Facebook at 15: Zuckerberg promises change, so he’d better deliver

5 Feb 2019

Image: © Alex_Po/Stock.adobe.com

The societal impact of Facebook in just 15 years has been immense. But right now it is a garden of both good and evil, writes John Kennedy.

A few weeks ago I directly responded to a screed by Mark Zuckerberg about him wanting to tackle societal problems by saying that he ought to concentrate on fixing Facebook first.

A couple of weeks back, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg was in Dublin for some business shindig at Croke Park and, had I been given the opportunity, I would have asked just one simple question: “What are you doing to fix Facebook?”

‘This desire to express ourselves, learn about each other and connect in new ways was greater than I’d imagined’

Today (5 February) is Safer Internet Day and my inbox is pinging with statements and alerts about all the various endeavours companies are making. It is a virtuous parade indeed.

Added to the clamour is the latest statement by Zuckerberg marking the social network’s 15th birthday yesterday (4 February). I have a lot of admiration for what Zuckerberg et al have achieved in creating an internet property and “family” of apps that have captured the attention of more than a quarter of the world’s population.

Despite 2018 being a terrible year for Facebook as it lurched from one disaster to another, from the Cambridge Analytica scandal to various breaches, I don’t believe that at its heart the company is bad or has any ill intentions. I believe it is a giant business that is still coming to terms with what the heck it has created. It is both a garden of good and evil, with the potential to be mostly good if it doesn’t let the business always get in the way.

From a Harvard dorm room

In his latest post Zuckerberg reflects on the early days of Facebook – still pretty much the blueprint that many start-ups have followed or have been inspired by – when it was a campus company at Harvard. He rightly points out that the social network’s arrival was timely, capturing the perfect storm of connectivity and social change.

“This desire to express ourselves, learn about each other and connect in new ways was greater than I’d imagined. Within a couple of weeks, two-thirds of Harvard students were using Facebook almost every day. In the next couple of months, students from other places emailed me and my roommates to launch at their schools, and we opened at almost 30 schools. Within a year, more than 1m students were connecting on the site. In a couple of years, we were working on making the service available to everyone. It took about four years for 100m people to connect, and less than a decade for 1bn people to connect. Today, about 2.7bn people are connected using our services.”

Zuckerberg rightly points out that this first decade of people wiring up their computers and phones was an “exhilarating time” and that communities up until that point were defined by geography, and it took a long time for an idea or change to proliferate. The only way to protest or highlight wrongdoing was by holding a placard or by raising the issue with politicians or the press.

But social media has changed this. Today, if you want to fundraise for a cause, for example, you can do so by tapping into your global community of friends, and a lot of people lately are using their birthday celebrations for this. It is a small but worthy example of the good that the social network is capable of. It is both simply amazing and empowering.

Use the force, Mark

But Zuckerberg also needs to remember how these social networks have been tampered with by bad actors, videos of crime have proliferated, people have been exploited, and the platform has become an avenue for so-called ‘fake news’ and more. He appears to resent the bad light that this shines on the network, saying “another force is at play”.

“As networks of people replace traditional hierarchies and reshape many institutions in our society – from government to business to media to communities and more – there is a tendency of some people to lament this change, to overly emphasise the negative, and in some cases to go so far as saying the shift to empowering people in the ways the internet and these networks do is mostly harmful to society and democracy.

“To the contrary, while any rapid social change creates uncertainty, I believe what we’re seeing is people having more power, and a long-term trend reshaping society to be more open and accountable over time. We’re still in the early stages of this transformation and in many ways it is just getting started. But if the last 15 years were about people building these new networks and starting to see their impact, then the next 15 years will be about people using their power to remake society in ways that have the potential to be profoundly positive for decades to come.”

Zuckerberg is hinting at bigger questions down the road, such as how artificial intelligence that didn’t exist 15 years ago is enabling change at a sweeping scale.

I don’t doubt Zuckerberg’s sincerity, but people debating or questioning the negative potential of technology, or discussing privacy, breaches and disinformation, is precisely the kind of open debate he is supposedly in favour of.

Facebook, please be precisely the kind of change you want to see in the world. Walk the talk.

“When I started Facebook, I believed that we all have a deep desire to focus more of what we do around people – not just content, commerce, companies, apps or politics. I still believe this today, and I’m grateful to everyone in our community who believes this too and is building this world every single day. Here’s to a great 15 years to come.”

For the most part and to be fair, a good portion of these past 15 years was free of the scandals and debacles that have haunted Facebook over the last two to three years. People always had questions, but Facebook has made Zuckerberg and a cadre of techies very, very wealthy. They need to show their gratitude by guaranteeing a safe and secure social network.

Dear Mark and Facebook, happy birthday! There is no doubt your social networks are helping to shape society, but it is critical you make progress on these bigger questions too. Be the change. Set the example.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years