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A Conversation with Facebook's Chris CoxMolly Wood talks to Facebook's vice president of product about privacy, opt-in, the future of the social network, and whether the company is selling data to advertisers. Tune in!
^M00:00:00 [ Music ] ^M00:00:08 >>Molly Wood: Hello and welcome to another installment of CNET conversations. I'm Molly Wood. Joining me today is Chris Cox, Vice President of Product for Facebook. Facebook is approaching the milestone of 500 million users worldwide so we thought that we would take this opportunity to talk to Chris about the growth of the company, the threat of competitors on the horizon, how you've been dealing with some of those pesky private concerns you might have been hearing a little bit about lately. Thank you so much for coming in. >>Chris Cox: Thanks a lot. >>Molly Wood: And we will jump right in. Actually tell us a little bit about your role because your kind of the new guy on the interview circuit for us? >>Chris Cox: That's awesome. Uhm, I'm our head of products so I manage product management and design. I spend a bunch of time with the teams on our product strategy and how they're executing. >>Molly Wood: So, when you say product, obviously, you don't mean Widgets and Screws, you're talking about aren't you the guy that kind of pioneered the new speed? Go on toot your horn. >>Chris Cox: I worked on the new speed team for the original version of new speed that was about five years ago when I started at Facebook. >>Molly Wood: Okay. >>Chris Cox: But the product is not just the website it's also the platform for developers to build social applications on the web. It's a bunch of different mobile experiences so it's more than just Facebook.com. >>Molly Wood: Right. Great. So, let's talk a little bit about the unfettered growth. Any day now you're expecting to hit 500 million users. >>Chris Cox: We're hoping to. >>Molly Wood: Off you go. What is the plan as you, you know, obviously, like recently Mark Zuckerberg predicted that you would hit a billion users within three to five years. Is Facebook just going to become the new web? >>Chris Cox: Uhm, I don't think so, though, we do think of ourselves as something that's helping make the web better. Uhm, if you think about the web as mostly anonymous there's a lot of anonymous comments, there's a lot of sites where it's just a person interacting with a service. We think about where we want to take things as being you can go to a bunch of different websites and new site, a music site, a shopping site and be there with your friends. So, it becomes a more connected experience and it becomes one that's more social and more personal. >>Molly Woods: So you're like a, I've been calling you a medo [phonetic] like you just lay on top of the web and kind of build those connections? >>Chris Cox: Uhm, I think that we would say that we lay under the web. We're like a piece of infrastructure that can be used to help make an experience better. >>Molly Wood: Okay. And then let's talk a little bit about that growth. Now, you've had this sort of unchecked growth for a while but then there's new information from inside Facebook saying that the dew numbers were down a little bit that that key demographic 18 to 44 either left or didn't join up quite as fast. Are you seeing that? Are you seeing a little slowing in growth? Do you feel like maybe there's a little bit of a backlash happening? >>Chris Cox: Uhm, so we're seeing growth up into the right. We have been since I started there and we continue to see it everyday. I think there was a lot of backlash and we spent a bunch of time trying to make the controls just more simple and intuitive and to communicate better about what we were and we weren't doing and we think that that dealt with a lot of the issues that people had. >>Molly Wood: So, you felt that inside the company that you needed to do something because you were at risk of not growing? >>Chris Cox: Uhm, more that it wasn't really about growth, it was just that we wanted a product that people felt that they understood and that they trusted so if the controls are too complicated for people it was very, very clear that the directive for us was to just drastically kind of simplify them and then re-communicate how things work. >>Molly Wood: And on that note let's, I want to dive right into some of the user questions. Obviously, the number one concern they have is privacy and I think that it could really be boiled down to this one question which is "Why should our users trust Facebook?" >>Chris Cox: Because we're trying to build a great product and we have been for a long time and we will be for a long time and that's our reason for existence. There's no other motivation than that. >>Molly Wood: Is it possible that trying to build a great product might not always put the user's interests first? I think that's the question they want answered, you know. >>Chris Cox: I think for us it does. Uhm, and a lot of the things we've been trying to do are very new experiences so they introduce a lot of curiosity about what's happening and why is this happening. We often tell the news feed story or we talk about when we first opened up the site to people outside of college. It was something that was tumultuous for the user base but it was something that we felt was the best for everyone at large. Our commitment is going to be to communicate the stuff better and be very, very clear about why we're taking the product in the direction that we are whenever we do but at the core of our heart is we want to build something amazing and we want to help people connect with those around them and there's never been any other motivation than that. >>Molly Wood: And clearly your philosophy is that the more open the better, right, and do you feel like it's part of your job to communicate to users that that is in fact the plan and that when you sign on that's what you're going to get? >>Chris