Facebook, Global Community, and Historical Theory


Mark Zuckerberg’s recent manifesto about the future of Facebook has been making the rounds the last few days. If you fancy a longish read, they have it in its entirety over at Recode. Ezra Klein has one of the more interesting takes on the six thousand-word document, published on vox.com over the weekend. Klein is primarily interested in Zuckerberg’s account of human history as a trend towards larger and larger communities. To Zuckerberg, this means turning Facebook into a tool suitable for building a global community.

Historians generally use historical theories as frameworks for understanding historical events. Historical theories are part explanation and part description of the “engines” of history. You might be familiar with historical materialism – Marx’s idea that history is driven mainly by material, economic factors that expressed themselves in class conflict, or the “Great Man” theory of history that argues the engines of history are specific individuals who wield power (political or otherwise).

Importantly, many (I dare say the vast majority) of historians now agree that we are not searching for “the” theory of history – the one that finds and articulates “the” engine of history. Rather, we should consider the many engines of history when writing our histories. Not every one will be relevant to every history study, but through many narrow and fewer (but still many) broad histories, the field of history as a whole begins to offer satisfying accounts of various historical topics.

But what about Zuckerberg’s “theory of history”?

By itself, Zuckerberg’s theory suggests that the 21st century is going to be a century defined by building a global community:

“History is the story of how we’ve learned to come together in ever greater numbers — from tribes to cities to nations. At each step, we built social infrastructure like communities, media and governments to empower us to achieve things we couldn’t on our own.”

I don’t think that is quite so clear-cut, but it is as least a plausible thesis. By what mechanism is humanity trending towards global community? This, I think, is even less clear. But Zuckerberg does give, intentionally or not, some indication:

“But our goal must be to help people see a more complete picture, not just alternate perspectives. We must be careful how we do this. Research shows that some of the most obvious ideas, like showing people an article from the opposite perspective, actually deepen polarization by framing other perspectives as foreign. A more effective approach is to show a range of perspectives, let people see where their views are on a spectrum and come to a conclusion on what they think is right. Over time, our community will identify which sources provide a complete range of perspectives so that content will naturally surface more.”

In this section, discussing how Facebook can help keep people well “informed” (and civically engaged), Zuckerberg makes that argument that a public that is exposed to “a range of perspectives” is likely to arrive at complex and nuanced, rather than oversimplified, view of a given topic. In other words, in what appears to me to be a very information-age view of history, Zuckerberg thinks exposure to a spectrum of information itself is driving us towards a global community. I’m skeptical of social media’s ability to provide that platform. But again, let’s take the assertion as plausible.

We’ve identified a description (global community) and explanation (sharing information) for Zuckerberg’s historical theory, but how might historians actually use that framework to look at history?

I can certainly see some value in understanding the way that people have come together as communities. Indeed, there is already a considerable amount of work on subjects that intersect with “the Zuckerberg theory.” The lively discussion surrounding the formation of nationalism, migration, tribalism, and cosmopolitanism all seem to have some connection to it. But this speaks to a much more complex version of the history of human community than the one Zuckerberg posits.

In some ways, the Zuckerberg Theory is reminiscent of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” that followed the end of the Cold War, in which he posited that the defeat of global Communism signaled the global (and final) hegemony of liberal democracy. While we’ve quite clearly not landed in that world, Zuckerberg does seem to think that we’re headed for some version of it. If history were driven by the creation of larger and larger communities, the creation of a global community in the 21st Century would signal the end of that particular project.

On the other hand, neither have we become stuck in the world defined by Samuel Huntington’s theory of a “clash of civilizations.” Although conflicts are still very much a part of the geopolitical status quo, it is not a conflict defined only by the regional cultures and political ideologies that Huntington presumed. Certainly “the West” itself has become too destabilized with infighting to credibly fit into that model, let alone other geopolitical and regional complexities.

If we are to take seriously the idea that building a global community as at least an important force in the 21st Century, then it is worth looking at the precedent for such a movement as well as, and this is the point the Zuckerberg misses, the countervailing forces.

Broadly speaking, the situation could be defined as being between globalism and tribalism, or perhaps cosmopolitanism and nationalism. The modern nation-state itself was once on the other side of this divide – a force, as Zuckerberg seems to suggest – against more local identities. But it is not simply a one-directional story towards larger and larger communities.

Nation-states were often forged in the face of considerable resistance and in some cases even struggled with what Tara Zahra has called “indifference” about national identity. Just in the last thirty years the Soviet Union disintegrated into its national components; the EU is now straining. Even ISIS represents a complicating case, as it at once presents itself as a unifying supranational force and gained traction in part by resisting the explicitly national boundaries laid down at the conclusion to World War I.

Globalism is hardly a new phenomenon and the idea that humans might be united on a global scale has been a prominent feature of political thought for hundreds of years at least. In the nineteenth century, Marx conceived of a world united by workers. In the 20th Century, we began to imagine a world united under the banner of “human rights” – a movement Samuel Moyn has called “the Last Utopia.” Now, in the 21st Century, Zuckerberg conceives of a world united by information.

No matter the angle from which we look, our history of community-building is far more complicated and multifaceted than a march towards larger and larger communities. If we take seriously, however, the conflict and tension between an impulse to grow our communities and a compulsion to closely guard them, then we have something that might be useful as historical theory.

In that case, Zuckerberg is clearly on a particular side of that conflict and, as Ezra Klein noted, ideologies are much more difficult to manage that businesses. If Zuckerberg wants Facebook to be the force for global community building that he says he does, he is going to have to reckon with the fact that the engines of history are by no means moving us in a particular direction. The theory of history he has put forth does not arm him with the intellectual or logistical muscle he is going to need to accomplish his goal. It could even hasten its defeat.

For those who think that building a global community is a good idea, and I happily confess that I am among them, the 21st Century will have to be navigated with a measured understanding of the historical forces that led us to this point and that continue to operate around us.

Original Header Image by fdecomlte, this version cropped. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0