Technology, AI and ethics.

The accidental cosmopolitanism of Facebook and the intellectual flaws behind Zuckerberg’s hope for a global community


The accidental cosmopolitanism of Facebook and the intellectual flaws behind Zuckerberg’s hope for a global community

by Roberto Simanowski

Remember the communist manifesto? Growing up in East-Germany I was reminded of it every day. Now another equally ambitious manifesto occupies my mind, one which approaches commonality not from a political-economic, but from a communicative perspective. Surprisingly, this new quasi-communist utopia failed to garner the attention it deserved given the fact that it was authored by one of the world’s most powerful people: Mark Zuckerberg’s “Building Global Community.”

But timing is everything, and this particular manifesto could not have appeared at a worse moment. In February 2017 the public mind was fully occupied with the political use or misuse of data accumulated and provided by companies such as Facebook. Since then the company has had to ward off criticism and anger, having been compelled to answer increasingly critical questions by US and EU lawmakers. Everybody wanted to know how Zuckerberg would improve Facebook as a tool of communication and nobody was interested in his plan to use Facebook to overcome the battle of cultures and the “clash of civilizations”. And yet, isn’t the plan Zuckerberg pursues so clever and promising that all the fuss about privacy issues and dubious data pales in comparison with the company’s true masterplan? Doesn’t one almost want to warn the West not to touch Facebook if it hopes to finally establish universal human rights?

Sure, Zuckerberg’s global Facebook community doesn’t really attempt to cut across cultural divides in that it allows individual users to set their own content policy and thus ‘protect’ themselves from that which they find offensive: “The idea is to give everyone in the community options for how they would like to set the content policy for themselves. Where is your line on nudity? On violence? On graphic content? On profanity? What you decide will be your personal settings. […] For those who don’t make a decision, the default will be whatever the majority of people in your region selected, like a referendum.” [1]

But supporting user autonomy rather than taking on the role of censor only sounds good in principle. The real question is whether Zuckerberg is undermining his own project of going beyond the historical progression “from tribes to cities to nations.” Does he not have a responsibility to elevate the process of mutually negotiating normative values, instead of allowing individuals to ensconce themselves in filter bubbles?

If it’s left up to the individual to choose from a spectrum of information on offer what best suits that individual, then consumer mentality is determining even the realm of communication. From a critical perspective, what Zuckerberg terms “self-governance” and the specialists in the IT industry call “customization” is actually hyperconsumerism.

What seems inconsistent on first glance, appears correct on the second. By treating human beings as biological entities and giving them the chance to decide for themselves, regardless of their cultural contexts, Zuckerberg allows individuals to set the filters of their communication without any group pressure. But on the third glance, this is precisely the problem.

This sort of “self-governance,” as Zuckerberg calls it, is often criticized as an instance of Western hegemony. In other cultures, the rights of the individual over those of the group are by no means as highly regarded as in the strongholds and catchment areas of the enlightenment. That Western individualism is not able to claim universality was demonstrated by the discussion about “Asian values” in the 1990s and the “Bangkok Declaration” of 1993, as a relativization of the UN Charter of Human Rights. Before the global community has even been defined, Zuckerberg organizes it according to inherently Western values and becomes entrapped, without realizing it, in the aporia with which the discourse of human rights has been struggling for decades.

If it’s left up to the individual to choose from a spectrum of information on offer what best suits that individual, then consumer mentality is determining even the realm of communication. From a critical perspective, what Zuckerberg terms “self-governance” and the specialists in the IT industry call “customization” is actually hyperconsumerism. [2] But no matter what term we use, the urgent question is whether a global community can really be created on the basis of the radical individualism that Facebook not only doesn’t correct, but actively encourages. To answer this we should consult the 1990s.

In 1995, the American political scientist Benjamin R. Barber published his book Jihad vs. McWorld, whose cover featured a woman in a burqa holding a can of Pepsi. That image was itself a thesis. People can drink Pepsi but otherwise remain connected to orthodox tradition. The globalization of Western products doesn’t automatically entail the universalization of Western values. Can this insight be applied to Facebook? Or is there a structural difference between the love of various cultures for fast food and small talk on a social-media platform? Could it be that a common interest in sensationalist and banal posts is in fact a better basis for a world community than a common weakness for saturated fats and sugar?

It was also in the 1990s that French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy put forward a concept of global community that would not be grounded in mutual characteristics like language, culture, religion, or nationality, which all bind by exclusion. Nancy’s global community would derive its sense from the “sharing of Being” as the “ecstasy of sharing.” [3] The author identifies in “chatter” what he calls “being-with” and emphasizes that even “insignificant remarks (‘hello,’ ‘hi,’ ‘good’ …)” that serve no other purpose than keeping the conversation alive, expose the urge to “be with”, to be in conversation, however “exhausted, emptied of signification.” [4]

Exhausted and emptied of signification: Nancy’s conception of community reads like a theoretical anticipation of the practice on Facebook. Connection for connection’s sake, “being with,” sharing and self-sustainment—is mere self-celebration in fact the best basis for a global community?

