Facebook “built to accomplish a social mission”

Mark Zuckerberg’s recent letter to shareholders

illustrated once again that, while the world is obsessed with the wealth generated by his company, he’s obsessed with its social impact.

Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission – to make the world more open and connected,” he starts.

Corporate missions, vision statements and moments of philosophy have the habit of melting into one big self-deluding façade.

Enron infamously established amongst its core ideas that: “We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves…Ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance don’t belong here”, which has proved rich material for scriptwriters ever since.

But, there is much more to Zuckerberg and Facebook. It is, in some ways, the ultimate example of incidental social change. It is the most loved and used digital tool ever created and built into it are behaviours that make us more social and connected.

“We hope to rewire the way that people spread and consume information…We have already helped more than 800 million people map out more than 100 billion connections so far, and our goal is to help this rewiring accelerate”, he continues.

But how profound is this stuff?

There is more and more academic work being done on Facebook’s societal impact and that of online social networks more generally, but it’s far from conclusive.

At We Are What We Do, we’re most interested in the behavioural prompts that Facebook has introduced or accentuated, rather than simply mirrored.

Some people do some very good things on Facebook – like collaborate on solar technology or donate lots to charity – and some people do some very bad things – like groom children and bully work colleagues.

But this activity isn’t taking place because of Facebook and Zuckerberg can neither take credit for the good stuff nor be blamed for the bad stuff.  Facebook isn’t a community defined by people doing wonderful things or terrible things. It’s a community defined by people doing ordinary things.

Before Facebook, people shared banal titbits about their lives, gossiped about other people’s titbits and used titbits to chat people up. After Facebook, people will continue to do this – the content of social interaction has not been changed by Facebook.

But the fact that Facebook creates more community and generates considerably more connections around this day-to-day stuff is where its potential to affect society lies. Around this, there are two key questions that are worth more investigation:

Bridging vs bonding social capital

The effect on levels of social capital is at the heart of Facebook’s collateral effect on society. It clearly generates a lot of connections, but of what type and what value? Ellison, Steinfield & Lampe (2007) felt that bridging social capital – the more valuable sort that acts between heterogeneous groups – on Facebook was more prevalent than bonding social capital – between homogenous groups – right through from its initial effect on Harvard’s campus onwards. But their definition of heterogeneous seems a bit ropey. Yes, not everyone at Harvard has the same surname, but its students are unequivocally socially homogenous. Moreover, Facebook’s appeal and growth was founded on exclusive access to social circles. That Facebook networks are dominated by school, college and work friends would suggest that a meaningful effect across social groups – the most valuable – cannot yet be assumed.

Local vs remote connections

There are piles of research into the effect of increased online connections on levels of offline connections. Haythornthwaite and Kendall’s 2010 work, for example, concluded that “online communication always reinforces local relationships and local identities that build networks of interacting individuals who are mutually aware of each other.” But the existence of strong online to offline force seems counter-intuitive when it comes to Facebook as it stands. The site draws you into networks of people you know, regardless of where they live. There are very few forces, overt or latent, that lead you to create new connections with people who live in your neighbourhood but you don’t yet know. This would, undoubtedly, be a very positive force if it did exist.

Ultimately, Facebook has an inherent obligation to defend their users’ privacy and security within the network, but they don’t have an inherent obligation to make more of any of its effect on bridging social capital, local connectedness or any other areas that it could add its considerable weight to.

But, Mark Zuckerberg has done two things to affect our expectations in this area.

Firstly, he has been consistently and, for me, inspiringly, committed to his social mission. This means that neutral incidental effects aren’t good enough.

Secondly, he has wholeheartedly harnessed this collection of 800 million people and 100 billion connections for advertisers. Regardless of his idealistic spin on fostering products that are “personalised and designed around people”, the relationship between users and brands on Facebook is highly advantageous to the latter. Thanks to Facebook, they know more about us than ever before and can exploit this knowledge to integrate themselves into our social networks. This may be a natural step and it has been done very intelligently, but it means that Facebook certainly isn’t a neutral social space, free from external behavioural prompts.

These combine to make the next phase of Facebook fascinating as we watch to see if Mark Zuckerberg can fulfil his commitment to having a genuinely positive effect on society.

Personally, I think he’ll surprise us all. Unlike Bill Gates, who separated his business work from his do-gooding work, I think Zuckerberg will get braver with what Facebook can achieve through its core services.

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