What does it mean to lead a global community?
One in four people on the planet uses Facebook. Its founder Mark Zuckerberg published a manifesto in February 2017 on how he sees his company leading the development of a ‘global community’.
Building on shared values, this community will mobilise to take collective action on global challenges which existing organisations cannot – or will not – tackle. In the process, Facebook can be used as a tool for developing our offline relationships, giving us all a stronger sense of community. Sounds good.
But as Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari points out in his Financial Times article on the Zuckerberg manifesto, the whole design and ethos of Facebook runs counter to both ‘community’ aims.
Harari draws our attention to the fact that, for all its words, Facebook is a corporation with metrics of profit and loss, shareholders, and a business model geared around selling targeted advertising. It is therefore unlikely to compromise on the priority of making money for social good. (In fact, there is no global consensus on what values promote ‘good’ in society. Were Facebook to set out those ‘values’, it risks rejecting users and being supressed by governments.)
Facebook has achieved some of its success through keeping people online. Like other similarly-designed tech products, it gives us small bursts of stimulation by frequently presenting novel information. Our brains get a reward out of this, so we keep on clicking, scrolling, sharing, liking.
This is the mechanism of addiction, like a drug. No wonder Zuckerberg’s manifesto encourages us to use Facebook to share things we enjoy. Harari calls this a ‘disembodied’ activity: it all still takes place online.
The result is an over-activation of our neurobiological ‘drive’ system: always seeking, never content. We lose the ability to be ‘present’, to be mindful, to enjoy the moment.
But Harari’s critique does not go far enough.
The side effects of this compulsive and unfocused tech use – particularly with social media – are bad. Seriously bad.
We often browse compulsively for fear of missing out – a kind of anxiety common among Millenials. When we find something that we might have missed out on, we zero in to see what happened. Carefully-curated profiles generate envy of others’ lives, making us less satisfied with our own. This negative self-comparison typically leads to lowered mood and reduced self-esteem.-
It also produces the phenomenon of ‘lost time’, where people browsing Facebook or Twitter and other social media sites slavishly follow links and suggestions without purpose or focus, only to realise an hour later that they hadn’t intended to spend so much time…
We acquire hundreds, even thousands of friends or followers, yet social psychology research tells us we still cannot really know more than about 150 people – we simply don’t have the time or brainpower for meaningful interaction beyond that. And if we can’t meet people offline, relationships decay and ultimately perish.
Furthermore, online contact is a poor substitute for the real thing. Our brains are programmed to respond favourably to social bonding, through intimacy, trust, physical contact. This is the ‘soothing’ system, fuelled by opiates and oxytocin: brain chemicals that make us feel safe and content.
Isolated, ‘disembodied’ activity online is the opposite of this. Deliberately drive-focused tech leaves us emotionally worse off. Evidence suggests it can reduce our empathy – the ability to understand another person’s emotional state and respond to it appropriately.
A summer camp experiment in 2014 found that a group of kids who didn’t use any screens were better at recognising human emotions than a group using screens whenever they liked – after just a week. Why? They were actually interacting with each other, communicating and sharing, using their bodies, in real life.
Scarier still is the evidence of detrimental self-focus. Recently psychology studies have found that social media use – particularly taking and posting selfies – can actually increase narcissism, and make us behave differently offline because we’re anticipating how the encounter will be represented online. Life imitating art, in a really unhelpful way.
By contrast, sharing activities with real people offline has huge benefits. We learn more effectively when we share something with other people. We get the pleasure of social connection and activity. We’re more likely to notice what’s around us, pay attention to our experience and enjoy it. And we get the chance to give something to others. Guess what? These are the five most reliable ways to generate wellbeing.
What we need is tech that helps us not just to meet up, but to do things that are important to us, with each other. As tech philosopher Tristan Harris puts it, using tech to spend our time ‘well’. This is Digital Humanism: helping ourselves and our communities to grow and flourish, providing spaces for creativity and serendipity.
It isn’t impossible that Facebook could lead a global movement of human flourishing and wellbeing. As Harari notes, industries like medicine and recycling have achieved some balance between profit and wider social benefit. But it could be a long time before Facebook’s board of directors agrees what that model looks like.
In the meantime, let’s use the apps and technology that already exist to help us live better by getting together. Or build new ones, without waiting for Facebook.
Feeling sociable or want to say hi? Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
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