Whenever Mark Zuckerberg talks about something that has gone wrong at Facebook—which happens rather frequently—he almost always comes off as sincerely concerned and apologetic, and his latest interview with Ezra Klein of Vox Media is no exception to this rule. But anyone who has been following Facebook for any length of time probably feels an overwhelming sense of déjà vu, because it all sounds very familiar: We screwed up, we’re sorry, we didn’t know, we will fix it. And please keep using Facebook.
We’re in the middle of a lot of issues, and I certainly think we could’ve done a better job so far. I’m optimistic that we’re going to address a lot of those challenges, and that we’ll get through this, and that when you look back five years from now, 10 years from now, people will look at the net effect of being able to connect online and have a voice and share what matters to them as just a massively positive thing in the world.
To be fair, no one has ever run a globe-spanning social network that has over two billion daily users before, so perhaps we should forgive Mark for not being that good at it. But still, it seems disingenuous to have spent 14 years building a company that now has $40 billion in revenue, but at the same time to claim that it never occurred to anyone such a giant social network—especially one powered by surveillance of its users—could become a tool for deception or evil of various kinds. Which is effectively what Mark wants us to believe.
I think the basic point that you’re getting at is that we’re really idealistic. When we started, we thought about how good it would be if people could connect, if everyone had a voice. Frankly, we didn’t spend enough time investing in, or thinking through, some of the downside uses of the tools. So for the first 10 years of the company, everyone was just focused on the positive. I think now people are appropriately focused on some of the risks and downsides as well.
What this means in practice is that Facebook has been doing its best to ignore the repeated warnings from researchers such as Danah Boyd and Zeynep Tufekci of the dangers inherent in Facebook’s structure and business model. And why wouldn’t it? Some of those concerns go straight to the heart of how the company makes the billions of dollars a year investors have come to rely on.
Tellingly enough, one of the points during the interview where Zuckerberg seems to become genuinely peeved is when Klein mentions Apple CEO Tim Cook’s criticisms of the company’s advertising-based model. The Facebook CEO rejects the idea that “if you’re not paying that somehow we can’t care about you,” calling it “extremely glib” and “not at all aligned with the truth.” And he suggests that consumers should question comments made by companies that he says “work hard to charge you more” for their services, as opposed to someone like him, who is trying to provide something for free to as many people as possible.
There are other interesting moments, such as when Zuckerberg says Facebook is considering a court-style model for deciding what speech should be allowed. “You can imagine some sort of structure, almost like a Supreme Court, that is made up of independent folks who don’t work for Facebook, who ultimately make the final judgment call on what should be acceptable speech,” he says. A sensible idea, or a frightening glimpse of a potential future in which Facebook is a global censor? As usual with Facebook, it’s a little bit of both.