The Education of Mark Zuckerberg

The Facebook founder has discussed "community" more than 150 times in public. A close reading reveals his road map for the platform’s future.

Mark Zuckerberg inside a church
Mark Zuckerberg at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, this March  (Facebook)

There’s a story that Mark Zuckerberg has told dozens of times over the years. Shortly after he’d launched Facebook in February 2004, he went to get pizza with Kang-Xing Jin, a coder friend who would become a Facebook executive, at a place around the corner from his dorm.

In one telling, Zuckerberg says he was thinking, “this is great that we have this community that now people can connect within our little school, but clearly one day, someone is going to build this for the world.”

But there was no reason to expect that this kid and his group of friends would be the people who would build this for the world. “It hadn’t even crossed my mind,” he said in 2013. They were technically gifted, but as Zuckerberg tells it, they had basically no resources or experience at a time when there were already massive technology companies trying to create social networks from MySpace to Microsoft, Google to Yahoo.

Looking back, it’s also clear that they had no experience with community building, organizing, sociology, social work, or any other discipline that might have helped them understand the social forces they were unleashing, quantifying, amplifying, and warping. Mark Zuckerberg was just a kid eating pizza after writing some code.

13 years later, he wields unquestioned formal and informal control over a company that is now the battleground for elections as well as home to cultural discourse and basic family relationships.

That’s the crucial background for Mark Zuckerberg’s now-concluded tour of 30 American states, a photo-op-heavy barnstorm that has served, it seems, as a remedial education for Zuckerberg in what it means to be a normal person in America. Time and again, Zuckerberg has marveled at how people’s communities are enriched by their unions, churches, schools, and other civic institutions.

Most recently, for example, this was how he described his major takeaway from his travels at the concluding stop at the University of Kansas. “The thing that struck me everywhere I went—and I have stories from every state that I visited—was how central communities are to people,” he said.

You don’t say!

This level of naïveté sounds unbelievable until you remember that the only two states of adulthood the man has known are Harvard undergraduate and CEO of a company with unending funding and growth. His childhood was financially comfortable and individualistic in the way wealthy childhoods usually are. Where was he supposed to acquire an understanding of the ways that most places—middle-class, working-class, and poor—hold themselves together?

The tour has given Zuckerberg a new way of talking about his role at the company. “I think I started this year as an engineer, and now I’m wrapping it up thinking of myself as more of a community builder too,” Zuckerberg said in the Kansas interview.

This is a fascinating thing to say for a guy who opened up every conference call with his investors by talking about the enormous size of “the Facebook community.” Thirteen years and 2 billion people into this adventure, Zuckerberg is signaling that he’s evolving, with the implication that Facebook, as he built it, is not yet up to the task of undergirding real communities.

How are we to understand his professed new grasp of his company’s responsibility and goals relative to what went before? I used the University of Wisconsin’s database of Zuckerberg’s appearances and posts to pull every time he uttered the word “community” in public, from 2005 to today. There were more than 150 documents to pore over.

From this reading, it seems that there have been three periods of his conceptualization of community on Facebook. The first was simple: Facebook was a database of people, searchable and useful. The second was triumphalist. It began in 2011, but became dominant in 2014, marked by the open satisfaction about what connecting people on Facebook had accomplished. And then in 2016, a new darkness entered the way Zuckerberg conceived of both the world and the social network. Over the last 24 months, Facebook became a way of reversing the “inward” turn away from globalism and technological “progress” by strengthening people’s bonds on the social network.

This is the explanation for the tour. In 2017, we saw not a process of becoming, a CEO bildungsroman, but a way of rolling out a new narrative about what Facebook is supposed to do in the world. The world’s social fabric seems to be fraying at an accelerating pace, and while some people point to Facebook as a causal force in that unraveling, Mark Zuckerberg has come to the opposite conclusion over the last two years. In a dark time across the world, what the world needs is more Facebook.

