On Wednesday, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and chief executive of Facebook, gave his first public interviews since the Cambridge Analytica story broke.
He spoke with outlets that form an outline, in a way, of the modern shape of American media. So there was The New York Times and CNN, of course; as well as Wired, the Bay Area’s cultural organ; and Recode, the tech industry’s paper of record.
All four publications have published unedited transcripts of their interviews with him. No one comes off very well in such a format, but I was struck by how poorly Zuckerberg fares. His company is facing its worst trading days since it went public, and users are fleeing its flagship product in large enough numbers to generate trend stories. The company’s long-simmering crisis of public trust has finally come to a head.
Yet when asked about these existential stakes, Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to get it. Take this exchange with Kevin Roose, a New York Times technology reporter:
Roose: Is the basic economic model of Facebook, in which users provide data that Facebook uses to help advertisers and developers to better target potential customers and users—do you feel like that works, given what we now know about the risks?
Zuckerberg: Yeah, so this is a really important question. The thing about the ad model that is really important that aligns with our mission is that—our mission is to build a community for everyone in the world and to bring the world closer together. And a really important part of that is making a service that people can afford. A lot of the people, once you get past the first billion people, can’t afford to pay a lot. Therefore, having it be free and have a business model that is ad-supported ends up being really important and aligned.
This question is “really important,” but Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to grasp why or how. He says that Facebook’s ad-driven business model is crucial to its mission. He seems to assume that everyone has bought into Facebook’s mission.
But Facebook’s mission is at the very heart of the current scandal. These are the questions that the Financial Times, a paper not exactly known for its anti-corporate fervor, asked this week: “Why did Facebook take so little action when the data leak was discovered? ... Who is accountable for the leak? ... Why does Facebook accept political advertisements at all? ... Should not everyone who cares about civil society simply quit Facebook?”
Mark, maybe now is not the time to assume that everyone loves your “mission.”
Reading through the transcripts, Zuckerberg reminded me of another troubled communicator: Hillary Clinton. In public, he is just as methodical, just as unvaried as the erstwhile presidential candidate; above all, he sometimes seems to take his own correctness for granted.
Like Clinton, Zuckerberg’s attempts to sound contrite come across as humblebrag-like excuses. “I started this when I was so young and inexperienced,” he told CNN. “I’ve probably launched more products that have failed than most people will in their lifetime.”
And like Clinton, Zuckerberg has never nailed the art of the rousing emotional appeal. He has never delivered a stirring invitation to join Facebook; he has never convinced a large audience that he feels their pain. (Unlike Zuckerberg, Clinton was reportedly quite successful at this in private.)
Zuckerberg is, in short, not a performer, and he lacks the performer’s feel for how an earnest and witty performance can soften the hearts of even the most skeptical crowd.
Facebook’s problem is simple: It is a staggeringly powerful civic and commercial institution that has lost the public’s trust. Talking to the press is one way to regain that trust. But as chief executive—and as the face of the company since its inception—Zuckerberg must show that he understands that he even lost that trust in the first place, let alone why. Then he has to ask users for their trust back and take responsibility for fixing it.
And if he wants the public to think fondly of Facebook again, he has to recruit us to it, has to remind us of the beauty of a connected world, has to act like the vessel of a tremendous societal responsibility.
Instead, he shrugs and implies that it would be impossible for anyone in his position to do any better.
“There’s no way that sitting in a dorm in 2004 you’re going to solve everything up front,” he told Wired. “It’s an inherently iterative process, so I don’t tend to look at these things as: Oh, I wish we had not made that mistake. I mean, of course I wish we didn’t make the mistakes, but it wouldn’t be possible to avoid the mistakes. It’s just about, how do you learn from that and improve things and try to serve the community going forward?”
Zuckerberg has led Facebook for 14 years. During that time, he has never shone as a particularly charismatic or charming communicator. (There is a popular if fictionalized movie about this, and it won several Oscars.) And while no one in the American technology industry today can rival Steve Jobs for evangelism, Zuckerberg isn’t even Steve Ballmer, who directed Microsoft with a dad-like enthusiasm from 2000 to 2014. Yet Zuckerberg has sailed along as CEO for that decade and a half, propelled by his product’s incredible success, his company’s astonishing profitability, and his personally keen business instinct.
Until now. This crisis is the first time where Zuckerberg’s skills seem utterly unmatched to the scale of his company’s crisis in such a way that it poses a problem for the company itself. Zuckerberg has long stoked an image as a socially awkward boy genius, in part because he probably was. As he gets older—he is only 33 now, despite being so long in the saddle—the allure of this public persona wears thin. He begins to look more like a Large Adult CEO.
I am an observer of technology, not a business analyst, and I have no idea if Zuckerberg should resign. I do know he almost certainly won’t. Even though Facebook went public in May 2012, Zuckerberg has maintained majority control of the company. Public investors in Facebook basically buy the right to ride Zuckerberg’s coattails. Unless the stock suddenly began hemorrhaging value, the only person with the power to fire Zuckerberg is Zuckerberg himself.
That may not matter right now. Facebook will probably escape this episode as it has escaped all the rest, with its reputation dinged and its Western user base slightly smaller and slightly more prone to self-loathing. Mark Zuckerberg will remain its chief executive. No one will challenge his power. Personal privacy will erode, democracies will weaken, and the mission-driven corporation will endure. Zuckerberg will control the personal data of millions, will treat it as recklessly as ever, and will not be unseated.