Zuckerberg talks about Facebook's future with News.com

After an arguably disastrous SXSWi interview, Facebook's founder sits down with CNET News.com's Caroline McCarthy to clear the air and talk about the site's future.

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
7 min read

AUSTIN, Texas--Mark Zuckerberg probably knew his keynote address at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival would produce a lot of press, but he likely didn't expect it to turn out the way it did.

CNET News.com sat down to chat with the young Facebook founder fewer than 24 hours after the widely criticized onstage interview with BusinessWeek journalist Sarah Lacy, in which a disappointed audience turned on Lacy and demanded better questions.

After the media flurry, Zuckerberg was understandably eager to move on and talk about different topics. But he still touched upon the incident, hinting that while he may not have been totally thrilled with the subject matter, he thought Lacy was still getting unnecessarily hounded.

The interview between journalist Sarah Lacy and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg got ugly quick and then went downhill. Caroline McCarthy/CNET News.com

"I thought she asked some interesting questions," Zuckerberg said. "We may have not talked about the things that were most relevant to the audience that was here, but I've worked with Sarah on a number of pieces, and I generally think she's really smart and didn't necessarily deserve the reaction that people gave her."

It wasn't the first time a crowd has started to get a bit energetic, Zuckerberg said. He likes to put a positive spin on it. "People shout things out because they're excited and passionate about what we're doing," he said. "People were shouting out things about, like, Beacon and privacy and things like that. Those were good questions for people to ask."

I asked Zuckerberg half-jokingly if he'd ever subject himself to an interview on The Colbert Report, where host Stephen Colbert has become notorious for putting interview subjects in extremely uncomfortable situations. Zuckerberg wouldn't give a definite answer, but he did say he thinks Colbert is "so funny."

Getting past the hype
Regardless of the media buzz over the SXSWi interview, Zuckerberg said he's still enjoyed himself at SXSWi. "It's been pretty interesting," he said. "I went to this panel on the worst Web sites...it was pretty funny."

But back to Facebook. Zuckerberg has said he would prefer if people focus less on the sensation--the backlash against Lacy, the press over Facebook's $15 billion valuation, his status as the youngest person that Forbes magazine has ever named to its list of billionaires--and more on what his company is actually doing. He reiterated that wish in Monday's interview.

"I feel like a lot of the press coverage around the company is on a few phenomenal events," he said, adding that he'd prefer to talk about "the way in which we help people interact and communicate, both on a subtle level of helping people make connections and increase the number of people that they can keep up relationships with, and increase their trust...(and) the sum of all those connections, and all that communication that's being enabled through the service."

Mark Zuckerberg From Zuckerberg's Facebook page

OK, fair enough. But he's still Mark Zuckerberg, the tech industry's current wunderkind and Generation Y's foremost example of a future business leader. In today's atmosphere of Project Red, U2's Bono as a Silicon Valley investor, and Bill Gates' "creative capitalism," every high-profile CEO is getting asked how he or she will help save the world. That came up for quite a bit of time in Sunday afternoon's keynote interview with Lacy.

But Zuckerberg said that for Facebook, it's way too early to think about that sort of thing. "I think at this point, because we're not incredibly profitable, we're not at that stage of the company--hopefully we get there--that's not really something that we can do a lot of," he admitted in Monday's interview. "But I'd like to think that just what the company is trying to do in general, just helping people communicate, is actually making the world better."

"A lot of people are actually building really interesting applications that are more to the tone of traditional philanthropy, like the Causes application," he added. "Just by making this development platform, we're enabling some of those things. The way that we're going about it isn't by donating money directly to charity."

Cutting the app spam
Zuckerberg, who steered clear of some of his usual buzz phrases like "social graph" and "social utility," repeatedly stressed that Facebook is a young company and that its focus right now is on growth. Over the next few months, member profiles will be getting a redesign so that the interface is cleaner and runs more smoothly--and cuts down on many of the developer applications that have earned a reputation for being annoying, "spammy," or pointless.

