N+1 editor Charles Petersen’s piece in the new New York Review of Books compares Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to legendary city planner Robert Moses. Do we agree? Can we concede that Facebook has made the Internet not only more manageable (and perhaps more personalized) but moreover more elegant and enduring, that the way Facebook has allowed us to experience our online lives is more inspired that how we might move around, left to our own devices?
What people who love it love about Facebook is this: it makes the experience of anonymous, individual activity feel at once highly social and uniquely creative. Or certainly, it started out that way. Petersen points out the early elitist (and specifically collegiate) lure of belonging to the site:
By starting at Harvard, Facebook avoided another problem that had afflicted previous social networks: those with many friends had little reason to sign up. Zuckerberg got the initial idea from two members of the Porcellian, Harvard’s most prestigious “final club,” who would later sue him for stealing their plan (the case was settled out of court for a reported $85 million). The importance of the site’s Ivy League founding is the primary revelation of Ben Mezrich’s dramatic, narrative account of Facebook’s early days, The Accidental Billionaires. When Zuckerberg launched the site, as Mezrich observes in one of the book’s more accurate moments, he e-mailed the announcement to the Phoenix, a final club. A month later, the site expanded to Princeton and Stanford. Facebook, unlike every previous social network, was at the start a very exclusive club.
But what has become of the club? If the Moses analogy holds, the site’s mission is not about exclusivity, about keeping certain people out, but rather about owning the community, and controlling the shape of its streets.
When Petersen makes the comparison to Moses, he then rightly asks who will be the Internet’s Jane Jacobs.
If anything, Zuckerberg looks, in some distant but discernible way, like the Robert Moses of the Internet, bringing severe order to a chaotic milieu. While several efforts have been made to create more open versions of social networks, none has found much success. We are still waiting for the Jane Jacobs of online “urban planning” to appear.
But Moses did more than bring order. Or, with his order came restrictions and, perhaps, a diminution of spirit. Jacobs countered Moses. She reclaimed another role for words like “preservation” and “planning” and, most importantly, “development.” Here is how she described her own legacy:
If I were to be remembered as a really important thinker of the century, the most important thing I’ve contributed is my discussion of what makes economic expansion happen. This is something that has puzzled people always. I think I’ve figured out what it is.
Expansion and development are two different things. Development is differentiation of what already existed. Practically every new thing that happens is a differentiation of a previous thing, from a new shoe sole to changes in legal codes. Expansion is an actual growth in size or volume of activity. That is a different thing.
If Zuckerberg is the Master Builder, whoever ends up his Jane Jacobs will hopefully create spaces online that recapture what words like “friend” originally meant: something to protect, something to love, something that merits discretion.