Relevant to the expected Facebook IPO announcement, here are excerpts from my interview with Mark Zuckerberg for Public Parts.
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“I’m in the first generation of people who really grew up with the internet,” Zuckerberg tells me. “Google came out when I was in middle school. Then there was Amazon and Wikipedia and iTunes and Napster. Each year, there were new ways to access information. Now you can look up anything you want. Now you can get cool reference material. Now you can download any song you want. Now you can get directions to anything. The world kept on getting better and better.”
In his words, we hear the inherent optimism that fuels the likes of him: that with the right tools and power in the right hands, the world will keep getting better. “On balance, making the world more open is good,” Zuckerberg says. “Our mission is to make the world more open and connected.” The optimist has to believe in his fellow man, in empowering him more than protecting against him. Zuckerberg believes he is helping us share, which will make the world more public and lead to greater transparency and trust, accountability and integrity. That, he says, is why he started Facebook—not, as The Social Network would have us believe, to get a girlfriend (he already had one, the same woman he still dates, Priscilla Chan) and not, as others say, because he is trying to force us into the public. He contends he is creating the tools that help people do what they naturally want to do but couldn’t do before. In his view, he’s not changing human nature. He’s enabling it.
“In the world before the internet and things like Facebook,” he says, “there was a huge amount of privacy through obscurity.” We didn’t have the choice and power we have now: “We had this culture where you were either a producer or a consumer.?.?.?.??It was a very bifurcated society—kind of unnatural.” That is, the tools of publicness, including the media, had been in the hands of the few; now they are in the hands of all. “So now the question isn’t, ‘Are you completely private?’ It’s, ‘Which things do you want to share and which things do you not?’?”
Zuckerberg says he wants to give his users control over what’s public and private. If that’s true, why does he keep getting in trouble regarding privacy? A few reasons: Some people complain that there aren’t enough privacy controls on Facebook. So the company adds controls. But then the complaint becomes that the controls are too complicated. When they are so complicated, users tend not to bother to adjust them and instead rely on Facebook’s default settings. Facebook has surprised its users with changes to those defaults, making them ever-more public—thus making its users more public, often whether they know it or not. And Facebook hasn’t been good at communicating with its users. When I tell Zuckerberg my thesis for this book about the benefits of sharing, he admits, “I hope you have better luck than we’ve had making that argument. I think we’re good at building products that hit the desire people have, not necessarily at expressing in English what the desire is.” Some would call that understatement. . . . .
In their efforts to motivate us to share, Facebook, Google, and other net services have a common, technohuman goal: to intuit our intent. They want to gather signals about us so they can tailor their content, services, and advertising to us. These services compete to find more ways to get us to generate signals—our locations, needs, tastes, relationships, histories—so they can recommend, say, the perfect restaurant for each of us, knowing where we are right now and what we like and who our friends are and what they like (and making money by giving us a well-targeted coupon for the establishment). These services come into conflict with privacy advocates because capturing and analyzing our signals to predict our desires can look to some like spying or mind reading. “How did you know I was going to France?” the skittish user wonders of Google. Likely because you searched for Paris, sir.
Zuckerberg believes that by giving you back information about your own life—your friends and what you and they like and do—you’ll get “a much clearer sense of what’s going on around you, allowing you to learn things you couldn’t otherwise—and just be better at being human.” The hubris is impressive: making better humans. Google merely wants to organize our information. Zuckerberg sees Facebook as a next step in the net’s evolutionary scale toward humanity. “They crawl the web,” he says. “But there’s nothing you can crawl to get information about people. It’s all in our minds. So in order to have that service, you need to build the tools that let people share.” He identifies what he contends is another difference between Facebook and its predecessors: “All the information that’s about you on Facebook, you chose to put there. The last wave of sites before that do not work that way.” Ad networks collect information about you from your behavior—in most cases anonymously—so they can target ads, but the process is opaque. “On Facebook, you get an ad about Green Day because you said you like Green Day.?.?.?.??I think these models where people have more control over stuff are going to be so much more powerful and expressive.” As he talks, I come to think of Google as the third-person web; it’s about others—them. Facebook endeavors to be the first-person web; it’s about me and us.
