Why Facebook Works, And Democracy Does Not
This year, Facebook will reach 1 billion users — or one-seventh of the human population. It has elicited more participation than any single government in the world other than India and China, and it will probably surpass them in a year or two. And whereas many people are fleeing their governments as they are able, more and more people are joining Facebook voluntarily.
What is the logic, the driving force, the agent of change?
Yes, the software works fine, and yes, the managers and owners have entrepreneurial minds. But the real secret to Facebook is its internal human gears — the individual users — which turn out to mirror the way society itself forms and develops.
The best way to see and understand this is to compare the workings of Facebook with the workings of the democratic political process. Watching Facebook’s development has been fun, productive, fascinating, useful and progressive. The election season, in contrast, has been divisive, burdensome, wasteful, acrimonious and wholly confusing.
That’s because Facebook and democracy work on entirely different principles.
Facebook is based on the principle of free association. You join or decline to join. You can have one friend or thousands. It is up to you. You share the information you want to share and keep other things from public view. You use the platform only to your advantage while declining to use it for some other purpose.
The contribution you make on Facebook extends from the things you know best: yourself, your interests, your activities, your ideas. The principle of individualism — you are the best manager of your life — is the gear that moves the machine. Just as no two people are alike, no two people have the same experience with the platform. All things are customized according to your interests and desires.
But of course, you are interested in others too, so you ask for a connection. If they agree, you link up and form something mutually satisfying. You choose to include and exclude, gradually forming your own unique community based on any selection criteria you want. The networks grow and grow from these principles of individualism and choice. It is a constantly evolving, cooperative process — exactly the one that Hans-Hermann Hoppe describes as the basis of society itself.
Democratic elections seem to be about choice in some way, but it is a choice over who will rule the whole mob. It provides the same user experience for everyone, regardless of individual desire. You are forced into the system by virtue of having been born into it. Sure, you can choose to vote, but you can’t choose whether to be ruled by the voting results.
In this democratic system, you are automatically given 220 million “friends” whether you like it or not. These fake “friends” are given to you because of a geographic boundary drawn by government leaders long ago. These “friends” are posting on your wall constantly. Your news feed is relentless series of demands. You cannot delete their posts or mark them as spam. Revenue is not extracted from advertising but collected as you use the system.
Nothing is truly voluntary in an election. You are bound by the results regardless. This creates absurdities. This is incredibly apparent in the Republican nominating process. If people under 30 prevailed, Ron Paul would win. If religious families with several kids prevailed, Rick Santorum would win. If chamber of commerce members prevailed, Mitt Romney would be victor. It all comes down to demographics, but there can be only one winner under this system.
Therefore, an election must be a struggle between people, a fight, a wrangling around, a push to assert your will and overcome the interests and desires of others. In the end, we are assured that no matter the outcome, we should be happy because we all participated. The individual must give way to the collective.
We are told that this means that the system worked. But in what sense does it work? It only means that the well-organized minority prevailed over the diffused majority. This is about as peaceful as the kid’s game “king of the mountain.”
Facebook has nothing to do with this nonsense. Your communities are your own creation, an extension of your will and its harmony with the will of others. The communities grow based on the principle of mutual advantage. If you make a mistake, you can undisplay your friend’s posts or you can unfriend him. This hurts feelings, sure, but it is not violent: It doesn’t loot or kill.
Your friends in Facebook can be from anywhere. They “check in” and plot their journeys. Whether your friend lives in or moves to Beijing or Buenos Aires doesn’t matter. Facebook makes possible what we might call geographically noncontiguous human associations. Language differences can be barriers to communication, but even they can be overcome.
Democracy is hyperbound by geography. You vote in an assigned spot. Your vote is assembled together with those of others in your county to produce a single result, and therefore, your actual wishes are instantly merged. They are merged again at another geographic level, and then at the state level and, finally, at the national level. By that time, your own preferences are vaporized.
Sometimes people get sick of Facebook. They suddenly find it tedious, childish, time wasting, even invasive. Fine. You can bail out. Go to your system preferences and turn off all notifications and take a sabbatical. People might complain, but it is your choice to be there or not. You can even delete your account entirely with no real downside. Then you can sign up again later if you so desire or join some other system of social networking.
Try doing that to democracy. You can’t unsubscribe. You are automatically in for life, and not even changing your location or moving out of the country changes that. It is even extremely hard to delete your account by renouncing your citizenship. The leaders of the democracy will still hound you.
We can learn from Facebook and all other social networks that the Internet has brought us. These are more than websites; they are models of social organization that transcend old forms. Make the rest of life more like a social network and we will begin to see real progress in the course of civilization. Persist in the old model of forced democratic community and we will continue to see decline.