Social Media Can’t Replace Social Infrastructure

Social Media Can’t Replace Social Infrastructure

Social Media Can’t Replace Social Infrastructure

The library, not Facebook, is the primary institution promoting literacy and providing Internet access to those who have no other way to get online.


Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg posted an open letter on the site in February 2017, addressed to “our community.” Within a few sentences he asked Facebook’s two billion or so users a straightforward question: “Are we building the world we all want?” The answer was self-evident.

If there’s a core to Zuckerberg’s worldview, it’s that human beings make progress when we break down social and geographic divisions and form larger, more expansive moral communities. “History is the story of how we’ve learned to come together in ever greater numbers—from tribes to cities to nations,” he wrote. “At each step, we built social infrastructure like communities, media, and governments to empower us to achieve things we couldn’t on our own.”

As CEO of one of the world’s most profitable and fastest-growing corporations, Zuckerberg is cautious about making explicitly partisan statements. But during the 2016 US presidential-election campaign, he denounced the “fearful voices calling for building walls and distancing people they label as others”; a few weeks before posting his letter, he condemned Donald Trump’s executive order to ban immigrants from selected Middle Eastern nations: “We should…keep our doors open to refugees and those who need help. That’s who we are.” Zuckerberg’s letter, released during his public conflict with the new president, was meant to be Facebook’s new mission statement as well as its blueprint for how to rebuild society in a potentially authoritarian age.

“In times like these, 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,” he wrote. Facebook, as Zuckerberg sees it, is uniquely capable of bridging social divisions. He recognizes that, where they remain popular, churches, sports teams, unions, and other civic groups deliver the social benefits that he wants Facebook to generate: “They provide all of us with a sense of purpose and hope; moral validation that we are needed and part of something bigger than ourselves; comfort that we are not alone and a community is looking out for us; mentorship, guidance, and personal development; a safety net; values, cultural norms, and accountability; social gatherings, rituals, and a way to meet new people; and a way to pass time.”

‘Strengthen our social fabric’

Yet he also argued that, in dark times marked by the “striking decline” of group membership since the 1970s, “online communities are a bright spot.” Zuckerberg wrote that Facebook’s focus would “be developing the social infrastructure for community—for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all.”

Zuckerberg’s promise was that his team would develop better algorithms for predicting which kinds of Facebook communities would “help connect one billion people with meaningful communities that can strengthen our social fabric.”

He told readers how Facebook’s social infrastructure would promote health and safety by getting people to do more things online and using artificial intelligence to “help our community identify problems before they happen.” Facebook, he wrote, has “built infrastructure to show Amber Alerts” and “work with public safety organizations,” and created Safety Check “so we can all let our friends know we’re safe and check on friends who might be affected by an attack or natural disaster.”

He claimed he wanted to reinvigorate democracy, and sees Facebook as a tool for helping people vote, speak out, and organize; he sees it creating new ways for people around the world to participate in collective governance, achieve openness, transparency, and, more ambitiously, a renewed commitment to the common good. His rhetoric was grandiose, but his vision of social infrastructure flimsy. For Silicon Valley tech companies, keeping people on their screens rather than in face-to-face interaction is a key priority. The human connections we need to escape danger, establish trust, and rebuild society require recurrent social interaction in physical places, not pokes and likes with “friends” online.

A community in the Bay Area in Northern California has suffered devastating losses since Facebook and other big tech companies set up shop there: Poor, working-class, and middle-class residents have been priced and crowded out. Gentrification hardly seems a strong enough word to describe what’s happened during the tech boom.

Gardens and juice bars

For all their emphasis on software engineering, companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple appreciate the value of real social infrastructure: the places that shape our interactions. Their campuses have verdant gardens, juice bars and restaurants, athletics fields and exercise facilities, hair salons, day-care centers, theaters, libraries, and ample space for social gatherings indoors and out. This is private social infrastructure for the pleasure and convenience of first-tier staff members whose color-coded badges grant them access but, crucially, not for the low-level temps and contractors who cook and clean in the same organization, nor for neighboring residents or visitors. This expensive, carefully designed social infrastructure works so well for high-level tech employees that they have little reason to patronize small local businesses (coffee shops, gyms, etc.) that might benefit far more from the presence of a large employer.

Residents of East Menlo Park ask why the city should approve Facebook’s expansion without securing funds to renovate its dilapidated schools, parks, and fields. How will Facebook mitigate the traffic and pollution certain to increase as thousands more employees come into the area? What can it do to make sure that its plans are good for the community and not just the company, and does it really care?