Facebook is both the practice complementing Nancy’s theory and the triumph of technology over culture, since it is technology that forges hundreds of millions of users from diverse cultures into a community, “our community,” as Zuckerberg likes to call it. But the triumph of technology can also be seen as an inadvertent trick of the West to get the whole world on its side without being accused of imperialism, reconfiguring it to conform to the model of the narcissistic, consumption-obsessed, entertainment-addicted superficial individual. Insofar as technology expresses the society that invents it, its spread always simultaneously entails the exporting of a culture. Telephones encourage dialogue, for instance, while microwave ovens help maintain the frenetic pace of modernity. If computer codes as well as laws determine our actions, then globalized software and hardware influence value systems all over the world.

Without spreading explicit propaganda, Facebook is bringing narcissism to all corners of the globe. In the same vein, the selfie stick is transforming every attraction into a bit of background for self-staging, and online dating has become popular even in those places where it isn’t a social necessity. “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” was the question Apple boss Steve Jobs used to hire away John Scully, the head of Pepsi. And whereas sugar and saturated fats merely reshape the bodies of individuals, Facebook’s fast food for the brain changes the corpus of society and may be capable of creating the basis of a global community that is actually based on nothing.

Advocates of Western culture don’t like adjectives like narcissistic, consumerist, or entertainment-addicted. Many theories that seek to rehabilitate Western culture try to reverse the cutting edge of such negative terms by celebrating the emptiness of the postmodern subject as freedom from ideological and religious hysteria. The egocentric, politically disinterested subject, defenders argue, is a guarantor of and not a threat to democracy because democracy is the basis for living a life of narcissism. In this view, egotism negates peer pressure, hedonism functions as a shield against ideology, and consumerism becomes pragmatic cosmopolitanism.

There are indeed good reasons to promote radical self-development without any religious or philosophical self-reflection or experience. The superficial individual, after all, is also one who is indifferent to questions of deeper meaning and collective narratives and takes no personal affront at opposing norms of behavior and values—to say nothing of mobilizing people for Jihad, if his or her faith is under assault. Twenty years before Zuckerberg’s manifesto on “global community,” the first advocates of the “digital nation” were described as tolerant and generous precisely because they were postpolitical and indifferent. [5] This individual no longer purports to possess the truth, let alone using it to make the world a better place. So does this mean that Zuckerberg is on the right track with his plan to transform the human race into a community of individuals beyond any political persuasion and cultural boundaries?

To think that would be to overlook the fact that late capitalist, neoliberal society so greatly releases the individual from traditional cultural and social ties that— depending on the individual’s economic situation and psychological constitution—he or she may also feel lost. In that case, people are less apt to attempt to network with the world in the abstract sense Zuckerberg describes than to seek the feeling of belonging Facebook offers directly with its group pages and indirectly with its filter algorithms. The result is new borders that are even stricter since in the realm of online communication, trolls and social bots relentlessly promote the “self” and attack the “other” with extreme vitriol.

But indifference should not be mistaken for tolerance. We tolerate when we endure difference, not when we merely ignore others. To strengthen the unbound “we” of humanity against the “we” of nations, cultures, and other forms of belonging, it’s not sufficient to free all the “Is” from their group constraints and release them into their own filter bubbles thanks to a “system of personal control over our experience” as the manifesto puts it. The utopia of universal understanding cannot be realized by excluding everything that threatens to draw borders. The global community presumes that it knows itself in all its facets and thus must restrict individuals’ freedom to decide about their own lives whenever that freedom butts up against knowledge about the lives of others.

The main objection to Zuckerberg is that he thinks he can solve a massively complex problem of universal human rights and global community with a technological quick fix—without any knowledge of the discussions concerning this issue or any reflection about whether technological answers are even suited to these questions.

Still, precisely because of its flaws Zuckerberg’s manifesto deserves more attention than it has received. If Zuckerberg were more interested in the problem for which he proposes Facebook as the solution, he might be able to develop thesis that would inspire the stagnant discussions of experts, making them revisit the topics of melting pots and multiculturalism, pluralism, and cosmopolitanism. Nancy’s concept of community is one starting point; the promise of a world community created by technology (and its programmers) is another. We need to ask: does the use of Facebook, as a practice that shapes culture and the McWorld of cyberspace, create a “cosmopolitanism from below” or “vernacular cosmopolitanism”, as the scholars of culture Arjun Appadurai and Homi K. Bhaba would call it? [6]

The main objection to Zuckerberg is not that he doesn’t have any better solution to the issue of global community than the experts in the multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism debate. It is not even that Facebook defines popularity via likes, shares, and visits, and thereby promotes dualistic thinking, numerical populism, and filter bubbles. Social networks, we must admit, are ultimately also victims of the technological environment whose logic of connection and calculation are imminent in the names of its two main components: the Internet and computers.