He’s taking this as seriously as a CEO can. He even changed the company’s mission statement in June 2017. Facebook’s purpose is now “to give people the power to build community, to bring the world closer together.” Time and again, he’s said there is now a “road map” to guide the creation of new tools for a new Facebook. And if I’ve learned one thing following this company for 13 years, it is never (never ever) underestimate Facebook’s ability to engage human beings and rewire their connections with each other. Zuckerberg will build what he sees as community.

But what will that actually mean? We have to return to the company’s origins, because the new Facebook will be rebuilt inside the carcass of the old, and they will share blood.

* * *

Facebook began, Mark Zuckerberg said in spring 2005, with the goal of being “a mirror for the real community that existed in the real life.” It was, he said later that year, not a social network but “an online directory,” a utility that “people use in their daily lives to look people up and find information about people.” In other words, Facebook began as a database of human beings.

They refined this approach through the years, popularizing the name for the database: the social graph. People were nodes. The connections between them were lines. The social graph was a map of the world of human relationships from the perspective of a computer.

A visualization of a social graph by Rafiq Phillips (Rafiq Phillips)

Facebook’s value was the ability to process and provide access to the data contained in that graph. This data, though, was only valuable for a brief window. The social graph had to reflect the changing nature of the real world. Old data was bad data.

“It’s really easy to say that there’s all this information that Facebook has, or something like that,” Zuckerberg told NPR in July 2010. “But really, what Facebook is today is this engine and this community of people sharing a lot of information on a day-to-day basis.”

The “mirror” of Zuckerberg’s early imagination had turned into an engine: The people were the data that served as the fuel for running the engine, which was the software that engaged and grew what he invariably called “the Facebook community.”

The mission statement that supported this corporate philosophy was simple: Facebook existed “to make the world more open and connected.” It’s important to note that, from the perspective of the database, these two things are necessarily interrelated. For the social graph to be connected, people had to be open, which is to say “sharing.” Talking amongst themselves was how the connections in Facebook’s database were created.

As long as people kept “sharing things about their real lives,” as Zuckerberg put it in late 2011, the community would keep growing. “That’s how Facebook became the world’s biggest community online,” he wrote in a post.

This was always what made Facebook’s mission statement so powerful as an institutional tool. Both the soft, fuzzy people parts and the hard, corporate parts could be united under this banner, relying on the slipperiness of the term “connected.” It meant connecting parents with children, nodes with edges, advertisers with customers, people with Facebook. In Zuckerberg’s letter to investors from February 2012, ahead of the company’s IPO, he trumpeted the company’s ability to “align many people to solve important problems.”

As the company grew, so did its triumphalism. “The Facebook community has also shown us that simply through sharing and connecting, the world gets smaller and better,” wrote Zuckerberg and his lieutenant, COO Sheryl Sandberg, in May of 2012.

As Facebook began to trade on the public market, Zuckerberg continued to talk up the database of people as the key to its long-term growth potential. “One way that we think about Facebook is as if it’s this big community that’s producing this living database of all of this content and the stories of people’s lives,” Zuckerberg said in January 2013. “And, just like any database, you should be able to query it ... We imagine that every screen of the Facebook product is the result of some query that someone is doing to learn something about their network and the people around them.”

This was a powerful way of seeing the world. The messy world of relationships, the human world, could be brought into the realm of computation. In a call with investors in October 2013, Zuckerberg explained that his company was focused on “understanding the world.”

“Everyday people post billions of pieces of content and connections into the graph. In doing this, they are helping to build the clearest models of everything there is to know in the world,” he said.

* * *

But this was not the only way that Zuckerberg saw the Facebook community. Slowly, beginning in 2014, he began to use more human language to describe what was happening within Facebook. In his speeches, the triumphalism would oscillate from Facebook to users and back. You’ve done an amazing job.

In a post commemorating the 10th anniversary of its launch, he said he was amazed “how all of you have used our tools to build a real community.” Then he spelled out what he meant by that: “You’ve shared the happy moments and the painful ones. You’ve started new families, and kept spread-out families connected. You’ve created new services and built small businesses. You’ve helped each other in so many ways.”

