The story of Alfred Nobel should sound a warning for Zuckerberg and his legacy


Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California / AP

The story goes that Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, was so mortified by an obituary mistakenly run about him by a French newspaper that he  tried to make amends to society by endowing five international prizes for excellence , including one for peace. What was it about the obit that hit Nobel so hard?  Le marchand de la mort est mort, the paper had written. The merchant of death is dead. It was a reference to Nobel’s many achievements with agents that bring death and shatter communities — dynamite, of course, but also his other inventions, jelly-like gelignite and the chemical explosive ballistite, forerunner of the smokeless explosive cordite. Nobel was appalled he had apparently left no legacy, other than one that allowed human beings to destroy one another. That premature obituary forced him to remake the memory he would leave on earth when he did eventually die.

Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg should be due his own Nobel moment any time now. His college invention is under siege as a deathly digital worldwide pox, a force that viciously divides people from each other and is used to hijack regular political rhythms and norms. Mr Zuckerberg’s company has been described as the social media giant that “ate the world”, almost as if it were the 21st century’s version of the mythical venomous Norse serpent Jormungand that grew so large it could surround the earth and grasp its own tail. Lawmakers in the US and Europe are asking stern questions; regulators are pondering ways to curb Facebook; many users are disillusioned and the company’s share price has fallen.

The trigger for current disaffection is Facebook’s acquiescence in the  secret harvesting of 50 million users’ personal information by data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica . But it could easily have been a quite different issue. From 2006, when Facebook became available to anyone in the world aged at least 13, it has grown — like that Norse serpent — massively and irrepressibly, to two billion users. Although it was originally deployed by users for meaningful connections — families at opposite ends of the world, long-separated friends contacting one another across the arches of lost years, like-minded enthusiasts of niche passions — the conversation became chaotic and unmanageable.

Many users said they felt worse after time spent on Facebook because their friends and family seemed overly keen to show off unattainably wonderful lives and pictures of delicious meals while political chatter was vigorous and polarised. Meanwhile, Facebook’s ecosystem provoked unexpected animosity, sometimes even active contempt, for people who seemed to believe love was only true if professed in a public post, even as they assiduously documented their every plated meal, haircut or passing thought. This is because “friends” get entry into a user’s life and head.

The last was always going to be a problem, not just for Facebook but for any platform that was totally unfiltered. A global conversation is always a tricky idea but it becomes particularly difficult when the host assumes a studied non-participatory, non-regulatory stance. Stray thoughts bereft of reflection or information and instantly relayed to people anywhere in the world were always likely to create dissonance — even more so when the conversations deal with politics, public policy, war and peace, Brexit, Catalonia, the Kurds, Palestinians, Kenya’s election, Russia, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and several thousand other hot topics of the day. Stray thoughts are particularly mood-altering when they come from fake accounts designed to sow discord.

What is clear is that Facebook decided some years ago, cannily and quite deliberately, to change users’ newsfeeds to incorporate their likely interests rather than the usual friends and family, baby and holiday photos. The rationale was spot-on. Friends and family are unlikely to be able to produce interesting posts 100 times a day, but newsy, argumentative alternatives, no matter where or why they appeared, could be reliably engaging and hook users more securely to the network.

Before the Cambridge Analytica revelations, Mr Zuckerberg had already declared Facebook was on a back-to-basics mission, switching users’ newsfeed to prioritise friends and family again because it “has always been about personal connections”. Now he has issued multiple mea culpas about the data breach but seems bewildered by the scale of his creation’s potential to cause harm. “If you had asked me,” Mr Zuckerberg told the  New York Times last week, “when I got started with Facebook, if one of the central things I’d need to work on now is preventing governments from interfering in each other’s elections, there’s no way I thought that’s what I’d be doing, if we had talked in 2004 in my dorm room”.

Fair enough. But what about that Nobel moment,  the point at which an inventor realises he’s created something powerful, uncontrollable and destructive ?

Mr Zuckerberg could endow a prize for those who seek to genuinely connect disparate peoples. Or he could ignore politics — and economics — and skew Facebook’s business model solely to promote good. We all know goodness when we see it. As philosopher Henry David Thoreau said, it is the only investment that never fails.