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Each week David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week’s blog post looks at Mark Zuckerberg’s recent online ‘manifesto’.

A couple of weeks ago, Mark Zuckerberg posted a manifesto on his Facebook page. In it, he addressed some of the challenges he sees facing Facebook and its peers.

Facebook insists the manifesto is his own work, not corporate PR. Responses to it varied. Admirers of Facebook praised him for confronting some less comfortable questions about the Internet’s relationship with our societies. Detractors called it self-interested, a public relations exercise, a media land grab, grandiose and ‘sprawling’. Some even suggested he was eyeing up a future US presidential bid.

My view: it’s an interesting and significant contribution to debates we should be having about where the Internet is going and what that means for us. Interesting because thought’s gone into it, and because it responds to concerns about the Internet’s trajectory that are increasingly widespread. Significant because of where it comes from and what it says about Facebook’s understanding of the Internet. (And it isn’t ‘sprawling’; it’s actually well-structured and well-written.)

This week, I’ll start with a brief summary, suggest why I think it has been written, and say something about why I think it matters (and why you should read it). Next week, a critique.

A summary

Zuckerberg’s manifesto starts with the question ‘Are we building the world we all want?’ Facebook, he says, ‘stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community’ of the kind needed to do so – that is, to maximize the advantages of globalisation and mitigate its risks.

He’s not shy in asserting Facebook’s importance. ‘In times like these,’ he says, ‘the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.’ Five words describe the kind of ‘community’ (or ‘communities’) he has in mind: ‘supportive’, ‘safe’, ‘informed’, civically-engaged’, ‘inclusive’. They’re words with which most Internet insiders, and outsiders, would agree.

Some of the issues that arise from this are obvious. We don’t all want the same world, or agree on what ‘a global community that works for all of us’ would be. People want local as well as global communities. Online and offline networks can conflict with one another, rather than cohere. Facebook is not representative of the world community. Above all, no-one other than Facebook has given it a role to develop social infrastructure. It is a business, not a social service.

Each of Zuckerberg’s five key words is given its own section in the text. What’s said about them is interesting, reflective, at times contentious and oriented towards Facebook’s future role. It recognises that there are problems with the Internet but it assumes that answers lie in more/better Internet, more/better technology (notably including artificial intelligence) and more/better Facebook.

I’ll critique these content issues next week. This week, I’m concerned with why the manifesto was written and why it matters.

Why was it written?

Why was this written/published now? I’d suggest two reasons, closely interlinked.

First, because we’ve reached a tipping point in public perceptions of Big Internet. To date, Facebook and its peers have enthused their users by seeming fresh and new: offering services that are different, free, exciting in comparison with traditional media. They’ve projected themselves as upstart businesses, committed to the values of their users (while leveraging users’ data to unlock commercial value).

Now, I think, for many users that’s no longer true. We’ve grown accustomed to the services that are offered by Big Internet. Those services are no longer new to us, but basic. We’ve started seeing companies like Google and Facebook not as upstarts but as part of the establishment. Mainstream commentary about them has become more critical – of their use of user data, their market dominance, their attitudes to online content, their tax practices.

We’re starting, in short, to think of the services that Big Internet provides – search, social networking, etc. – as utilities rather than as novelties.

Second, because that tipping point requires a shift in the positioning of companies like Facebook if they’re to retain public endorsement/reputation.

Facebook’s success has been built on its ability to spot opportunities and changes in its users’ attitudes and preferences. Its founding idea of an online social network met an unmet and unrealised demand. Its refreshment of that model and absorption of potential competitors have helped it retain market dominance.

Zuckerberg’s manifesto, I think, recognises that the public mood has changed and seeks to get ahead of the game in the same way that he did when Facebook first captured the public imagination.

It admits that there are problems with the Internet, but asserts that the Internet offers solutions to those problems (in partnership with others). It identifies Facebook with community-building and social infrastructure in order to build reputational value. It links Facebook’s commercial interest with wider social goals which it believes will have resonance with users and (as importantly) with governments that have become much warier of Big Internet than they used to be (and may be wondering how to regulate it).

Why this matters?

I should say here that I’m not a Facebook fan. It’s not my way of social networking. I’m not attracted by its advertising focus, and I think that its degree of market dominance is problematic. But I’m not against it, either. It’s been successful because it offers people things they want and value, and it’s been innovative in just the way that Internet pioneers said online businesses should be.

Like its peers (Google, Amazon, etc.), it’s a phenomenon of the commercial Internet, and will be central to the Internet’s development over the next ten years. Decisions that are taken within its boardroom are important not just to the development of online services but to underlying changes in the ways that we will live our lives in future. That’s why Facebook’s thinking (or the thinking of its CEO) should matter to us, and why we should read his manifesto.

Is it to be welcomed?

I’ve argued in earlier posts that we need to rethink our attitudes towards the Internet and where it’s going. In particular, that we can’t expect governance arrangements and public service principles that were developed in the Internet’s earlier days to be sufficient for today’s global, commercial Internet. And that we have the right and the responsibility to shape the Internet rather than allow it to shape the future of our economies, societies and cultures.

Too much discussion about the future of the Internet’s been polarised, looking for perfect answers rather than addressing the messy complexity of conflicting goals and values. Zuckerberg’s manifesto is more reflective and nuanced than most contributions to that debate have been, particularly from within the Internet community. Of course it reflects Facebook’s commercial priorities, but that perspective is crucially important, and doesn’t prevent it also reflecting public policy priorities.

If we want the Internet to move forward, we need its most powerful figures to think more deeply than they have been doing about its future. We should welcome interventions such as this, whether we agree with them or not, because they help to move discussion forward.

Next week, I’ll comment on some of the ideas in Mark Zuckerberg’s manifesto .

Image: Mark Zuckerberg, Wikimedia Commons

More about David Souter here.