As the year went on, he paired this new description of the tools and community building with a sustained expansion of the global ambition of Facebook. The February 2014 WhatsApp acquisition would accelerate Facebook’s progress “to build the infrastructure for global community.” He called on “a new global sense of community” in July. He went to New Delhi in October to talk about the inventions through history—telephone, printing press, television, radio, railways, automobiles—that “helped connect people.” And he called on the people of India to “embrace the internet” as one of these transformational technologies for building community through connection.

Facebook, he maintained, allowed politicians like India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi “to speak directly with the people they serve.” This was, he said, “very powerful in a way that can’t be twisted by intermediaries.” During this time, he did a series of “town halls” across the world so that he, too, could go direct to the people without the media coming between the CEO and cadres of hand-selected users of Facebook.

Zuckerberg was triumphant about the changes Facebook had wrought, calling the internet “a force for peace in the world.” Connecting people on Facebook was building a “common global community” with a “shared understanding.” He went to the UN and talked up what he and his pizza eaters had done.

Most surreally, given all that has happened since, Zuckerberg said he was proud of the way that Facebook was enabling political discourse that presented a wider array of political opinion than traditional media.

Even if the majority of people that you’re friends with have opinions that are similar to you, your network of friends and friends of friends—who you’ll hear from in your News Feed—is going to bring you more diverse opinions than you would have from any other type of media that you would have consumed,” Zuckerberg said in December 2014. “And I think that that’s a really important change in the world.”

* * *

Then, quite abruptly in the public record, Zuckerberg’s language changes completely. It began with the company review of its performance for analysts in January 2016. “Even as the world has tended toward greater openness over time, in many communities we also see greater fear over what a connected world and more technological progress means for them,” he said.

The triumphalism remained, albeit attenuated. He continued, “Addressing these concerns is essential for making progress on our mission, and we’re going to keep working to give people as much of a voice as we can, and advance the benefits of connectivity and bringing the world together.”

But by his April keynote to Facebook developers, he felt the need to lay out his principles in opposition to the rising tide of discontent. “We stand for connecting every person, for a global community, for bringing people together, for giving all people a voice, for free flow of ideas and culture across nations ...” he said. “But now, as I look around, and as I travel around the world, I’m starting to see people and nations turning inward. Against this idea of a connected world and a global community.”

This phrase, the global community, became a rhetorical device that Zuckerberg returned to again and again. In a June 2016 Facebook Live session (with Jerry Seinfeld), Zuckerberg laid out his grand theory of history and where Facebook fit in it.

“We’re at this next point in human civilization, where we have the next set of tools that we need, things like the internet, that can be this global communication infrastructure ... Just like we went from hunter-gatherers to villages and cities and then nations, I think we now need to come together as a global community,” he said. “Because a lot of the problems that you’re talking about, whether it’s terrorism or the refugee crisis or climate change or global diseases spreading around the world—these are not things that can be solved by any one city or one nation or one small group of people.”

As in the past, new technologies, political systems, and “written ways of doing things” could combine to “level up humanity.” This is why Zuckerberg has said that even though Facebook has 2 billion users, there are still billions of “people who are not doing what we need to yet.” No Facebook, no level up.

Then the 2016 American election happened, and Zuckerberg found himself in a defensive posture, having to explain why his “community” seemed to lubricate the spread of disinformation. Instead of taking the benefits of News Feed for granted, he had to defend the basic functioning of the platform as an information-distribution mechanism.

But when 2017 arrived, Zuckerberg immediately began talking about Facebook “building community.” In February, he wrote a massive post detailing his vision to “develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.”

We now know that sometime in late 2016, Mark Zuckerberg directed some new questions at his employees. The company had noticed that there was a special subset of Facebook users, about 100 million of them. These were people who had joined “meaningful communities” on the service, which he defined as groups that “quickly become the most important part of your social-network experience and an integral part of your real-world support structure.”

