Reports That Mark Zuckerberg Wants Your Soul Are Greatly Exaggerated

Facebook, not content to be the receptacle of your selfies and meal pics, has decided to be the object of your soul. Or at least, that is what you would conclude if you judge by the reaction to Mark Zuckerberg’s speech last month at the 1st Facebook Communities Summit in Chicago, to an audience of Facebook group administrators, announcing new goals and some new features for Facebook’s Groups.

The article at FOXNews.com is typical, with the headline “Mark Zuckerberg: Facebook Can Fill the Role Played by Churches.” Apparently, this idea is taken from Zuckerberg’s line that “we all get meaning from our communities—and whether they are churches, or sports teams, or neighborhood groups, they give us the strength to expand our horizons and to care about broader issues,” along with his later referring to church pastors and Little League coaches as “great leaders.”

But responses like these miss that Facebook groups are not typically about Facebook. Actually, if you search Facebook groups for “Facebook” there don’t seem to be any Facebook groups that are literally about Facebook. Most of them are groups that merely have “Facebook” in their name, like “Opticians for Facebook,” “The Facebook Bird Misidentification Page” and the “CHURCH OF CHRIST FACEBOOK.” The only apparent exception—and I went through all of the few score results with which I was provided—was “Facebook Power Admins,” a group for administrators of Facebook groups that is only available to people invited by “Facebook HQ.”

And so what Zuckerberg means when he compares Facebook groups to church should be clear: it is much more accurate to say that he is referring to the literal building than to the object of the church, i.e. religion. It turns out that there are Facebook groups that are oriented toward the religions that many of these writers suggest Facebook is trying to replace.

What Zuckerberg is actually telling us is that the old way of life is coming to an end. The relations of society are largely determined by the means of production. It was the industrialization of society and the introduction of machines to the workplace that reduced the significance of physical strength and brought to women a kind of equality that wasn’t previously available. The availability of cars in America contributed to a mass migration after WWII. Today, GPS enables people to drive around without much of a specific idea of where they are.

And the internet helps people find communities to which they can belong. The fate church buildings face is the same fate faced by big box retailers and bookstores that are threatened by online retailers.

Zuckerberg’s most insightful comment has hardly been remarked on, and it further suggests that he doesn’t see Facebook groups as being about Facebook. He says, “as I’ve traveled around and seen a lot of different places, one theme has really stuck with me: every great community has great leaders.” What has received attention is that Zuckerburg then mentions as examples the leaders of churches and Little League teams.

But Zuckerberg himself may not recognize the relationship of great leaders to his vision for Facebook communities, since he tells his audience of group admins that they are such leaders. At one point, Zuckerberg notes that 100 million among the 2 billion Facebook users belong to “meaningful groups,” which he says are groups that “become the most important part of your social network experience and an integral part of your real world support structure.”

Personally, I’d say that I am one of the people that belongs to “meaningful groups” on Facebook, and I’d say that although I like some of the admins of these groups, they are not the great leaders that are actually responsible for their group’s existence. In my case, I belong to several groups that center around Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto psychology professor that has been on a very public pro-free speech campaign for the last year. He has a powerful message that reduces to something like, “sort yourself out; and if you don’t know where to start then clean your room!” that has drawn thousands of people into a community on Facebook. But, even though Peterson has pretty much nothing to do with these Facebook groups, he is nonetheless the great leader that has helped me to begin making friends with people all over the world.

So, a serious listening to Zuckerberg’s speech reveals that he does not see Facebook as a substitute for religion—rather he sees it as a substitute for literal buildings. Zuckerberg didn’t create the new rules—he is merely telling us about them. In many ways, our way of life will continue, except that now the internet will increasingly have to be considered part of real life.

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