Can Mark Zuckerberg fix Facebook?

Yesterday Mark Zuckerberg said his personal challenge for 2018 was to fix Facebook. This is a good sign, but we need to hold him accountable.

Zuckerberg’s brief statement (432 words, posted on Facebook of course) is direct and personal compared to most CEO communications. Let’s take a look at what he’s saying, how he’s saying it, where it succeeds, and where it falls short.

Every year I take on a personal challenge to learn something new. I’ve visited every US state, run 365 miles, built an AI for my home, read 25 books, and learned Mandarin.

I started doing these challenges in 2009. That first year the economy was in a deep recession and Facebook was not yet profitable. We needed to get serious about making sure Facebook had a sustainable business model. It was a serious year, and I wore a tie every day as a reminder.

Commentary: If you’re saying something important, start by saying what you’re writing about. This is even more important on Facebook, where the posts have no post titles. Zuckerberg starts by musing about his personal goals, but make no mistake, this is a leadership statement, not a personal “hey, look what my kids learned to do” type of post. While this opening is engaging on a personal level, it also pegs Zuckerberg as an immature leader — a problem that he ought to be past by now.

Today feels a lot like that first year. The world feels anxious and divided, and Facebook has a lot of work to do — whether it’s protecting our community from abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation states, or making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent.

My personal challenge for 2018 is to focus on fixing these important issues. We won’t prevent all mistakes or abuse, but we currently make too many errors enforcing our policies and preventing misuse of our tools. If we’re successful this year then we’ll end 2018 on a much better trajectory.

Commentary: The promise Zuckerberg makes here is vague, but it has to be because the challenge is so huge and intractable. That challenge should have been the start of this post. Facebook’s problem is moral, practical, and existential. It’s moral, because liars and propagandists have hijacked Facebook, and that’s not what it ought to be allowing. It’s practical, because if Facebook doesn’t fix these problems, governments will attempt to regulate it, which will interfere with the company’s business model. And it’s existential because unless Facebook solves its moral and practical problems, it may cease to exist.

This may not seem like a personal challenge on its face, but I think I’ll learn more by focusing intensely on these issues than I would by doing something completely separate. These issues touch on questions of history, civics, political philosophy, media, government, and of course technology. I’m looking forward to bringing groups of experts together to discuss and help work through these topics.

Commentary: The key point here is that Zuckerberg is taking on this challenge personally. There’s no disputing that he is a genius when it comes to the operation of social media — Facebook’s success is a testimonial to that. Frankly, no one at Facebook could or would fix this unless Zuckerberg was personally involved.

For example, one of the most interesting questions in technology right now is about centralization vs decentralization. A lot of us got into technology because we believe it can be a decentralizing force that puts more power in people’s hands. (The first four words of Facebook’s mission have always been “give people the power”.) Back in the 1990s and 2000s, most people believed technology would be a decentralizing force.

But today, many people have lost faith in that promise. With the rise of a small number of big tech companies — and governments using technology to watch their citizens — many people now believe technology only centralizes power rather than decentralizes it.

There are important counter-trends to this –like encryption and cryptocurrency — that take power from centralized systems and put it back into people’s hands. But they come with the risk of being harder to control. I’m interested to go deeper and study the positive and negative aspects of these technologies, and how best to use them in our services.

Commentary: This is higher-level thinking. The promise of Facebook — and social media in general — is that individuals working together get power. You could even call it a groundswell. But it’s now clear that the organizations that enabled that groundswell have become enormously powerful, and that bad actors have subverted it. Like Zuckerberg, I believe there is a solution for fake and malicious posts. But it will not be easy to create, and malicious actors will certainly try to subvert every possible solution Facebook comes up with.

This will be a serious year of self-improvement and I’m looking forward to learning from working to fix our issues together.

Commentary: Frankly, this is not all that inspiring. Facebook’s problem is massive. Zuckerberg is still acting like it’s his personal issue. It’s good that he’s paying attention, it’s not so good that he’s acting folksy and despotic about an issue that might determine the fate of all media and politics moving forward.

A better way to say it

Who am I to lecture the creator of the world’s most powerful company?

I’m an analyst who’s been analyzing communications from corporate executives and social media for decades.

So sure, I’ll rewrite this. Here’s what Zuckerberg should have said. (I’ve tried to keep what he said that was direct and on-point.)

Facebook has failed you. My ideal for the company was that it would empower individuals and make their lives better. But we need to do better at protecting our community from abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation states, and ensuring that accurate media spreads while falsehoods don’t.

My personal challenge for 2018 is to focus on fixing these important issues. We won’t prevent all mistakes or abuse, but we will do better at making Facebook a force for good and preventing misuse of our tools. If we’re successful this year then we’ll end 2018 on a much better trajectory.

This may not seem like a personal challenge on its face, but I think I’ll learn more by focusing intensely on these issues than I would by doing something completely separate. These issues touch on questions of history, civics, political philosophy, media, government, and of course technology. I’m looking forward to bringing groups of experts together to discuss and help work through these topics.

For example, one of the most interesting questions in technology right now is about centralization vs decentralization. A lot of us got into technology because we believe it can be a decentralizing force that puts more power in people’s hands. (The first four words of Facebook’s mission have always been “give people the power”.) Back in the 1990s and 2000s, most people believed technology would be a decentralizing force.

But today, many people have lost faith in that promise. With the rise of a small number of big tech companies — and governments using technology to watch their citizens — many people now believe technology only centralizes power rather than decentralizes it.

For the world, for Facebook, and for me, this is a crucial challenge. We’re going to make it better. That’s my promise.

Can Zuckerberg fix Facebook?

I don’t know.

I believe Facebook can be a force for good. And I believe that an appropriately tweaked algorithm can bring it back from where it is, which is a tool that’s easily manipulated by nations and individuals with malicious intent.

But I’m not sure. The only person who can make this happen is Mark Zuckerberg. Another way of putting that is that if he fails, we’re all screwed.

What do you think?

4 responses to “Can Mark Zuckerberg fix Facebook?

  1. Your version is better. However, both versions imply that centralized control will (and maybe should) be used to limit speech, with the goal being less centralized control. That paradox needs to be resolved first – culturally and corporately at Facebook. If Facebook does decide to limit some speech, it should then make clear the positions and perspectives that will be used as a basis for its filters. The word “hate” has developed such a subjective definition in popular usage that it should not be used in a leadership statement like this, nor as a basis for speech filters. Further, if Facebook does decide to limit some speech, then it will appear to have “taken sides” in the relevant issues and risks losing a large user base. If Facebook does not impose control, it could become even more populated with error and irrationality. Mr. Z has a big challenge ahead of him, either way.

  2. I doubt we’re screwed if he fails. HE will be screwed. More and more of the people I know have dialled back on FB or abandoned it completely because it isn’t delivering any more. Small sample size, to be sure. But his business model depends on users in a way that brick and mortar businesses never did.

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