Mark Zuckerberg is impossible to profile. He’s a narrative anti-catalyst, who takes all the elements of a fantastic story, and renders them lifeless, probably on purpose. The latest New Yorker contains about 14,000 exceedingly well-crafted words about Zuckerberg, and yet, not once do we catch a glimpse of the man outside his carefully managed cocoon of self-awareness. When there is a reporter around, he’s never thinking aloud, or hanging around with his friends, or talking shit. He is never in the heat of the moment. He is the anti–Elon Musk.
But Zuckerberg says what he means to say. If you go back through Facebook’s history, Zuckerberg has telegraphed what his company will do. With that in mind, here are eight things that Zuckerberg said that are worth paying attention to, beginning with his argument against regulation.
1. Why shouldn’t Congress regulate big-tech companies?
In the past, Facebook executives have warned, with straight faces, that more onerous regulation would hurt smaller internet companies, further entrenching the company’s own power. But in the New Yorker profile, Zuckerberg gave a different justification for the government to keep its hands off: American global competitiveness, and the specter of an internet dominated by Chinese companies.
“I think that anything that we’re doing to constrain [big-tech companies] will, first, have an impact on how successful we can be in other places,” he said. “I wouldn’t worry in the near term about Chinese companies or anyone else winning in the U.S., for the most part. But there are all these places where there are day-to-day more competitive situations—in Southeast Asia, across Europe, Latin America, lots of different places.”
2. Why has the company been so passive about ethnic cleansing in Myanmar?
The brutal treatment of the Rohingya people has garnered coverage around the world, with many humanitarian observers pointing their fingers at Facebook’s role in whipping up divisive fervor. Yet the company struggled to even face the problem for years. Zuckerberg offered the promise that the company knows it has problems there.
“We’re taking this seriously,” he said. “You can’t just snap your fingers and solve these problems. It takes time to hire the people and train them, and to build the systems that can flag stuff for them.”
He also said that he “hates” that Facebook is “not moving as quickly as we would like.”
3. Why is Mark Zuckerberg obsessed with Augustus, the Roman emperor?
In perhaps the most fascinating section of the profile, Zuckerberg described his interest in Augustus, who, by his description, “through a really harsh approach, he established two hundred years of world peace.”
His interest is longstanding. “My wife was making fun of me, saying she thought there were three people on the honeymoon: me, her, and Augustus,” Zuckerberg said of a 2012 trip to Rome. “All the photos were different sculptures of Augustus.”
The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos suggests that Zuckerberg is interested in the way the Roman leaders had to deal with very tough “trade-offs,” as Zuckerberg put it. Ancient Rome had “good and bad and complex figures” who were working out issues of power and the common good. What should one be willing to do to bring 200 years of world peace? Mark Zuckerberg has clearly considered this particular scale of justice.
4. Is “fake news” an overblown problem?
Here, we’re talking about the original definition of “fake news,” which is hoax stories created whole-cloth from nothing. Many analyses found that these stories were very popular in the run-up to the 2016 election, but were also a small percentage of the overall Facebook conversation around the election.
Given the definition, Zuckerberg continues to think this kind of “fake news” is overblown. “The average person might perceive, from how much we and others talk about it, that there is more than ten times as much misinformation or hoax content on Facebook than the academic measures that we’ve seen so far suggest,” he said.
Did these hoaxes have an effect on the 2016 election? “I still think that’s the kind of thing that needs to be studied,” he told Osnos.
5. Will one social network rule them all?
The world is increasingly socially networked. Nonetheless, Zuckerberg tells the New Yorker “there’s a natural zero-sumness” to these competing platforms. Facebook can’t just build the “best features,” but has to build “the best community.”
It would be interesting to know how Zuckerberg reconciles this belief with the fact that Facebook operates three different huge social networks—the core service, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Can there be multiple best communities?
6. Does Zuckerberg read a traditional newspaper?
“There’s really no newspaper that I pick up and read front to back,” he said. “Well, that might be true of most people these days—most people don’t read the physical paper—but there aren’t many news Web sites where I go to browse.”
7. Can technologists and doctors end disease?
Zuckerberg talks briefly about the ambitions he has for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the expansive, mostly philanthropic effort he’s committed 99 percent of his family’s wealth to. One stated aspiration is to “help cure all disease in our children’s lifetime,” but does Zuckerberg really think that’s possible?
“On average, every year for the last 80 years or so, I think, life expectancy has gone up by about a quarter of a year. And, if you believe that technological and scientific progress is not going to slow, there is a potential upside to speeding that up,” he said. “We’re going to get to a point where the life expectancy implied by extrapolating that out will mean that we’ll basically have been able to manage or cure all of the major things that people suffer from and die from today. Based on the data that we already see, it seems like there’s a reasonable shot.”
So, yes, he does believe there is a “reasonable shot” at helping cure all diseases in the next, say, 100 years.
8. Does Mark Zuckerberg have emotions?
I asked Zuckerberg whether he finds it insulting when people speculate that he lacks emotions. “Insulting?” he asked, and then paused for several seconds to consider. “I don’t find it insulting. I don’t think it’s accurate. I mean, I definitely care a lot. There’s a difference between letting emotions drive impulsive decisions and caring.” He went on, “Ultimately, I think the reason that we built this successful thing is because we just solve problem after problem after problem, and typically you don’t do that by making impulsive, emotional decisions.”
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