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At F8, Facebook focuses on privacy — and little else

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F8 is a conference where Facebook executives talk about the future — and at Facebook, the future is f
 
April 30 · Issue #324 · View online
The Interface
F8 is a conference where Facebook executives talk about the future — and at Facebook, the future is flexible. In 2015, the future was video. The next year, the future was bots. The year after that, the future was augmented reality — and also a project to let you hear with your skin. All of those technologies eventually found their way into Facebook’s products, in some form — well, all except the skin hearing thing. But none really shifted the company away from its core product: an infinitely scrolling feed of updates interrupted with highly targeted advertising.
This year, the company sought to break with that tradition. Nearly every speaker at today’s F8 keynote, starting with Mark Zuckerberg, repeated a version of the phrase “the future is private.” Since Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s pivot toward private messaging last month, I’ve argued that the move represents a fundamental transformation of the company. On Tuesday, Zuckerberg sought to convince the world — and skeptics inside his own company — that he’s serious.
One way he did that was through product launches. Zuckerberg’s vision for a new Facebook is perhaps best represented by a coming redesign of the flagship app and desktop site that will emphasize events and groups, at the expense of the News Feed. Collectively, the design changes will push people toward smaller group conversations and real-world meetups — and away from public posts. Zuckerberg’s new vision also appears in the large number of announcements related to messaging: a desktop version of Messenger; a redesigned mobile app built for speed; and a version of WhatsApp for Facebook’s Portal home speaker.
Just as important, though, is the way he talked about all these launches: as the foundation of what he repeatedly called Facebook’s “next chapter.” “Over time I believe that a private social platform will be even more important in our lives than our digital town squares,” he said during his keynote. “So today we’re going to talk about what this could look like as a product, what it means to have the center of your social experience be more private, [and] how we need to change the way we run this company in order to build this.” 
One thing Zuckerberg did not discuss on Tuesday in any detail is the considerations that led him to move away from the public broadcast model of social networking. But he gave the broad outlines to Mike Isaac in the New York Times:
“By far, the three fastest-growing areas of online communication are private messaging, groups and Stories,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “In 2019, we expect the amount of Stories that are shared to outnumber the amount of Feed posts that are shared.”
One way of looking at Facebook in this moment is as an unstoppable behemoth that bends reality to its will, no matter the consequences. (This is how many journalists tend to see it.) Another way of looking at the company is from the perspective of its fundamental weakness — as a slave to ever-shifting consumer behavior. (This is how employees are more likely to look at it.)
In the short term, Facebook’s strength is undeniable. The company is earning record profits, usage of its products is at an all-time high, and it continues to find new users around the world. But in his interview with the Times, Zuckerberg admits that the writing is on the wall. If the company wants to remain dominant, it has to refocus.
Last week, before he turned his attention to narrowly company-focused issues, Zuckerberg sat down with historian Yuval Noah Harari to talk about the effect of social networks on society at large. Yesterday in this space, I wrote about some of the questions that the historian asked the CEO:
Does Facebook want to “connect” people for any particular purpose, or simply to keep them looking at a screen? How do you build a social network that improves cohesion among people around the world, rather than erodes it? How do you build artificial intelligence systems that don’t serve as tools of surveillance and control? Is the internet economy undermining human agency and democracy?
These are heady subjects, and any discussion about them would not fit neatly into the cheerful choreography of a developer conference keynote. But they lingered in my mind as I watched Zuckerberg rally his audience. The company has brand-new marching orders that, according to the CEO, will require Facebook to reorganize itself. It will rip out old technical infrastructure and replace it with brand-new code bases. It will jettison its old gospel of public sharing and begin preaching privacy.
As it undertakes that very difficult work, the questions raised by Harari and others will linger. But as Zuckerberg works to fortify Facebook against future challengers, it’s hard for me to imagine him giving it less than his all. And as Facebook transforms itself, how much attention will the company have left over to address all the social changes spinning out from inside it?

More from F8
What else happened at F8? Facebook asked live stream viewers whether they think the company cares about them. Facebook Dating is coming to 14 more countries, and it’s adding a “secret crush” feature. You can now ship stuff through Marketplace. The company’s Spark AR platform has momentum.
The Oculus Quest and Oculus Rift S got mixed reviews, and you can now pre-order them. Portal is coming to more countries, and it’s getting encrypted WhatsApp chats.
Instagram is redesigning its camera, adding a donations sticker, and letting influencers sell stuff via shoppable tags. (It’s also testing a version that hides the amount of likes a post has, and some anti-bullying features.) WhatsApp is testing payments in India, and adding catalogs for businesses.
Lastly, I want to shout out the Facebook Band, an incredibly talented group of musicians who moonlight as Facebook employees at its London office. You will never play to a colder crowd than a group of developers and journalists at 8:30 a.m. in a convention hall in San Jose, and yet the Facebook Band’s set had my row of journalists bouncing in our chairs for a full hour before the keynote. The one-two punch George Michael’s “Freedom ‘90” with Rihanna’s “We Found Love” was a particularly inspired combination, I thought. If you ever get a chance to see the Facebook Band play live, I highly recommend it.
Democracy
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Christchurch-Style Terrorism Reaches American Shores
Facebook Frenzy: How the German Right Wing Dominates Social Media
Elsewhere
YouTube CEO addresses top creator issues including copyright claims and trending section
Google's YouTube to Stream Live Major League Baseball Games
K-pop Army Battle Royale
Launches
Twitter Expands Live-Streaming Video Lineup, Sets Content Deals With Viacom, ESPN, Live Nation, Univision, and More
Takes
How to Take Back Control From Facebook
These Ads Think They Know You
And finally ...
Kevin Roose
Well this has been a fun journey https://t.co/5TTcgVe9Vh
10:16 AM - 30 Apr 2019
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and edgy memes of you saying “the future is private.” casey@theverge.com
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