At Developer Garage, Zuckerberg talks data portability, challenges abroad

The day after a rough keynote interview, the Facebook CEO shows up to a developer gathering at SXSWi to field questions about building on the site's platform.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
5 min read

AUSTIN, Texas--"Yesterday's Q&A wasn't enough fun!" Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg joked as he walked up to the stage at the "developer garage" event that the company had organized as part of the South by Southwest Interactive Festival. The 23-year-old CEO had opted to take some time and answer questions from the audience in between presentations geared toward developers.

Just hours earlier, Zuckerberg had sat down for an interview with CNET News.com about the company's future.

Speaking to a packed room at the Pangaea nightclub in downtown Austin, Zuckerberg's casual attitude and frequent quips at the "Developer Garage" were a far cry from the awkwardness of Sunday afternoon's SXSWi keynote, where he was interviewed by reporter Sarah Lacy and the audience became vocally disgruntled. While he typically stuck to his talking points about efficient communication and control over profile data, Zuckerberg offered a few interesting tidbits about the company's current challenges and future plans.

There was no introduction or speech: Zuckerberg just opened up the floor to questions, only to get an immediate question from a developer who wanted to know when a new feature about APIs for wall posts would be available. Zuckerberg didn't seem to expect that the questions would get so technical immediately. "While I said that we could ask about anything we wanted today," he said with a short laugh, "I don't think this is necessarily a great forum to lobby for specific features in Platform." He did provide the developer with some form of answer.

The second question was about Zuckerberg's reaction to the keynote and whether he'd dropped by for the impromptu Q&A to "do-over" what many people thought was a botched interview. "We were planning this Developer Garage before then, and I was planning on coming by," he said. Regarding the keynote, "We just didn't open it up to questions from people early enough. Sarah asked a lot of questions that I thought were pretty interesting...at the end, people asked really interesting questions."

Another audience member asked about recent statistics that suggest Web users spend twice as much time on MySpace than on Facebook. "I don't know if that's true," Zuckerberg said, and then insisted that the two are very different to the point where it might not be relevant to compare them. "We don't view ourselves as a traditional media property or media portal, which I think is how MySpace would define themselves."

Other questions addressed Facebook's impending payment system ("a service for developers, and we'll see where it goes"), and the popularity of casual-gaming applications on the site. On that one, Zuckerberg said Facebook hadn't anticipated how wild its success would be. "There have...been whole categories that we didn't necessarily anticipate getting popular," he said, and started talking about games like Scrabulous. "It's just not necessarily in the DNA of the company to build those sorts of things."

"Making sure that people's private information is private is a really important thing for us to do. We're not openly working with governments or anything. That said, we have to follow law."
--Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

One developer in the audience asked Zuckerberg if Facebook could pledge to match the move of any other major social network in terms of making data portable, in the manner of OpenSocial or DataPortability. "No," he said. "I don't think that we can necessarily be sure that what others are doing is correct. However, I do think that we're philosophically aligned with wanting data to be portable within different sites, so that's something that we're going to work on doing."

Someone else asked about what might happen if Facebook faced a situation where it was pressed to share user information with a government entity, in the U.S. or otherwise. "Making sure that people's private information is private is a really important thing for us to do. We're not openly working with governments or anything. That said, we have to follow law," Zuckerberg said, and insisted that Facebook would avoid "sitations where following the law is going to mean that we have to compromise people's privacy. One of the things we're thinking about internally right now is how to approach China." It's an ongoing debate, the young CEO said.

"In general, there are ways to position these things and make decisions, and set them up so that you create minimal exposure," he added amorphously."

Still another question was met with resounding applause, primarily because it came from the founder of the cult-phenomenon Web site Icanhascheezburger.com. The "lolcat" enthusiast inquired about people who are cutting back on their Facebook use and whether it concerns Zuckerberg.

"I don't know why specifically some people might have not used it, or might be using it and then using it less," Zuckerberg said. He then connected it to the chaos of the Facebook developer platform, and said that developments in the application system would clean that up. "An incredible amount of people's experience is platform apps, and that's good, that was our intention." But, Zuckerberg said, "we've aligned people's incentives poorly," with too much focus on just viral spread rather than usefulness of an application. With impending modifications, "spammy" apps will have a tougher time spreading, and ones that get used frequently (rather than just installed) will be able to proliferate.

The Icanhascheezburger guy wasn't the only Internet-famous audience member to ask a question. Soon after, a familiar voice inquired: "I'm Robert Scoble and I got kicked off of Facebook for a day," the popular blogger said. He asked Zuckerberg what he thought of the ability to port data off Facebook, which is what happened with the script that saw his account temporarily banned.

"I think that these are some of the questions that are really important, that need to be answered," Zuckerberg answered. For example, he said he thinks syndicating the News Feed through RSS would be "pretty interesting," but it would mean that users have less control over privacy settings. "I don't think anybody necessarily knows the answer at this point."

"It was just the act of scraping. A lot of the people who are building scrapers for Facebook actually have the intention to spam," he said. "We just have a policy against that."