The biggest daily impact of living close to corporations like Facebook is being stuck in traffic, often behind the private buses that shuttle workers to and from campus. The buses, perhaps more than Facebook’s logo, have become the most potent symbol of what tech leaders are doing all over the Bay Area: building private social infrastructure that helps their companies prosper on top of public infrastructure that urgently needs repair.

It’s not surprising that Silicon Valley titans are so intent on persuading the public that what they do to advance their corporate interests is meant to make the world more peaceful, just, and humane. The executives who run oil, finance, and automobile companies have said the same things for decades. But at this point, we all know what the game is, and it’s insulting to be told that each new revenue-generating Facebook product is on offer because the company wants society to flourish.

Zuckerberg’s letter acknowledged urgent contemporary problems—from isolation and polarization to runaway inequality in health, education, and the capacity to deal with climate change—many of them visible in Silicon Valley’s backyard. It’s naive to claim that better algorithms and meaningful Facebook community groups will help make any real advances on these issues. Despite—or maybe because of—people spending so much time on the Internet, we need places where people can come together, participate in civil society, and build stronger social bonds.

Who now supports libraries?

Zuckerberg and other 21st-century corporate leaders don’t bear individual responsibility for the sorry state of our social infrastructure. But it’s worth noting that in history, when a few business leaders made enormous fortunes while much of society struggled to satisfy basic human needs, great philanthropists used a fraction of their wealth and power to build places that created opportunities for everyone and didn’t double as profit-seeking ventures.

The railway and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie was a robber baron who allowed managers to hire armed Pinkerton detectives and violently suppress unionized workers, and he lobbied fiercely against income tax and other government efforts to address inequality. Entrepreneurs have amassed vast fortunes in the new information economy, and yet no one has come close to doing what Carnegie did between 1883 and 1929: funding the construction of 2,811 lending libraries, 1,679 of them in the US.

Today’s philanthropists, particularly those in tech, pursue with passion projects with goals such as space colonization and immortality. Many of these initiatives seem motivated by hubris and narcissism. Few corporate leaders from the information economy, including those in technology and finance, have supported the library, the primary institution promoting literacy and providing Internet access to those who have no other way to get online.

In libraries, ordinary people with different backgrounds and interests can take part in a living democratic culture. Political leaders driven by the logic of the market have proclaimed for decades that institutions like the library don’t work any longer, that we’d be better off investing in new technologies. So libraries have been starved of resources. They’ve downsized staff, cutting back on librarians. They’ve decreased the budget for new books, periodicals, and films. They’ve reduced their hours and days despite rising attendance and circulation, leaving those with weekday obligations like work and school with fewer opportunities. A century ago, most US branch libraries were open seven days a week; today, most are closed on Sundays, the popular days for immigrants, blue-collar workers, and families.

In most US municipalities, neighborhood libraries are in old, worn facilities. In San Jose, just down the road from Facebook, Google, and Apple, the public-library budget is so tight that users with overdue fees above $10 are banned from borrowing books or using computers. When fees reach $50, the library sends the case to a debt-collection agency.

Vital gathering places

Bookstores, large and small, have always been more than just retailers. For centuries they’ve served as vital gathering places where we can reliably find other people who love good stories and new ideas, as well as shop owners or staff who delight in helping patrons. They often provide special programs for children and families, sponsor reading groups for adults, host author lectures and signings, and get involved in civic affairs.

There are now cheaper and more efficient ways to buy books (and everything else) and, as more people choose online vendors over real-space establishments, bookshops close and social infrastructure disappears. In 2016 Barnes & Noble, facing a steep rent increase, announced that it would close its Baychester Avenue, Bronx, operation in New York City, to be replaced by a Saks Off 5th discount outlet. This deprived 1.5 million people of a piece of social infrastructure the community had enjoyed for as long as anyone can remember.

For US communities without grocery shops, Amazon and FreshDirect will deliver by online order. For communities without enough convenience stores, two former Google employees have created Bodegas, vending machines stocked to meet local demand and programmed so that customers can purchase with a smartphone. Paul McDonald, one of the founders, claimed, “Eventually, centralized shopping locations won’t be necessary because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you.” This proposal offended Latinos (“bodega” is a borrowed Spanish word and concept) and threatened ethnic entrepreneurs with “disruption”; it also sparked backlash across the US because most people enjoy living near a small shop run by human beings, who can interact socially, or just smile and hand over our change when we’re in a hurry.

As our unending interactions with screens threaten to overwhelm the moments we share with real people, communities everywhere are frustrated with the limits of life online and have a new appreciation for the physical places where they can gather.

Based on Palaces For the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life (Penguin Random House, 2018).

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