Editorial: Zuckerberg’s bizarre KU visit

Many things were unusual about the Facebook CEO’s secret visit to KU, including the failure to mention a very large elephant in the room.

Mark Zuckerberg came off as strange during his visit last week to Lawrence.

That may be unfair to the founder and CEO of Facebook. Perhaps his visit to the University of Kansas simply was mishandled by others. Or, maybe, a sense of strangeness is an unfortunate attribute of being one of the richest men in the world.

But it was strange that Zuckerberg came to KU and then hardly made himself available to anyone at KU. He participated in an on-stage interview in a small Lied Center room that held about 75 audience members. Just down the hall there was an auditorium that holds about 2,000. It is unfortunate the interview wasn’t held there in front of a full house of students. It was a missed opportunity for many students who undoubtedly would have cherished the experience.

In some ways, equally strange was Zuckerberg’s dominant topic. He talked a lot about Facebook’s role in building community. Building community is now the primary mission of the social media platform. But despite the audience being small, there was still space for an elephant in the room. Zuckerberg never addressed the obvious question: Is Facebook a healthy community?

There is plenty of evidence that Facebook isn’t healthy. It is a community that has many people who aren’t who they say they are. There are many people who will feed you false information. Look at what the Russians have done. Look at how Facebook users fueled dangerous “pizzagate” rumors that led to a poor Washington, D.C., pizza parlor being visited by a gunman looking for human traffickers.

Those are the national stories, but there are many on a personal level too. How many of us know people who have ended friendships because of silly disputes on Facebook? Facebook is flawed. It is too easy to suspend long-held practices of respect when you are having a back-and-forth at a keyboard instead of a face-to-face conversation.

Zuckerberg shouldn’t be blamed for much of this. The nastiness says more about our divisions as a society than it does about his social network platform. But still, has Facebook helped heal those divisions or helped create more of them?

Until there is evidence that Facebook builds healthy communities, maybe its mission ought to be something different. But that would require Zuckerberg to rethink the importance of his company. He — and many others — seem to think Facebook is one of the greatest transformative forces in the history of technology.

Again, evidence would suggest that it is not. The creation of the internet and the smart phone both are advancements in our lifetime that outrank Facebook. And those two pale compared with previous advances: the airplane, the automobile, multiple vaccines, refrigeration, and the list could go on and on.

Facebook is useful. It has created an important new form of connecting with people. But there is no shame in recognizing its limitations. If all Facebook is ever great at is helping people connect with family, or finding lost classmates, or providing a cheap way for businesses to promote themselves, that is OK. But it is critical that we be honest about its shortcomings. It frequently fails at disseminating accurate information and presenting a well-rounded view of the world. It is too often an echo chamber.

It is not strange that Zuckerberg — the man most emotionally invested in Facebook — doesn’t see that. But it is strange if the rest of us won’t.