Cox: Not exactly. So, what we're communicating to a user who signs on as here's what you're doing, here's how the site works and here's how you can control every piece of information that you share and that's actually the number one priority. >>Molly Wood: And what about opt out? Are people going to, I think that was one of the things that most recently at least people felt frustrated by is that every change you made, they were opted into. >>Chris Cox: Yeah, so the vast majority of the changes we make are opt in which means the user would need to share something like type of status update in order to participate in the, you know, status of its product or, you know, you'd need to add a photo in order to use the photo's product but a lot of the things that we've rolled out recently we felt that we wanted people to be able to experience in order to understand what it was and that was no amount of language or text that would really help say this is exactly what the product is and so that's where we did sort of a blend of here's what we're about to show you then you would experience it and then you'd be given the opportunity to say I don't want this. >>Molly Wood: Now, that might be a little bit of different definition of opt in than I think of it. You're saying if you share, right, the opt in part is whether you're on the site or not? Whether you're participating on the site but I think users feel that when you introduce a new feature, they are opted into that feature. >>Chris Cox: Yeah. >>Molly Wood: Do you see the difference there or do you feel like that...? >>Chris Cox: I think the main responsibility for us is to communicate what's going on and give people control. >>Molly Wood: Okay. >>Chris Cox: And opt in and opt out are ways of getting that but I think the primary responsibility comes back to here's what we're doing and here's how you control it. >>Molly Wood: Okay. I have to ask you this as directly as possible because it came back over and over. Is Facebook giving personal data to advertisers? >>Chris Cox: No. >>Molly Wood: Anonymous data? >>Chris Cox: So, advertisers get information about at a very, very broad level who's interacted with their ads but it's not personalized and it's not identifiable to anyone. So, they might see that more men clicked on their ads than women but they wouldn't see anything that identified anybody who interacted with them. >>Molly Wood: Okay, you promise? >>Chris Cox: Yes. >>Molly Wood: Alright, a lot of questions were to that effect with some very blunt language. I think people really, is this a PR problem? I mean people, you know, there was one guy who said "How much money is Facebook making by giving out private information?" but he didn't actually use the word giving to whatever company asked for it. Do you feel like there's a perception problem there? >>Chris Cox: Yes. We give out, you know, we get zero dollars from giving that information to anybody. It's just not something we do. >>Molly Wood: Yeah and then the other question that a lot of users had actually is I guess just in case, how do I delete my Facebook account? That use to be the number one question on your help pages. >>Chris Cox: Uhm, do you want me to answer that? >>Molly Wood: Yeah, I mean, can people get out? >>Chris Cox: Yeah, it's pretty easy. Uhm, you go to account settings and then you hit deactivate and then in case you want to erase all the information instead of just make it invisible, you can actually go and delete and we'll remove it from the servers. >>Molly Wood: There is delete? >>Chris Cox: Yeah. >>Molly Wood: Okay. I think people just though there was deactivate so it a little how to... >>Chris Cox: We added the deletion just because people asked for it. >>Molly Wood: Great, okay. We'll just clip that out and make a little how to video for later cause I get so many of those questions and then, you know, moving onto just sort of the marketplace at large. There are reports that Google might do a social network, Google Me. Are you worried about that or are you thinking about that, do you think that's likely? >>Chris Cox: Uhm, I think it's likely. I mean I think Google and a bunch of other companies that are trying to build products for people are understanding that there's this trend towards interactions with web with the web and with the mobile devices are going to be more and more social and I think Google is going to participate in that and a lot of people are. >>Molly Wood: And does that, are you worried about that as a potential new competitor? >>Chris Cox: Uhm, I think we're interested to see what they do, I mean Google has launched a bunch of social products in the past and I think they will continue to do so in the future. We've worked with Google on some stuff like there's a really great Android integration for importing your contacts in your phone and, you know, I'm not going to worry until we see anything that causes us to be afraid but my expectation is that Google and a bunch of the other technology companies are going to be integrating this like people into the stuff that they build because that makes the experience better and I think people will just come to expect that and, you know, we're proud if we've helped to create that trend. >>Molly Wood: We got a really interesting to that effect actually, it talked about all of the companies in Silicon Valley, all of these big companies that are building user bases that are based on connecting them and how you have this kind of love hat tension potentially, you know, you work together for sure but at some point you might be really butting heads in the ring. >>Chris Cox: I mean there's competition in a lot of different areas for a lot of these companies and that's just part of the game and that's cool. >>Molly Wood: And then how big a threat do you see Twitter being? Is there kind of brewing war there? There was a little back and forth about, you know, features of the Twitter app that may have been