The main objection to Zuckerberg is that he thinks he can solve a massively complex problem of universal human rights and global community with a technological quick fix—without any knowledge of the discussions concerning this issue or any reflection about whether technological answers are even suited to these questions. The very first premise of Zuckerberg’s manifesto—that there was no controversy surrounding attempts to form a global community when Facebook started out—is utter nonsense. This might be the way the circle of engineers, with whom Zuckerberg surrounds himself, feels. But if he’d asked around outside his own filter bubble, he would have realized how heated the formation of a global community has been discussed since the late twentieth century.

Zuckerberg seems even entirely unaware of the people who—fifteen years ago, in an age when everything was still thought possible on the Internet—envisioned how cosmopolitanism would develop with respect to the web and prophesied that a common culture would grow out of our common use of technology. [7] In the mean time we know all too well that when we’re talking about the creation of a global community, merely linking people is not enough. The important questions are: how and to what end? [8]

Since the publication of his “Building Global Community” Zuckerberg has offered a “Blueprint for Content Governance and Enforcement”, where he seems to renew his intention to let people decide the content to which they want to expose themselves. In the same paper, and rather paradoxically, he declares “services must respect local content laws” and endorses “greater clarity on how local governments expect content moderation to work in their countries.” [9] Such move is only appropriate after the fake-news and hate-speech debate of the last two years and the response of governments, as for example the German, with a bill that enforces national law on Facebook.

However, doesn’t this cooperation with national stakeholders compromise the very liberation of individuals from the rules of their regional cultural environment which the manifesto prioritized? Is this the end of the endeavor to build a global community with modern communication technology, cunningly engineered by powerful technicians such as Zuckerberg? We may, for a moment, wonder whether we should have given Zuckerberg and his team more support in their attempts to overcome the battle of cultures and pressed less on Facebook’s culture of communication. But then: Should we really?

  • [1]

    Mark Zuckerberg, “Building Global Community,” Facebook post, Feb. 17, 2017,

  • [2]

    Gilles Lipovetsky: Hypermodern Times, Cambridge, UK 2005.

  • [3]

    Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, trans. Robert Richardson and Anne O’Byrne (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 2 (sharing), and Nancy, The Inoperative Community, trans. Peter Connor et al. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 25 (ecstasy).

  • [4]

    Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, 87.

  • [5]

    Jon Katz, “Birth of a Digital Nation,” Wired, April 5, 1997,

  • [6]

    On “cosmopolitanism from below,” see Arjun Appadurai, The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition (New York: Verso, 2013), 198, and Homi K. Bhaba, “Unsatisfied: Notes on Vernacular Cosmopolitanism,” Text and Nation, ed. Laura Garcia-Morena and Peter C. Pfeiffer (London: Camden House, 1996), 191–207.

  • [7]

    Mark Poster, “Digital Networks and Citizenship,” PMLA 117, no. 1 (Jan. 2002): 98–103.

  • [8]

    Ethan Zuckerman, Digital Cosmopolitans: Why We Think the Internet Connects Us, Why It Doesn’t, and How to Rewire It, New York: W. W. Norton, 2013.

  • [9]

    Mark Zuckerberg, “A Blueprint for Content Governance and Enforcement”, Facebook post, Nov. 15, 2018,

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Roberto Simanowski

Roberto Simanowski is a scholar of media and cultural studies and holds a Ph.D. in literary studies and a Venia Legendi in media studies. He is the founder and editor of the journal on digital culture and aesthetics (1999-2014) and the author of several books on digital culture and politics, including Digital Art and Meaning (University of Minnesota Press 2011) Data Love and Facebook Society (both Columbia University Press 2016 and 2018), Digital Humanities and Digital Media: Conversations on Politics, Culture, Aesthetics and Literacy (Open Humanities Press 2016) as well as Waste: A New Media Primer and The Death Algorithm and Other Digital Dilemmas (both MIT Press 2018). Roberto worked as professor of German Studies at Brown University and as professor of Digital Media Studies and Digital Humanities at the University of Basel and at City University of Hong Kong. He lives as media consultant, op-ed contributor (to Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Die Zeit, Salon, Deutschlandfunk Kultur, among others) and author in Berlin and Rio de Janeiro.

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