When I said that I would have more to share from Mark Zuckerberg’s employee Q&A sessions for you in the newsletter this week, I didn’t think it would go like this.
In between, there were questions and answers from real, live Facebook employees, who mostly seemed unembarrassed to be asking their questions in front of a global audience. (Extra points to the WhatsApp engineer who managed to ask two questions during the session, the latter of which — “what do you think of Bernie Sanders’ comment that billionaires shouldn’t exist?” — was maybe the most provocative of the day. (Zuckerberg’s answer, which was basically “no,” will also surely spur a round of thought pieces around the web in coming days.)
The context for all this, as Zuckerberg explained in preliminary remarks at the top of the meeting, was a sense that our leak had inadvertently exposed the fact that he tends to perform better in front of employees than he does with journalists. “I do interviews, and I’m just, like, the worst in interviews,” he said, as employees laughed. “I’m robotic, and I don’t think in sound bites.” He joked about the kinds of questions he gets: “Where do you go to plug yourself in at night to recharge?”
Zuckerberg said the company had been surprised by the leak, as it has been the first time in company history that an all-hands meeting had been recorded and shared with the media. (“A blog,” as Zuckerberg called The Verge!)
“I think a lot of us internally were pretty shocked by that,” he said. “We want to be able to continue doing these, and have them be open. But then we had the second reaction which is, hey, you know, all the content that’s in there — we stand behind. And maybe I said that in a little bit more unfiltered of a way than I would say it externally, but fundamentally we believe everything we said that was in there.”
People have told him for years that public perception of the company would improve if more members of the public could see him the way he is in Q&As, he said. And so he decided to broadcast this week’s event. “This was an interesting forcing function,” Zuckerberg said of my work, which is definitely going on my Facebook Dating bio.
“I do such a bad job at interviews, it’s like, what do we have to lose?” Zuckerberg said, and the audience laughed and applauded.
Zuckerberg talked about the company’s commitment to encryption in light of the news today that the US attorney general wanted the company to delay its plans to roll out end-to-end encryption across its messaging apps. He lamented a ruling in the European Union’s top court that could force Facebook to take down content that is found to be libelous outside the country where the ruling is made, in a blow to free speech.
To the employee who asked whether Facebook would ever lose relevance, Zuckerberg explained that most of the biggest companies in any given decade are no longer in the top 10 biggest companies by the next decade. The odds are against Facebook, he said, though the company is working hard to overcome them.
To the employee who asked how Facebook Dating was going, he explained that 80 percent of people who used it in test countries came back every week, giving the company the confidence to launch it in the United States several weeks ago. It continues to grow, Zuckerberg said, but he wouldn’t say how fast, citing the team’s wishes.
There was the should-billionaires-exist question, which Zuckerberg answered fairly directly by saying no. But he defended the system that lets some private individuals grow wealthy enough to invest in scientific research, saying that the alternative — 100 percent public funding — had problems of its own.
To the employee who worried about this weekend’s New York Times report about the use of social platforms to spread child exploitation imagery, he explained the steps that the company has taken to address the problem so far and committed to doing much more before Facebook attempts to encrypt Messenger messages by default.
Then someone asked him about Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who had gone after Zuckerberg after reading the remarks he made in our earlier report. How would Zuckerberg remain “impartial” given the dust-up? “God,” he said, laughing to himself. “Try not to antagonize her further.”
I found his response, which was quite long, somewhat hard to follow. There were two parts to it: one about “principles,” in which he said that he cared much more about giving people a voice regardless of an individual policy outcome. So by that logic, he wouldn’t (say) artificially down-rank Warren’s traffic if she posted about breaking up Facebook, because he prizes democratic debate above all. The second point was about “empathy” — realizing that, because of Facebook’s vast size and power, people heavily depend on what happens there, and often assume that it is biased.
“It’s a real moment for at least understanding where a lot of the people are coming from,” He said. “That’s going to be the primary thing. We want everyone to have a voice. This is a good learning moment to remember that.”
Then someone asked him if Facebook would ever hold a hackathon for climate change and he said that it already had.
On the whole, I’d say the surprise broadcast succeeded on the terms Zuckerberg set for him. It did, in fact, show him looser and in a better mood than he usually appears when being interviewed by the likes of me. He moved confidently around the room. His jokes landed.
Some people assumed the event was overly staged, but Zuckerberg said they had only informed most people that it would be public 15 minutes before the broadcast aired, and having listened to both the private recording and watched the public broadcast I was struck by how little difference there was between them. There was an honesty to the event that resonated. “I’m not making any promises to do this again in the future,” Zuckerberg said, but everything went well enough that I could easily see him doing just that.
When the afternoon’s questions all ended, the slick marketing video that had been queued up began to play. The first image it showed on the screen was a small group of Facebook users splashing around in the water. It turned out they were swimming with sharks.