The Interface

By Casey Newton

The trouble with Mark Zuckerberg profiles



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September 10 · Issue #202 · View online
The Interface
Can Mark Zuckerberg fix Facebook before it breaks democracy? That’s the headline on Evan Osnos’ 14,000-word profile of the Facebook CEO after two years’ worth of scandals. That question is maybe unanswerable — what would it mean to fix Facebook, or democracy? — but the article does a better-than-average job at exploring its contours.
Osnos had the chance to interview Zuckerberg several times, even breaking (banana) bread with the CEO at his home. The New Yorker excels at bouying its narrative profiles with bright, colorful anecdotes, and Osnos’ tales of Zuckerberg’s board-game dominance are delightful:
A few years ago, he played Scrabble on a corporate jet with a friend’s daughter, who was in high school at the time. She won. Before they played a second game, he wrote a simple computer program that would look up his letters in the dictionary so that he could choose from all possible words. Zuckerberg’s program had a narrow lead when the flight landed. The girl told me, “During the game in which I was playing the program, everyone around us was taking sides: Team Human and Team Machine.”
The bulk of Osnos’ profiles consists of stories that are well known to readers of this newsletter, though perhaps not the New Yorker readership at large. (The 2016 election, check; former employees lamenting the platform’s effect on society, check; Cambridge Analytica, check; Alex Jones, check.) Among the reporting Osnos draws on is my own — he includes quotes from Zuckerberg’s former pollster, Tavis McGinn, from a piece I did in February.
The profile is at its best in its conclusion, which sums up the CEO’s profile — and the task ahead of him — as well as anyone I’ve seen do it:
The caricature of Zuckerberg is that of an automaton with little regard for the human dimensions of his work. The truth is something else: he decided long ago that no historical change is painless. Like Augustus, he is at peace with his trade-offs. Between speech and truth, he chose speech. Between speed and perfection, he chose speed. Between scale and safety, he chose scale. His life thus far has convinced him that he can solve “problem after problem after problem,” no matter the howling from the public it may cause.
At a certain point, the habits of mind that served Zuckerberg well on his ascent will start to work against him. To avoid further crises, he will have to embrace the fact that he’s now a protector of the peace, not a disrupter of it. Facebook’s colossal power of persuasion has delivered fortune but also peril. Like it or not, Zuckerberg is a gatekeeper. The era when Facebook could learn by doing, and fix the mistakes later, is over. The costs are too high, and idealism is not a defense against negligence.
Facebook, and Zuckerberg, derive much of their confidence from earlier times that the company seemed to be on the brink of oblivion: the initial roll out of the News Feed; the introduction of the privacy-obliterating Beacon product; the botched IPO and improbably successful transition to becoming a mobile software company.
But as Osnos notes, the challenges faced by the company today are different both in scale and in kind. In Myanmar, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Germany, Facebook has been credibly linked to outbreaks of violence. Its ability to moderate the vast amount of content it ingests in a way that balances speech and safety has been mixed at best. As Osnos writes: “These are not technical puzzles to be cracked in the middle of the night but some of the subtlest aspects of human affairs, including the meaning of truth, the limits of free speech, and the origins of violence.”
Historically we have not asked tech companies to resolve these issues before they expand into new countries, even when they have no understanding of the political situation and their moderators do not speak the local language. If we have learned anything from Facebook’s travails, it is surely that they should have. But what’s done is done.
There was a time when seeing new interviews with Zuckerberg made me feel jealous. But increasingly I see the limits of asking tech CEOs questions about their work. A profile of a Zuckerberg, or a Jack Dorsey, or an Evan Spiegel, always seems to be circling around the question: is this person basically a good guy? I suspect that’s one reason they sit for profiles like this: they are basically good guys, and a magazine writer who visits them at their homes will see this and report it back to the world at large.
But lately I find myself less interested in reading tech CEOs perform their thoughtfulness. During the Alex Jones deplatforming drama, I wrote that Twitter’s dithering was frustrating because the company so often substitutes thinking for action. Dorsey gave several interviews during this time, and I read them all, and I learned almost nothing. It isn’t that the questions were bad, or that Dorsey sidestepped them. It’s that what he thinks is ultimately less consequential than what he does.
Facebook, to its credit, has taken many more actions to shore up its platform over the past two years than has Twitter. (Twitter, an admittedly smaller company with far fewer resources, has enacted many of the same steps Facebook has, but only months later, as if in slow motion.) And yet influence campaigns still unfold; hate spreads virally, and the platform lurches from one crisis to another.
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.

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After Multiple Provocations, Twitter Has Banned Alex Jones And Infowars
Apple Has Permanently Banned Alex Jones' Infowars App From The App Store
As Germans Seek News, YouTube Delivers Far-Right Tirades
Press protections might safeguard Google’s algorithms, even from Trump
Top states say they haven’t been invited to the Justice Dept.’s meeting about tech companies
Undiscoverable: How Al-Jazeera's Snapchat channel disappeared from three Gulf nations
Snap Strategy Officer Khan Is Leaving to Start Tech Investment Firm
Wildlife Group: Exotic Pets Trade Activity Rises on Facebook
Facebook and Its Users Are Telling Different Stories
Many Facebook users don't understand its news feed
Facebook Co-Founder Sees More Regulation for Social Networks
These fact-checkers were attacked online after partnering with Facebook
Pinterest Is a Unicorn. It Just Doesn’t Act Like One.
Facebook quietly parts ways with employee tied to its data scandal
Facebook to invest $1 billion in first Asian data centre in Singapore
Conspiracy Theories Made Alex Jones Very Rich. They May Bring Him Down.
A date with my Tinder data
WhatsApp hits India’s Jio feature phones amidst fake news violence
Facebook introduces new brand-safety measures, but advertisers say it doesn't go far enough
Why It's So Hard to Be a Working Mom. Even at Facebook.
Why Facebook Will Never Be Free of Fakes
Twitter’s Flawed Solution to Political Polarization
And finally ...
Talk to me
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