What Facebook does when something's rotten

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's op-ed in The Washington Post this week pitches him as a fallible young monarch. Benevolent or not, he's still disconcertingly powerful.

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
4 min read

It's appropriate that Facebook, over the years, has liked to talk about itself as a sort of digital sovereignty. Way back in January of 2009, when CEO Mark Zuckerberg proudly announced on the company blog that the social network had 150 million users around the world he added the factoid, "If Facebook were a country, it would be the eighth most populated in the world, just ahead of Japan, Russia and Nigeria."

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Facebook

Facebook is now approaching half a billion active users, making it more populous than every country on Earth except for India and China. So what's a global superpower to do when it looks, more than ever, like it's run by a young monarch with little regard for his subjects? It's the oldest trick in the book: Paint the awkward 26-year-old as a fallible boy-king instead. He's not a conniving conqueror of user privacy, the company wants us to understand, he's the dauphin on the eve of battle. That's the image that Facebook put forward Monday in a Washington Post op-ed authored by Zuckerberg about the company's recent product changes that ignited a firestorm of user unrest over the state of private user data.

Either way, he's still extraordinarily powerful.

"It's a challenge to keep that many people satisfied over time, so we move quickly to serve that community with new ways to connect with the social Web and each other," Zuckerberg's op-ed explained. "Sometimes we move too fast--and after listening to recent concerns, we're responding." Sometime in the next few weeks, Facebook will "simplify" privacy controls. There will be a way to block connections to third parties altogether. Facebook wants its half-billion members to know that "you have control over how your information is shared" and that "we will keep building, we will keep listening and we will continue to have a dialogue with everyone who cares enough about Facebook to share their ideas."

There's no real apology for some of the shocking changes that pushed significant amounts of profile information public, leaving members wondering exactly who could access their profiles and what the company might do next. There's the requisite reference to Facebook's humble origins as a "simple dorm-room project" and the assertion that "there needs to be a simpler way to control your information." There's a guarantee that Facebook's "core principles" have not changed, which indirectly addresses the criticism that Facebook has changed wildly from its early days as a closed-off network where you could only join if you had a verified e-mail address from an elite university. He's saying, "Calm down; we'll do something."

It's an uncharismatic piece of writing. That's probably intentional. Though he's made significant progress in public speaking, Zuckerberg has never been a gifted communicator, preferring plain and PR-friendly language to anything that could be perceived as incendiary. Facebook has to make Zuckerberg look responsive, even meek; a young, unlikely leader with a dreamy vision of global connectedness who occasionally steers in the wrong direction.

But it's the specific choice of the Washington Post that's the most telling. Normally, when Zuckerberg issues his carefully crafted mea culpas, they're in the form of posts on the company blog. And Facebook's initial outreach to the press amid the current privacy debacle was to dispatch public policy head Elliot Schrage (an envoy of the court, if you will) for a question-and-answer piece at The New York Times.

The Washington Post is different. Not only is it the most powerful newspaper in a city where a handful of prominent lawmakers have been threatening to take action against Facebook, it also has a deep personal connection to Zuckerberg. Through a university connection, Zuckerberg became very close with Washington Post Company Chairman Donald Graham, and even courted an investment offer from the media company (tearfully, as David Kirkpatrick's new book "The Facebook Effect" explains) before naming Graham to Facebook's board of directors.

His op-ed, consequently, can seem to have a seal of approval from a father figure at the helm of a company that's established a solid reputation for trustworthiness over the course of generations, subtly highlighting Zuckerberg's youth in the process. (That said, Graham probably didn't have anything to do with the inclusion of the op-ed in his flagship newspaper.)

But the reality to this image of Zuckerberg as benevolent yet fallible monarch ("Whenever we make a change, we try to apply the lessons we've learned along the way") is that he's still the guy in charge and doesn't have to worry about any kind of re-election. Though one survey says that a full 60 percent of Facebook users have considered leaving the service recently, talk does not always equate to action; as of now, there's no legitimate alternative to Facebook that could make a sizable portion of its members want to "migrate." Case in point: Weblogs Inc. founder Jason Calacanis made a big show of deleting his personal Facebook profile, but maintains his public "fan page." That's how central Facebook has become to both marketing and interpersonal communication.

Truth be told, Facebook is not promising to make changes other than cleaning up privacy controls, and the "simpler" privacy controls may turn out to be an all-or-nothing option that will be so restrictive that members may not want to put them into place. We don't know yet. The editorial in the Washington Post may well convince some concerned users that Zuckerberg's intentions are ultimately good, but whether Zuckerberg is painted as lifelong conqueror or still-shell-shocked unlikely sovereign, this is still a young company with a disconcerting amount of power and there's no way for Facebook to spin that otherwise.

We're still the subjects of Crown Prince Zuckerberg, and for now, it'll probably stay that way.