woman to be President of the United States. How did we get it so wrong?
There will no doubt be a tidal wave of opinions on this topic in the coming year, but here’s the one I hope you’ll ponder: for all the wonders of social media and its ability to connect me with 8th grade classmates and far-flung friends, it is also contributing to the balkanization of America.
The better you get at personalizing my feed, surfacing content that mirrors what I’ve clicked on in the past and showing my posts to people who will “like” them, the more you reinforce my beliefs, my assumptions, my prejudices. Everyone on my facebook loves and admires Hillary Clinton. We all think Donald Trump is a dangerous boob who will be resoundingly defeated on Nov 8.
I’ve been voting in elections since the time when our sources of information were limited to three network news departments and your city newspaper. The internet has been a glorious and transformative advance and I don’t for a second want to suggest a nostalgia for that time. But consider this: the fact that every American watched the same footage coming out of Vietnam on CBS News — the aftermath of errant napalm attacks, the burning of huts, the surprise Tet Offensive, the body bags of young American soldiers dying ten thousand miles away from home — led to a shared reality and, ultimately, a shared view that the human, economic, and reputational cost of the war was just too high to continue.
There are no perfect algorithms. But I would trade some of those posts from #ImWithHer women for a few from smart, college-educated women who had decided to vote for Trump. Because the only thing worse than losing this election is the fact that I thought we had it in the bag. We may be too big and too diverse a nation to ever have an “American View” like the one de Toqueville wrote about after he visited the United States for the first time. But it will be evermore impossible if social media continues to narrow our sight-lines and reinforce what we already believe.
You can change this, Mark. The vast majority of Americans are on Facebook today. Don’t further balkanize us. Give us a way to see the bigger picture. What we do with that knowledge is up to us, but you can have a big impact on the inputs that inform our views and, ultimately, our actions.
Clear eyes, full hearts…