Dear Mr Zuckerberg:
I read with great interest your post Monday on Facebook celebrating 15 years of helping people connect with others through a series of frames on a blue background.
Let me add my name to the list of those who are impressed with what you have built. Driven by a set of ideals and some clever code, you steadily built a money machine that has also accumulated remarkable influence around the world.
I urge people to consider these numbers when pondering the power of Facebook: 2.3 billion users writing in more than 100 languages; almost $17bn in revenue in just the fourth quarter of 2018; almost $59bn in revenue for all of 2018; a market capitalization of $484bn in January 2019. You built all of this in a mere 15 years. Those are stunning numbers, and they speak to the talents of you and your employees.
That’s why I’m struck by your Facebook post. You seem not to acknowledge how much power you have accumulated, nor the extent to which you represent a club of billionaires and companies that have steadily concentrated their power over the past 50 years, with a steady acceleration of that concentration over the past 15 years.
Your post not only ignores your power, it denies it. You repeat a myth that used to flow as truth and wisdom back in 2003 when you dropped out of Harvard to pursue your dream. Back then you had no reason to disbelieve the idea that networks of powerless people could forge bonds through social media and threaten entrenched authorities. By 2019, you should know better than to still believe this nonsense.
“Much of people’s experience in the past was defined by large hierarchical institutions – governments, mass media, universities, religious organizations – that provided stability but were often remote and inaccessible,” you write. “If you wanted to progress, you worked your way up the ladder slowly. If you wanted to start something new or spread a new idea, it was harder without the blessing of these institutions. Our current century is defined more by networks of people who have the freedom to interact with whom they want and the ability to easily share ideas and experiences.”
You do realize that you run one of those hulking institutions, right? Your company hosts “networks of people” but they interact on your terms, managed by your rules and algorithms. Your company also employs powerful lobbyists, retired politicians, and former journalists to execute your will in Washington, Brussels, New Delhi, Brasilia, Canberra, Ottawa, Dublin and London. Your staff actively helped nationalist leaders like Donald Trump, Narendra Modi and Rodrigo Duterte assume power.
Perhaps the most puzzling of your assertions is this: “As networks of people replace traditional hierarchies and reshape many institutions in our society – from government to business to media to communities and more – there is a tendency of some people to lament this change, to overly emphasize the negative, and in some cases to go so far as saying the shift to empowering people in the ways the internet and these networks do is mostly harmful to society and democracy.”
This is a dishonest and ahistorical statement. “Networks of people” haven’t replaced “traditional hierarchies”. Ask Osama bin Laden how diffuse networks are doing against entrenched centers of power. Oh, yeah. You can’t. Instead, perhaps ask the networks of people fleeing Western Myanmar to refugee camps in Bangladesh because “traditional hierarchies” – Myanmar’s Buddhist clerisy and the military junta – declared a campaign of genocide against them using the very features of Facebook that you claim have liberated the world.
What we lament is the demonstrated anti-democratic, inhumane, hateful, and violent forces hijacking your service and doing great damage to the world. The problem is Facebook, not “the internet”.
By turning the focus away from Facebook to “the internet” you try to fool us into conflating the two. The fact is that the structure and function of Facebook is antithetic to the ideology of the internet. The internet is open, configurable, distributed, and based on open code. Facebook is nothing of the sort. No one who, like me, championed the values of the Internet back before Facebook ruined everything, can be fooled by your rhetorical trick.
So once again, congratulations on becoming rich and powerful. To do that while remaining so clueless about how the world works is an astounding feat. If Facebook really does aim to to make humanity better informed and more aware of itself, there may still be some work left. May I suggest some books? They don’t have targeted ads in them. But they deliver a lot of knowledge in an efficient and resilient technological system.
Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and the author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2018).