How Facebook Became the Tech Company People Love to Hate

The platform has allowed our physical and digital selves to uncomfortably merge.

A demonstrator wears a giant mask of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Peter Nicholls / Reuters

His congressional testimony behind him, his company’s shares rebounding, a confident Mark Zuckerberg took the stage in San Jose on Tuesday at F8, Facebook’s annual conference. The Facebook CEO was as comfortable as I’ve ever seen him, as if all the trials of the last couple months leveled him up.

Zuckerberg spent the first 15 minutes of the two-day event in the mode he’s been in for a year: talking up the company’s responsibilities, promising reform, and rolling out new features intended to answer criticisms. The headline change is a new privacy control that allows Facebook users to delete the information that Facebook has gleaned about their browsing habits. Zuckerberg likened it to clearing a browser’s cookies. When it rolls out soon, it will go by the name Clear History.

And that seemed to be what this event was designed to do. The ugly stuff that engulfed the company since the run-up to the 2016 election hasn’t gone away, but the message seemed to be that they had measured the scope of the problem, assigned the appropriate resources, and now would keep people (and democracies) safe. Behind the scenes, Facebook has been in the most intense period of press outreach that I’ve ever seen: They’re ready to talk, ready to spar, ready to meet the challenge of what Zuckerberg referred to at F8 as a “broader view of their responsibility” to the world.

Before he ran through the litany of things Facebook has done to bolster informational and electoral integrity, Zuckerberg gave a sense of his thinking about what Facebook means. What would the world lose, he asked, if Facebook went away?

His answer was that in 2004, you could find almost anything on the internet, except what matters most to people: other people. “So I started building a service to put people first, and put people at the center of our relationship with technology,” Zuckerberg said.

This is strong new rhetoric from him, and it gets right to the heart of discomfort that many people in Silicon Valley and elsewhere feel about Facebook’s mission.

Facebook has closed the gap between who you are in the real world and what the machines have figured out about you. They’ve been building, as Zuckerberg told investors in October 2013, “the clearest models of everything there is to know in the world.” The company has forced the digital and physical worlds closer together.

That’s why their ads are effective, as indicated by their massive revenue growth, while the number of actual ad impressions they’ve served has grown modestly. Prices for ads on Facebook are going up because those ads are working better.

It’s also why the company had a real-name policy, and why they wanted their map of human relationships to be the map of human relationships. It’s why they’ve become deeply enmeshed in social and political processes from the neighborhood to the global scale.

Even in their more far-flung experiments in virtual reality, Facebook wants to defy distance, which is another way of saying they want to collapse the distinction between virtual and physical. So many of their new products—from augmented reality to group video chatting to virtual-reality concerts—are about doing stuff with your real-life friends in a digital setting or bringing digital objects into a physical-world setting. Cross back and forth across that line enough times and it’ll probably start to get porous or even disappear altogether.

In the past, Facebook talked about wanting to be the “identity” layer of the internet. Facebook wanted to be the way “you” brought “yourself” to various kinds of digital activities, from playing frivolous games to logging into crucial websites. The identity rhetoric fell out of fashion, but the desire has remained and expanded. Now, Facebook wants to be the identity layer of everything as the company accelerates the merging of our digital and physical selves.

It would be easy to say that Facebook wants to do this because they’ll make an unfathomable amount of money by being the actual, technical way you are a person in the future. But people who have been and are close to Zuckerberg tell me he really, genuinely doesn’t care about money. They say he’s never cared and still doesn’t. Money is just the fuel that runs the machines that let Facebook build the world that they alone believe they have glimpsed.

“I believe we need to design technology to bring people closer together,” Zuckerberg said on stage. “If we don’t work on this, the world isn’t moving in this direction by itself.”