When Facebookfiled to go public in early 2012, Mark Zuckerberg noted that the social network wasn’t originally designed to be a company. “It was built to accomplish a social mission — to make the world more open and connected,” Zuckerberg wrote in Facebook’s S-1 filing, presenting the business as an engine supporting this goal.
Now, five years later, the social network’s CEO still believes Facebook’s primary purpose is a social one, but he’s ready to update this mission for the first time. At at time when Facebook has come under scrutiny for not adequately curbing the spread of false news and extremist activity on the social network, Zuckerberg is committing to making the world closer. On stage on Thursday at Facebook’s first Community Summit, a gathering in Chicago of leaders from 120 different Facebook Groups, Zuckerberg unveiled Facebook’s updated purpose: “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”
Facebook’s new mission, Zuckerberg said in an interview at the company’s Menlo Park, California headquarters last week, doesn’t mean that the company is shifting away from connecting friends and family, but rather, that it’s broadening its focus to enabling people to connect with meaningful communities, too. Why do these communities matter, Zuckerberg’s case goes? They help users find common ground, which helps people engage with new perspectives and become aware of different issues. Groups also offer individuals personal support, which gives them bandwidth to look outward and address the biggest human problems, like climate change and global health issues. Being exposed to common information and ideas isn’t enough to bring individuals together, the thesis continues – they need to identify with people who seem different from themselves to adopt new perspectives.
“For 10 years, we focused on doing everything around connecting people with their friends and family,” Zuckerberg said. “Now I think that there is a whole lot of similar work to be done around communities: Meeting new people, getting exposed to new perspectives, making it so that the communities that you join online can translate to the physical world, too.”
Zuckerberg described the new mission as an extension of Facebook’s original mantra, as opposed to an entirely new direction, and a focus that will guide the company over the next decade. The new mission is intended to reflect that Facebook’s responsibility has “expanded,” Zuckerberg said.
“We’ve been thinking about what our responsibility is in the world,” Zuckerberg said in an interview. “Connecting friends and family has been pretty positive, but I think there is just this collective feeling that we have a responsibility to do more than that and also help build communities and help people get exposed to new perspectives and meet new people – not just give people a voice, but also help build common ground so people can actually move forward together.”
A Decline In Community
The new mission was inspired by a shift that Zuckerberg said has become more pronounced over the past few years. When Facebook started, the idea of connecting the world wasn’t controversial. But increasingly, some movements in the world work against globalization, whether the exchange of policies, goods or ideas, and prevent the globe from coming together. Simultaneously, Zuckerberg noted, participation in communities has been declining around the world, in some places by as much as one quarter.
The decline in community activity is concerning, Zuckerberg noted, because while people can get personal and economic support from families and governments, people’s needs have historically also been filled by participating in other networks, revolving around everything from religion to sports, neighborhoods, health or shared values. Zuckerberg said the importance of community groups and leaders, like pastors and local advocates, and the impact of declining community membership, has been visible to him on his “50 states tour,” which will ensure he meets people in every U.S. state to better understand how social networks affect their lives.
“I’ll go talk to people in a church, and a pastor will say, ‘I know that when a factory closes down in town, I’ll be doing marriage counseling with a lot of people in a month’,” Zuckerberg said. “Someone needs to do that, but that’s happening less and less. People’s support structures are going away.”
One of the primary benefits of being part of “meaningful groups,” Zuckerberg said, is the potential for that network to help members from a range of backgrounds and perspectives connect over shared values. Access to information alone isn’t a cure-all to helping people care about a broader set of global issues, Zuckerberg said. People often hone their perspective and become interested in new causes as a result of personal relationships.
Research suggests, Zuckerberg said, that in order for people to productively debate an issue, they need to first find recognize their common interests or beliefs. As the world’s largest social network with nearly 2 billion users, Facebook could have an unprecedented opportunity to promote these connections.
“People share more information, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that understanding is shared – that doesn’t mean the perspectives people have are getting closer together,” Zuckerberg said last week. “We can help you connect over things that you share before exposing you to debates that are really important to have productively.”
Currently, 1 billion Facebook users are part of groups, but only about 100 million are part of groups they would describe as meaningful, Zuckerberg said. For many, these groups can range from support networks for people experiencing or recovering from drug or alcohol addiction, like Affected by Addiction Support Group, to religiously-focused groups like Original Free Will Baptist Church group, run by a minister in Decatur, Georgia, who uses the app to chat with congregation members and share live videos of sermons to allow people to watch from their homes. Zuckerberg said Facebook has set a new goal to help 1 billion people join meaningful groups.
“A billion is a pretty important number in that, if we can do that, that will essentially reverse the whole decline in community membership around the world and start regrowing it to a point where it will have positive social effects,” Zuckerberg said.
Moving forward, a major new area of emphasis in Facebook’s product roadmap is building features that encourage users to find and join more groups that will be meaningful to them, as well as to make it easier for community leaders and Group admins to run groups and create new ones. It isn’t unusual for admins of large groups to spend several hours per day managing tasks like vetting requests from users to join, approving posts or addressing flagged content.
Facebook debuted a suite of new tools for Group admins on Thursday, including a new panel of real-time metrics called “Group insights”; a membership request filtering tool, which allows admins to organize requests through categories like gender and location; a “Removed member clean-up” tool, which makes it easier for admins to make groups safe by automatically deleting former users’ content; a post-scheduling tool to save admins and moderators time; and “Group-to-group-linking,” which allows admins to recommend similar or related groups to their members, aimed at helping sub-communities interact.
“The admins themselves are so critical because each group needs someone who’s going to look out for people,” said Zuckerberg, who noted that Facebook plans to continue rolling out additional tools to support admins over time. Facebook has also adjusted its algorithm to suggest Groups to people based on how meaningful the user will find the Group, as opposed to how likely that user is to join a particular Group.
As Facebook’s user base and the size and number of Groups continues to grow, Zuckerberg acknowledged that the company will need to continue improving its tools and policies for addressing bad actors and harmful activity. Addressing issues around harassment, discrimination and issues like recruiting by terrorist groups, requires a combination of human policies and moderating as well as artificial intelligence.
“There are boundaries,” Zuckerberg said. “Hate speech is certainly not allowed, terrorism is absolutely not allowed.”
Tackling Global Problems
Zuckerberg’s focus on community building ties back to the nearly 6,000-word manifesto he shared earlier this year, which pitches Facebook as digital social infrastructure that can be leveraged for good. Although the company’s new mission emphasizes community, Zuckerberg seems to view the individual as the immediate, critical unit for change at scale. Communities are important, Zuckerberg said, in large part because they help give people more bandwidth to look beyond their immediate surroundings and concerns.
“A more connected world is going to be necessary to take on the greatest opportunities and challenges for the next generation, everything from stopping climate change, to stopping pandemics, to funding research,” Zuckerberg said in an interview. “These are not fundamentally national problems anymore. In order to get there, you need to build a world where every person has a sense of support and purpose in their life so they don’t just focus narrowly on what’s going on in their lives, but can think about these broader issues as well.” – Written by Kathleen Chaykowski FORBES STAFF