The Interface

By Casey Newton

Mark Zuckerberg's 2019 personal challenge



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January 8 · Issue #269 · View online
The Interface
Inside Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg’s annual tradition of setting a personal challenge has been viewed as one of the company’s best public-relations opportunities of the year. Long before Facebook was under rigorous scrutiny for the unintended consequences of its growth, the personal challenge afforded Facebook with a chance to spin up a positive news cycle around its young billionaire founder and his efforts to learn Mandarin, eat only meat from animals he slaughtered himself, and so on.
This strategy arguably peaked in 2016, when Zuckerberg announced his personal challenge for the year would be to build an artificial intelligence to control his smart home. The challenge, which came at a time when Facebook was aggressively promoting its AI efforts as a recruiting tactic, positioned the CEO as a real-life Tony Stark building futuristic technology as a weekend hobby while also running the world’s biggest social network. Many journalists, myself included, ate it up.
So far as I know, all of Zuckerberg’s challenges have reflected a sincere interest in the subjects at hand. But his PR team has sought to maximize their reach, as part of an all-consuming effort to cement Zuckerberg as the human face of the company in the hopes that his calm, genial presence will earn goodwill for the company.
As 2017 dawned, though, that opportunity began to look far more constrained. As questions swirled over Facebook’s role in the US presidential election, the idea of a new, lighthearted CEO challenge risked looking more like a distraction from the pressing matters at hand. And so Zuckerberg pledged instead to meet people from all 50 states, setting up the nationwide tour that led to endless bad speculation that he was running for president. The following year he dropped the hobbyist aspect of the challenge completely, pledging instead to fix Facebook — which, he acknowledged, would likely take multiple years.
All of which made me quite curious what Zuckerberg might set for his personal challenge this year, if any. It arrived today via post on his Facebook page. Zuckerberg wrote:
My challenge for 2019 is to host a series of public discussions about the future of technology in society – the opportunities, the challenges, the hopes, and the anxieties. Every few weeks I’ll talk with leaders, experts, and people in our community from different fields and I’ll try different formats to keep it interesting. These will all be public, either on my Facebook or Instagram pages or on other media.
And so the personal challenge for 2019 is … to launch a talk show? In some ways, he already has. For years now, Zuckerberg has held live question-and-answer sessions with users, academics, Facebook employees, politicians, and business leaders. Many of them have been streamed on Facebook, and often they have touched on questions about technology’s role in society. I have watched my share of these conversations, and while they have offered plenty of amiable chatter, it would be a stretch to suggest they’ve advanced our thinking about tech and society.
In September, when the New Yorker profiled Zuckerberg, I wrote about the challenges of centering discussions about technology and society on the views of the CEO:
I understand the value, from Facebook’s perspective, of regularly putting forward Zuckerberg to affirm that he is working on the problem. But I can’t help but feel like we knew that already.
Maybe tech platforms can be “fixed,” or maybe they can’t. But either way, it’s not an oral exam. And we ought not to treat it like one.
A 2019 in which the Mark Zuckerberg Show takes center stage threatens to once again present our future as an oral exam — and one that is also incidentally being presented as live entertainment. I’m all for open discussions of the most pressing issues facing business and government — and I hope Zuckerberg chooses to sit down with some of Facebook’s more thoughtful critics for a lively debate. (I’m available!) And yet I can’t help but wonder, given all his other responsibilities, why Zuckerberg sees a series of live broadcasts as a particularly good use of his time.
Perhaps I should shut up and let the man actually do a couple such discussions before rendering my verdict. As presented, these planned broadcasts sound much less like a personal challenge than they do good old-fashioned content marketing. But I suppose that’s what the personal challenge has represented all along. It may be time to retire it.

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Meet ‘NoSurf,’ the Self-Help Group That Told Us to Log Off Before It Was Cool
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And finally ...
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Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and your ideas for Zuckerberg talk show formats: Also if you are one of the dozens of folks from the University of Oregon who signed up over the past week or so, I’d love to know why!
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