"The direction that it was going in with a lot of platform applications--people would just install a lot of applications," Zuckerberg said. "It wasn't clear that they actually wanted a lot of the boxes that they had in their profiles, but a lot of people didn't take the effort to clean them up, and that kind of made profiles a little more cluttered than we would have wanted, and that also contributed to them being a little slower than we would have wanted."

Consequently, in conjunction with the profile redesign, the developer platform will be getting a bit "smarter." Members will be able to send out more invitations to their friends to join an application, as well as see activity from it in news feeds across the site, if it has high levels of user engagement and people actually like it.

"If an app where almost every request that gets sent gets accepted or that the person acts on it and enjoys receiving that request, then that app should be able to send way more requests or prompt users to send way more requests," Zuckerberg explained.

Conversely, he said, this will cut down on applications that spread by spamming members who don't actually end up using it. "If an app has a lower acceptance rate, we'd let them publish (fewer) requests...it definitely makes sense that the apps that are providing the most trustworthy and the most useful information will get to publish the most information into people's feeds."

He didn't provide many technicalities, but he insisted that small-time developers shouldn't be concerned that this means only the likes of big application development companies like RockYou and Slide will get exposure on the site.

"They should actually be pretty excited about this because if they're actually providing trustworthy information, then they'll be able to get way more distribution from this than they ever were under the old system," he said.

Zuckerberg also touched upon a longstanding Facebook rumor, namely the impending launch of an internal payment system that could allow developers to integrate PayPal-like functions into their applications and potentially provide Facebook with a new source of revenue besides advertising. He claimed, however, that the priority is to help developers rather than jack up Facebook's profit margin.

"Most of the revenue things that we're doing in the short term--their focus isn't on building a large revenue stream," Zuckerberg said.

Adding a payment system just makes sense, he added. "With a lot of applications, people need to pay for different things...You could go with an example like SuperPoke, with which people are buying sets of icons or signals that they can send to friends, which is purely a social gesture, but it's real capital that's being exchanged, or if you go with an example like a book or a song or something like that...A lot of these things can be inherently social or have large social components, and just kind of further the type of communication that's going on, but it involves real economic capital."

Looking at Facebook's future
Some critics have said Facebook is going to have issues handling the hardware to support new features and increased growth. Zuckerberg insisted that it's not that hard.

"We have multiple data centers. We have a couple on the West Coast. We have somewhat of a cluster on the East Coast too," he said. "We basically have this model where we can just put servers anywhere."

But maintaining adequate hardware is necessary to speed the site up, Zuckerberg said. "It can take almost 100 milliseconds round-trip for the physical packets to get from the West Coast to the East Coast, and it can take another hundred milliseconds or so to get to Europe. So I think just having more proximate data centers is an important thing."

And on whether the shaky forecast for the U.S. economy will get in the way of that kind of growth, Zuckerberg said he's not too concerned. "I don't spend that much time studying the overall economic climate, even though people seem to think that there's this general slowdown going on," he said. "It may slow down slightly, or it may not be affected, but in general, our growth is so rapid that I would be pretty surprised if it got affected in a meaningful way."

Besides a potentially tougher economic climate, there's also the prospect of competition on the horizon. Facebook is not a part of the OpenSocial developer initiative that Google has kick-started for social-media sites, and Zuckerberg says the company still hasn't made its mind up about whether to get on board in the future.

Back in November, he'd voiced concerns about how secure the new standard would be. "My stance then was that it had iterations to go, but that Google is very talented at developing these things," Zuckerberg explained. "We're still kind of in somewhat of the same place, where it hasn't launched yet. So we're still kind of waiting to see how it plays out. I have a lot of confidence in those guys."

And, he added, the way to compete is to keep innovating. "I think that what we're watching out for is not one specific company, but just how the whole trend goes and what our role is going to be," Zuckerberg explained.

"Most of the social services that people use aren't going to be built by us," he said. "And that's cool. That's a good way to be. And so if Google's building some stuff, it could be completely complementary with us, but it's probably also going to move the ecosystem forward. We just kind of want to watch the direction that things are going in."

See more stories in CNET News.com's coverage of SXSWi.