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(This is the unedited version of an article I wrote for my college newspaper, The Rambler. It was published earlier this month on nice glossy paper. It is rather lengthy so I think I will just post part of it for now. In this article I tried to tackle some of Facebook’s problems from a different, rather philosophical, angle. Tell me what you think! Part 2 will be coming soon.)
The Disconcerting Dreams of Mark Zuckerberg
by Savvy J. Buckner
“But civilization is to be tested not so much by the dexterity of inventions as by the worth of what is invented.” –G.K. Chesterton
Twenty-six year old Mark Zuckerberg, the youngest billionaire in our cosmos, has fathered a philosophy that is this very moment redefining the web and our understanding of human relations. He is honest about the novelty of his experiment, but what end-product we should expect has been a little murky. In fact, it is only by studying Zuckerberg’s past words and actions together that a blueprint of his dream emerges. The Web 3.0 envisioned by Zuckerberg parts ways with the traditional Internet; it is grounded in different, and worrisome, first principles. The key to understanding Zuckerberg lies in his concept of the social graph. Zuckerberg calls this graph the core of his work, adding that his philosophy of the world and the inter-connection of things are embedded in it. Basically, the graph refers to a global digital mapping of both humans and objects, defined exclusively by their connections. The web Zuckerberg looks forward to is one in which the default is social and everyone is known by their real identity. One vast, united front that is “smarter” and more “personable.” On every page you click on you receive advertisements and recommendations tailored specifically to you, based on your web history as well as the history of your friends. Everything, yes everything, is inter-connected in Zuckerberg’s dream world.
And Zuckerberg’s philosophy, incarnate in Facebook, has been eaten up. Lauded as an advanced method of communication and sharing, Facebook’s climb to superstructure status has been more of an elevator ride than an upward haul. Over five million online users have adopted Facebook, and the number continues to rise. Zuckerberg’s philosophy is evidently invigorating, but not necessarily healthy. There has been an appalling silence in the space where a natural question should have been raised. Why? Why build our entire web structure on this idea of social sharing? Zuckerberg’s own answers are inadequate, even humorous: “Ultimately, just being able to map out all these things in one graph is just going to be really valuable for understanding what all these people and things are and what they’re doing.” “The idea is that people don’t exist in isolation. You are the set of things that you are connected with. It’s your real identity, and these are real connections that you have.”
Zuckerberg’s plan is paradoxical; his gentle words about community and sharing and social are misleading in the case of the virtual network. While Zuckerberg would have us believe that it is possible to foster true friendship via social networking, he fails to see that there is something fundamentally withheld in such a relationship. Zuckerberg wants the web to be used more personally. But social networking is depersonalized by nature, the most frequent messages are ones broadcast to the public, and screen communication is ever in competition with everything else that can, and does, pop up. On the web, relationships are less people and more objects you can choose to click on and play with when you like. Relationships on the web simply are not real; they are removed and only receive “life” from the user’s interest in them. Most people still agree that it is unhealthy to use the screen as the primary sphere of one’s relationships. Yet this is exactly what Zuckerberg’s philosophy encourages: the pouring of one’s whole life into an avatar. This is a disquieting thought, especially considering that these online communications cannot occur without abandonment, to some degree, of real-world relationships.
Zuckerberg’s words also falls short when we analyze how social networking functions, or fails to function, as a community. Social networking does indeed aid the flow of the web. But it clearly does not refine the quality of information that people share. Unlike a real and healthy community, Facebook demands neither service or sacrifice for the greater good, nor preparation for it. Technologies like Facebook center on self-interest, not genuine cooperation. In the context of community, Zuckerberg’s hope for more openness again falters. The true communal instinct fostered by social networking is found in the abnormal curiosity of users. As Sebastian Waisman noted, the whole success of online networking is due to one feature: “the ability to look at other users’ information without their knowledge— in other words, to spy. ” It is also troubling to compare social networking to a community because social networks contain practically none of the repercussions that offline life does. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg says that Facebook always tries to emphasize the utility component. Reasonable enough. The ease of having all one’s contacts in a big lump is undeniably attractive. But there is a grave discrepancy in Zuckerberg’s words. On one hand, he wants to build one big social community online, based on utility. On the other, he wants us all to have a more “meaningful” web experience. How does utility correlate with meaning? It seems more likely that, if Zuckerberg’s web comes around, both real life and the web will suffer as their roles become increasingly confused.
(To be continued…)
 Nicholas Carlson, “Zuck: Facebook’s Future is Not As a Web Site,” Business Insider, June 13, 2009. http://www.businessinsider.com/zuck-facebooks-future-is-not-as-a-web-site-2009-6. 10/22/2010.
 Sebastian Waisman, “The True Face of Digital Democracy,” The New Atlantis, Number 24, Spring 2009, pp. 89-93. http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-true-face-of-digital-democracy. 10/22/2010.