One of the most common and beloved tropes on a reality show comes when a contestant announces, often with a melodramatic flourish, that they are “not here to make friends
.” It’s an ingenious and endlessly useful phrase — one that is both recognizably true (the contestant’s only real goal is victory) and terrifying in its implications. A person who is not here to make friends is signaling that they might do anything to win. They lie, they cheat, they throw a glass of pinot grigio in your face — whatever it takes to become become the bachelorette.
I thought of the phrase on Wednesday while reading Mark Zuckerberg’s comments, during Facebook’s quarterly earnings call, about his new goal for the 2020s. He said
“We’re also focused on communicating more clearly what we stand for. One critique of our approach for much of the last decade was that, because we wanted to be liked, we didn’t always communicate our views as clearly because we were worried about offending people. So this led to some positive but shallow sentiments towards us and towards the company. And my goal for this next decade isn’t to be liked, but to be understood, because in order to be trusted, people need to know what you stand for.”
What views did Facebook express unclearly because it didn’t want to offend us? Zuckerberg didn’t say, but I have my guesses. That people like personalized ads more than they value their data privacy, maybe. Or that it’s more important to preserve a wide arena for free speech than it is to prevent certain kinds of harms. These are views that would offend many if a Facebook executive said them out loud, and yet also the company acts as if it holds these things to be true. A fun question to ponder after reading these remarks is on which subjects Zuckerberg will now be willing to offend us.
Here’s another: What does it mean that a CEO would rather be understood than be liked? In an environment where Facebook has more power than ever — its quarterly earnings were stellar as usual
, even if growth has slowed a bit from its peak — the answer feels important.
Being liked is, of course, a basic human need, even for CEOs. Like any other group of people, the tech executives I’ve known vary in how deeply they seem to need affirmation. But starting a successful company has historically been a pretty good way to get the world to like you. You create jobs, you grow the economy, you earn wealth for yourself and your family, and people begin to hang on your every word.
Success also breeds backlash, though. The company’s work typically has externalities that the CEO has not accounted for, or has begun to address only belatedly. As the second-order consequences of your success compound, the world begins to doubt your motives. They excoriate you in the press, they haul you before Congress, and they threaten to smash your company into little pieces.
It is in such a world, I think, that a CEO might say that, going forward, his goal is no longer to be liked but to be understood. Not because he doesn’t want to be liked — but because the people who like him like him already, the people who don’t are not likely to change their minds, and really the whole matter of reputation seems largely beyond his control.
Mr. Zuckerberg said he would defend users’ rights to associate with groups of their choosing, the societal value of targeted advertising and the model of providing free communications services — all of which he said are under attack. He also defended the company’s plans to further integrate its products, which critics have said are meant to make it harder for antitrust regulators to take action against the company.
Presumably, what Zuckerberg really wants here isn’t simply to be understood, but to have more people agree with him. It seems like a stretch to suggest that the growing number of people opposed to highly targeted advertising don’t understand
its value. Rather, they believe it does more harm than good
. It’s the same with the “right to associate.” On one hand, I suspect most Americans do believe in a right to free assembly. But do they believe Facebook ought to provide a platform for anti-vaccine zealots to congregate and hijack Facebook’s viral machinery to recruit new followers? Either way, the issue doesn’t strike me as one of understanding
, per se.
“In order to be trusted, people need to know what you stand for,” Zuckerberg said later in his remarks. That’s true enough, but it’s also the case that many people don’t trust Facebook even when they know what the company stands for. In fact, it’s some of the qualities about Facebook that are best understood — its continuous rapid growth, expansive data collection, and feeds ranked by how likely they are to generate an emotional charge — that most upset the company’s critics.
If Facebook is to turn public opinion around, it has to do more than remind us that it provides a suite of free communication tools. It has to make the case that those tools have a net-positive effect on the world — and are worth the high cost it takes to deliver them. It has to address the viewpoint of some current and former employees that the product is better compared to sugar or nicotine
than to a Millsian marketplace of ideas.
And it can’t make that case through argument alone. The products, and their user base, will have to make the case for themselves. They will have to persuade. They will have to make friends.