The Oprah comparisons have already begun: Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has pledged to read a book every two weeks in 2015, and has launched a Facebook page (of course) called “A Year of Books,” where people can join him. As of Monday afternoon, more than 150,000 people had “liked” Zuckerberg’s new book club.
The opening book on Zuckerberg’s list: “The End of Power” by Moisés Naím, listed as one of 2013’s notable books by The Washington Post. Naím, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment and the former editor of Foreign Policy magazine (where, full disclosure, I worked under him in the early 2000s), argues that the clout wielded by large, traditional institutions – from the Vatican to the Pentagon to Wall Street – is diminishing due to revolutionary changes in global mobility, aspirations and scale. Here is how Zuckerberg explains his first pick:
“It’s a book that explores how the world is shifting to give individual people more power that was traditionally only held by large governments, militaries and other organizations. The trend towards giving people more power is one I believe in deeply, and I’m looking forward to reading this book and exploring this in more detail.”
Of special interest to Zuckerberg’s Facebook readers: Though “The End of Power” is not primarily about social media, Naím argues that the role of Facebook, Twitter and social media more broadly in the 2011 Arab Spring protests has been overestimated. As he writes in the book’s first chapter:
The Internet and other tools are undeniably transforming politics, activism, business, and, of course, power. But too often, this fundamental role is exaggerated and misunderstood. New information technologies are tools – and to have an impact, tools need users, who in turn need goals, directions, and motivation. Facebook, Twitter and text messages were fundamental in empowering the protesters in the Arab Spring. But the protesters and the circumstances that motivated them to take to the streets are driven by circumstances at home and abroad that have nothing to do with the new information tools at their disposal. Millions of people participated in the demonstrations that brought down Hosni Mubarak in Egypt – but at its peak, the Facebook page credited with helping to spur protests there had only 350,000 members. Indeed, a recent study of Twitter traffic during the Egyptian and Libyan uprisings found that more than 75 percent of people who clicked on embedded Twitter links related to those struggles were from outside the Arab world. Another study, by the U.S. Institute of Peace, which also examined patterns of Twitter use during the Arab Spring, concluded that new media “did not appear to play a significant role in either in-country collective action or regional diffusion” of the uprising.
First and foremost among the drivers of protest was the demographic reality of young people on countries like Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria – people who are healthier and better-educated than ever before but also unemployed and deeply frustrated. Moreover, the same information technologies that empower average citizens have ushered in new avenues for surveillance, repression, and corporate control – helping Iran, for example, identify and imprison participants in its stillborn “Green Revolution.” It would be wrongheaded either to deny the critical role played by information technologies, especially social media, in the changes we are witnessing or to explain them only as the result of the widespread adoption of these technologies.
Reached by phone Monday, Naím said that his book’s selection was entirely unexpected, both for him and his publisher, Basic Books. “I am as surprised as I am thrilled that Zuckerberg has created an opportunity to have my ideas aired on a global scale,” he said. “I look forward to engaging in the book discussion.”
Zuckerberg is not the first notable to recommend “The End of Power” — Bill Clinton is also a fan.