Zuckerberg has created an asset worth billions of dollars. Wall Street laughed—but the Valley didn’t—when Microsoft invested in Facebook in 2007 at a reported $15 billion valuation. By 2011, pundits pegged the value at $20 billion, $50 billion, even $100 billion. I believe he’s building something even bigger, with data as a new currency: We trade information about ourselves for information about what we want. Our reward is relevance. Zuckerberg disagrees with me, saying my thinking is not “the right frame.?.?.?.??I really think it’s more interaction-for-interaction than data-for-data.” Keeping users’ motives in mind is critical. Early location services—Google Latitude and Loopt—asked you to broadcast your location to the world without much reason to do so (and with some good reasons not to). Later services such as Foursquare and Facebook Places let you alert friends where you are so you can meet up. You interact with Facebook, telling it what you are up to, and in return you interact with friends. Interactions-for-interactions.
Zuckerberg contends that Facebook is not just a technology company but also a sociology company. I find that revealing. He’s not so much an engineer—he majored in both computer science and psychology—as he is a social engineer, building systems for humans, helping us do what we want to do?.?.?.??and what he wants us to do. Take Facebook friend lists. No one wants to sit down and make a list of friends. People say they want to—in Zuckerberg’s words—“subgroup their friends.” But in practice, who wants to bother? I have tried to subgroup contacts in my address book—fellow geeks here, journalism colleagues there, family here—but it’s tedious and I quickly give up. When you friend someone on Facebook and they friend you back, you end up with a list of your friends as a by?product. The reason you do it, Zuckerberg says, is because “it’s like a cool handshake. And then it’s the sum of 10 billion of those.” Once unlocked from their privacy, these small acts of publicness add up. “Some people just assume that being private is good,” Zuckerberg says, “whereas we’ve always come out saying no, no, people want to share some things and keep some things private and that’ll always be true. And as time goes on and more people find that it’s valuable to share things, they might share more things.” That is how he designs his systems, to make it fun and beneficial to share more and more.
Zuckerberg has his own, social version of Moore’s law—I call it Zuck’s law, though he doesn’t. It decrees: This year, people will share twice as much information as they did last year, and next year, they will share twice as much again. Facebook will expand to more users—from 750 million today to a billion soon?—and users will expand their sharing. Meanwhile, one Facebook investor, Yuri Milner, tells me that advances in artificial intelligence will get better and better at understanding and making use of all the service’s data. It has only just begun. “The default in society today still is, OK, I should not share it. The by?far default today is that everything’s anonymous,” Zuckerberg laments. “In the future, things should be tied to your identity, and they’ll be more valuable that way.” There is the master plan.
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And here is a snippet from What Would Google Do? about Zuckerberg:
I sat, dumbfounded, in an audience of executives at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum International Media Council in Davos, Switzerland, as the head of a powerful news organization begged young Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, for his secret. Please, the publisher beseeched him, how can my publication start a community like yours? We should own a community, shouldn’t we? Tell us how.
Zuckerberg, 22 at the time, is a geek of few words. Some assume his laconicism is a sign of arrogance—that and his habit of wearing sandals at big business conferences. But it’s not. He’s shy. He’s direct. He’s a geek, and this is how geeks are. Better get used to it. When the geeks take over the world—and they will—a few blunt words and then a silent stare will become a societal norm. But Zuckerberg is brilliant and accomplished, and so his few words are worth waiting for.
After this publishing titan pleaded for advice about how to build his own community, Zuckerberg’s reply was, in full: “You can’t.”
Full stop. Hard stare.
He later offered more advice. He told the assembled media moguls that they were asking the wrong question. You don’t start communities, he said. Communities already exist. They’re already doing what they want to do. The question you should ask is how you can help them do that better.
His prescription: Bring them “elegant organization.”
Let that sip of rhetorical cabernet roll around on the palate for a minute. Elegant organization. When you think about it, that is precisely what Zuckerberg brought to Harvard—then other universities, then the rest of the world—with his social platform. Harvard’s community had been doing what it wanted to do for more than three centuries before Zuckerberg came along. He just helped them do it better. Facebook enabled people to organize their social networks—the social graph, he calls it: who they are, what they do, who they know, and, not unimportantly, what they look like. It was an instant hit because it met a need. It organized social life at Harvard.