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What Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg Gets Wrong—and Right—about Community

“People have such a thirst for understanding what’s going on around them in their community.” —Mark Zuckerberg

You just posted on Facebook.

You felt compelled to do so, because it wouldn’t be right to say nothing. Something about the truth of a situation as you see it.

Cue the cascade of comments. They pile under your post. The top right corner of your screen reddens with notifications.

Friends you knew in high school are commenting too. You haven’t talked to them in months, years even.

One, two of them unfriend you and block you forever.

So much for dialogue. Given the rise of identity politics, online vitriol, and tension in relationships, you’re beginning to think conversation has become an ideal; listening is such a fine art that it deserves anoxic protection in a museum.

Maybe it’s just like Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry said: America’s coming apart. Community is breaking down. And under your breath, you curse the Harvard brain that built this “social” machine.

Thanks, Mark Zuckerberg.

But the Zuck, too, knows there’s a problem.

Believe it or not, Facebook’s founder also sees a great problem with community. In fact, his diagnosis is so good it’s worth reading.

Here’s the full quote:

Right now, if you survey people broadly…there’s a declining sense of hope for the future.… I think a lot of people believe this is primarily economic…but I actually believe that a bigger part than people think is about community, and having the social infrastructure that you need to be part of these different organizations. I mean think about it, forever there have been these physical communities, whether churches, or sports teams, that all provide some pretty similar social functionality to people in them. They give you a sense of purpose when you’re participating and a sense of hope; they help you feel like you’re participating in something that’s bigger than yourself; they imbue a sense of values and help you to stay accountable to become a better person; they tend to provide you with a sense of mentorship and personal development; they give you a way to meet new people in your community and a way to pass your time that’s valuable, among other things; they help you with a safety net. And there’s this interesting turn where there’s been a decline of these in the past 30 years in the U.S.

The great sociologist Robert Nisbet diagnosed the same problem more than sixty years ago. He wrote in The Quest for Community that

to observe the frantic efforts of millions of individuals to find some kind of security of mind is to open our eyes to the perplexities and frustrations that have emerged from the widening gulf between the individual and those social relationships within which goals and purposes take on meaning.

Facebook’s core mission, Zuckerberg says, is to build human connection and community, and thereby address those needs.

Did you wince a little bit? OK, I did too.

It’s doubtful that algorithms showing only what you want to see are conducive to building genuine communities, which necessarily depend on flesh-and-blood human beings from different backgrounds and perspectives. What Zuckerberg gets right, though, is his diagnosis. Community is vital to providing people with a sense of purpose, fulfillment, values, mentorship, and safety.

The breakdown of community is a common subject of conversation at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. We have been following its trajectory in academia for years. As right-leaning, conservative-thinking scholars, professors, and students have been edged out of the faculty lounge, the classroom, and the allegedly peer-reviewed journal, we have been creating and cultivating an intellectual home where students and faculty, conservative or not, can share their thoughts and debate ideas without the fear of losing tenure, of being shamed, or being silenced.

It’s a community where anyone, as one student put it, can “debate in good faith.”

The two most common words we hear about the Intercollegiate Studies Institute are ideas and people. The ideas bring us together, the quality of the people keeps us together. Through ideas we find common interests, pursuits, and purpose. Through the people we find mentorship, fulfillment, and a safe haven where ideas and people are respected.

We’re far less interested in identity politics and more interested in relationships, in knowing people and appreciating them based on their intellect and character. As a result, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute continues to foster a community of thinkers and doers, men and women who want to understand and better their worlds, and who trust that their companions aspire to do the same.

In a time when distrust and malignance seem to be the default setting, our country could use some of that good faith.

Joseph Cunningham is digital media editor at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Complement with a brief summary of the work of Robert Nisbet, Wilhelm Röpke on why the economy isn't everything, and Gregory Wolfe on why conservatives need to beware of politicizing culture

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