Social Media and The Social Contract – What Zuckerberg can learn from Rousseau

22nd May 2012

Jean Jacques Rousseau’s classic work of social and political philosophy – The Social Contract  (published in 1762),  starts famously with the words – Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Although it may not seem immediately apparent, there is a direct link between this philosophical work of the 18th Century and Facebook.

The central tenet of Rousseau’s work, is that all individuals must enter into a social contract with others in order to create a free and equal society. Rousseau believed that liberty was possible only where there was direct rule by the people as a whole, and where ‘popular sovereignty’ was indivisible and inalienable.

This idea of a free and equal society, closely mirrors the ‘World Wide Web’ as devised by Tim Berners Lee, and the collaborative construct that is Wikipedia. But if The Social Contract is a classic example of how social interaction and engagement between individuals should work , how does it compare with the great social engagement tool of our times – social media and specifically Facebook?  How similar is Facebook to The Social Contract, and what can Zuckerberg learn from Rousseau?

What then, are the similarities between the two systems?

They both involve the signing of a contract. In both, individuals sign over rights and privileges to a central body, in return for greater benefits in return, such as membership of the community and benefitting from an effective system of control. In Rousseau’s Social Contract, individuals co-operate to build a mutually beneficial community – for it’s own sake, and although Facebook’s priority as a business is to make money, there also has to be effective co-operation for the community to function.

However, this is where the similarities end. Rousseau’s community is made up of individual equals who have agreed to collaborate – Facebook is a body, or state, to which individuals have surrendered (some of) their rights to – there is no aspect of shared ownership here.

So how could Zuckerberg learn from Rousseau?

The obvious area to consider is a more egalitarian and democratic approach ( today we may call this crowd sourcing or open source) that allows people to assist in the development of the community. In addition, Zuck could be more clear (honest?) about the nature of the contract that individuals enter into with Facebook – what are they giving up and what are the implications of these ‘sacrifices’?  Finally, concerns with privacy settings, online abuse and excessive bureaucracy, support the concern that this is not a contract that is working out equally well for all parties.

Why does Facebook need to listen to The Social Contract? Well, all systems of government and control, however powerful or beneficial to their subjects at a given point in time, will inevitably fall away, unless they allow ‘the people’ an opportunity to positively engage with and develop the community in question.

A case in point from 250 years ago, was the American Revolution, which occurred only 14 years after The Social Contract was published. In this instance, the British colonial system provided no real opportunity for  ‘user engagement or collaboration’ and when the tangible benefits of membership dissipated, the system was overthrown – to be replaced by one that had an effective and voluntary social contract at it’s core.

Nick Hammond is founder at The Digital Filter.