Friday, September 24, 2010

Altruism in the Age of Facebook

ABC News ran the headline "Facebook's Zuckerberg Shows Softer Side to Oprah" just as many questioned whether the 26-year-old billionaire's donation to the Newark school system was in truth an effort to craft exactly this type of positive media attention. On Friday, Zuckerberg appeared on "Oprah" to formally announce his gift and New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Newark mayor Cory Booker were on-hand to accept the $100 million. It was an efficient display of Oprah's core tenets--conciliatory celebrities and lavish gifts. And for her part, Oprah was happy to conciliate to Zuckerberg's image building. "The Social Network" has its premiere at The New York Film Festival Friday evening, just days after Zuckerberg's ranking on the Forbes list spiked, but Oprah, emphasizing that he had been planning the donation "for months and months and months," said to Zuckerberg, "You wanted to remain anonymous and we talked you into coming on here."

While critics chew on Zuckerberg's dubious timing and the self-satisfied spectacle of the "Oprah" show, some pundits are urging the public to brush those considerations aside and focus on the magnitude of the donation instead. "So the $100 million donation to Newark's crumbling public schools is not in and of itself the story? The story is figuring out the motivation behind it? Is this what we have come to?" Arianna Huffington asked incredulously in an editorial praised by WaPo's Howard Kurtz and others. "I really don't care why Mark Zuckerberg is donating $100 million," Huffington writes. "I care very much that it's being done -- that one of America's worst school systems will be getting a massive infusion of funds." Huffington has a point here in that people should be focusing more on the actual donation but she fails to address the fundamental truth behind such a donation: an infusion of funds does not directly improve the quality of public schools.

The education figures from Newark are astonishing: according to The Star-Ledger, nearly 46% of the district's students fail to graduate high school and only 40% read and write at grade level by third grade. The most astonishing figure associated with the school system, though, is that Newark spends 47% more on each student than the state average. Celebrating a donation to a school system that spends significantly more than any other district in its state yet yields results among the worst in the country, is at best blindly optimistic and at worst disingenuous.

$100 million is an impressive amount of money to be sure but it could have little or no impact unless major organizational changes occur in New Jersey. Just a month ago, the state lost out on $400 million in federal education funding because of a clerical error. Clifford Janey, the former Newark school superintendent, was one of the state's highest paid public officials during his tenure yet oversaw, what Christie recently called, "an absolutely disgraceful public education system." More than money, Newark needs leadership and accountability. Some of this leadership will come from Booker, the charismatic, action figure of a mayor, whose promotion to special assistant to the governor on education was a requirement of Zuckerberg's donation. While Booker has been successful in lowering Newark's crime rate and has repeatedly pledged his long-term commitment to the city, one can't help but wonder if the donation will ultimately have a greater impact on his public image than it will have on Zuckerberg's. If he is able to stir up short-term good news about Newark schools, he'll certainly strengthen his standing in the national discourse, making a move to Washington perhaps more imminent.

Along with the donation, Zuckerberg announced the launch of "Startup: Education," a new charity designed to improve education across the country. While the new organization had a name and a logo at the time of the Newark donation, it seemingly did not have a president or a staff. And the organization's website (as well as its Facebook page, naturally) is remarkably straightforward in its intentions, urging visitors to join Zuckerberg in donating money to the Newark school system. The site has no background information about the charity or the school system, no personal contacts or statements of purpose. Instead there is a big donation widget powered by the mobile payment startup Square, in addition to buttons for Tweeting and Facebook Liking. At its launch, Startup: Education, with its lack of leadership and goals, reflects the public school system it is trying to save.

According to many critics, the most damning element of "The Social Network" is the movie's portrait of Zuckerberg as uncaring and socially tone-deaf. Whatever the motivations behind his donation to Newark were, the gift and its accompanying hubris only solidify these impressions of him. The movie makes Zuckerberg the face of, as NYT critic Manohla Dargis put it, "the boot-up, log-on, plug-in generation." In the end, though, "The Social Network" is less an evaluation of Zuckerberg and more of an appraisal of the Facebook-based culture he helped create, one in which friends keep in touch through status updates, and altruism takes its form in instant online donations and Likes. What the Facebook founder seemingly fails to understand is that the problems plaguing our nation's public schools do not arise from a lack of funding but from something much more valuable and increasingly rare: personal involvement.