Though he never out-and-out said it, one imagines that once someone has integrated a Facebook community into their “real-world support structure,” they are far more likely to open the app and far less likely to ever leave. Again, he never said it, but it’s not hard to imagine that these people share more personally and more emotionally. They are probably recognizable in Facebook’s metrics.

By June 2017, at a “Communities Summit” for leaders/moderators of these communities, Zuckerberg was touting the groups. “I started asking this question to our team: If there are almost 2 billion people on Facebook, then how come we’ve only helped connect 100 million of them to meaningful communities?” he said. “Well, it turns out that in the physical world and online, most of us don’t seek out communities.”

So, Facebook would help them. “In six months, we’ve helped more than 50 percent more people join meaningful communities on Facebook than had joined them the whole history of the product before that,” he said. “And, you know, that was just doing some basic stuff. There’s a lot more to do here and we’re really excited about that. So, now, we’re going to set a goal. We want to help 1 billion people join meaningful communities.”

This marks the first mention of “meaningful communities” from Mark Zuckerberg. In the past, he’d talked about “our” community, “safe” community, and the “global” community, of course. But this was different. Meaning is not as easy to measure as what people click on (or at least most people don’t think it is).

The tour of all the states? That was just extended marketing and perhaps a good way to give Zuckerberg some anecdotes for his speeches. In Zuckerberg’s Harvard commencement speech in May of 2017, he pulled all his rhetorical strains together. People needed purpose, he said, “that sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we are needed, that we have something better ahead to work for.” Nowadays, the old sources of purpose—job, church, community—have all eroded. “Many people feel disconnected and depressed,” he said.

But the route to a “sense of purpose for everyone is by building community.” This community would be global because “the great arc of human history bends toward people coming together in ever greater numbers—from tribes to cities to nations—to achieve things we couldn’t on our own.”

And this is no sideline to the main course of history. This is what is happening right now on a global scale. “This is the struggle of our time. The forces of freedom, openness, and global community against the forces of authoritarianism, isolationism, and nationalism,” Zuckerberg said. “Forces for the flow of knowledge, trade, and immigration against those who would slow them down.”

But local communities had to be built back up and strengthened, if people were to be convinced to come together for global progress. “This isn’t going to be decided at the UN either,” he continued. “It’s going to happen at the local level, when enough of us feel a sense of purpose and stability in our own lives that we can open up and start caring about everyone.”

I do not think it is a stretch that “building community” is what has given Facebook, itself, new purpose after a depressing year of growing profits, rising share prices, but declining trust and respect from inside and outside the tech community. But Facebook does not trust what the world says. Facebook trusts what the world does, as that is reflected in the database of people.

“The philosophy of everything we do at Facebook is that our community can teach us what we need to do,” Zuckerberg said in late 2016. “Our real goal is to reflect what our community wants,” he said in the same appearance.

Amazingly, Zuckerberg seems to have concluded that what the community wants in these chaotic, polarized, economically precarious times is ... purpose. And so Facebook wants to give it to them.

“To keep our society moving forward, we have a generational challenge—to not only create new jobs, but create a renewed sense of purpose,” Zuckerberg said at the Harvard commencement.

We’ll never know what they saw in those 100 million people who were in “meaningful communities.” (We asked Facebook and did not receive a reply.) But we can say that it was powerful enough to pivot the whole company, hybridizing with Zuckerberg’s preexisting ideas about the global community and the database of people.

And now, with the same move fast, know little attitude, they’ve built a road map to give people community, meaning, and purpose. Why these guys? Why this company? Why Mark Zuckerberg?

“We were just college kids. We didn’t know anything about [connecting the whole world]. There were all these big technology companies with resources. I just assumed one of them would do it,” he said, retelling his Facebook-launch pizza story at Harvard’s commencement. “But this idea was so clear to us—that all people want to connect. So we just kept moving forward, day by day. I know a lot of you will have your own stories just like this: a change in the world that seems so clear you’re sure someone else will do it. But they won’t. You will.”

Purpose for everyone? I’m not sure anyone else will do that.

But Zuckerberg will try.