disabled and that kind of thing? >>Chris Cox: I don't think so. Twitter and us are I think doing some pretty different things. There are obviously areas where we intersect but I think about this as this massive empty space which is people online. You know, people sharing with each other, people connecting and a lot of these services just become interfaces for us interacting with each other rather than us interacting with machines and I think Twitter and Facebook and some of Google's stuff are like this very, very beginning of this trend but that had just become something resounding and full and ubiquitous and it's Facebook, it's Twitter, it's a 1,000 companies that haven't been built yet and when we look at it from that vantage point, Twitter doesn't look like something that we need to go compete with. It just looks like another medium in this whole landscape of products that are being built around people. >>Molly Wood: So, in some way you could potentially absorb whatever everyone else is building and kind of make it part of your [inaudible] system potentially? Could it all just live on Facebook? >>Chris Cox: In some cases or it could live off Facebook. I mean a lot of what we've built is the ability for people to do stuff off of Facebook that involves the information they put on Facebook like, you know, going to see that and seeing what articles your friend shared with you. >>Molly Wood: Right. >>Chris Cox: And so, when we look at the world it's not about taking the stuff and bringing it into the website, it's actually about taking what's great about the website and making it easy for users to bring that elsewhere and have that experience elsewhere. >>Molly Wood: Okay. I want to ask you about your mobile strategy actually to that effect not just the website. So, at first you weren't going to do an iPhone app, it seemed to take a long time, the Android app? >>Chris Cox: And iPad app you mean? >>Molly Wood: Well, there is no iPad app, right? >>Chris Cox: Right, there's an iPhone app. >>Molly Wood: And it seemed like the iPhone app kind of took a while, the Android app is not awesome, no offense, but you know your stats say 100 million users are mobile. >>Chris Cox: Yeah. >>Molly Wood: What is the strategy for really being there with mobile? >>Chris Cox: So, first it's just to be available on every phone and if you've read about some of the initiatives like Zero.Facebook.com which basically is a zero rated data plan for phones in areas where we may just want to subsidize sort of the costs, we've eliminated the photos and a lot of the images so we're just sending less bytes over the wire so that the primary goal for mobile is and will be for a while just being available everywhere and then we're starting to invest in having better smartphone applications like you said, they're growing bigger and bigger. I mean the core reason that we don't have just like ridiculously full featured apps on all of these phones is we have a really, really small team. So, the first order of business is just hiring and getting more and more people so that we can have, you know, an iPhone team and an Android team and people working on growing Facebook. But in the meantime, we're really just focusing on making these things fast, enabling the basic functionality for the things you want to do when you're walking around and making Facebook available on every phone. >>Molly Wood: Is an iPad in the works? >>Chris Cox: Uhm, it's something that we'll announce when it exists and, you know, we don't want to talk too much about those products before they exist. >>Molly Wood: Okay. >>Chris Cox: The other thing that's worth mentioning is that we've built, we've enabled our platform, Facebook Connect on a lot of these mobile devices so that game developers or other developers on these phones can just plug right into whatever the user wants to share with them. So, that games like this Word Tap game is basically like instantly social which is cool. >>Molly Wood: Right, yeah. >>Chris Cox: Because you'd rather play with your friends than a random person on the web. >>Molly Wood: Right, although isn't the goal to have every random person on the web become your friend eventually? Let's talk a little bit about Facebook's kind of social impact. Obviously, there's the movie. Can you tell me like what was the reaction inside Facebook when that Trailer came out? You know, what are you guys feeling about the movie? >>Chris Cox: The Trailer, there's one trailer out, right, it's like a minute, it's pretty creepy, right? >>Molly Wood: It's a little weird. >>Chris Cox: Yeah. >>Molly Wood: Yeah. >>Chris Cox: Uhm, I think for most people of us it's kind of a diversion because we know Mark and we've seen this book come out before the movie that was clearly pretty ridiculous in that it really didn't talk about who Mark was as we know him. >>Molly Wood: Right. >>Chris Cox: And I think it's a signal that what we're doing is more and more impactful and is more and more crazy and is touching these outer reaches of the world but when we think about what's cool that's happening, it's people assembling to organize a political movement or it's, you know, students organizing to protest a policy for a bank or for a school or people using this to do something that is really making their lives better because now they have a medium with which they can assemble. That's cool. The fact that a movie is being made about us, you know, is neat but it's not like the stuff inside the company that were really focused. >>Molly Wood: What is it, I mean, that was just kind of one question we had too. What is it like being inside a company like Facebook, like here you were this college storm idea and now you're this phenomenon. I mean clearly you must feel that you're right to some extent, people want to be connected on the web and they want to have those easier ways to connect and organize and, what is it like to be part of this, you're riding the rocket right now? >>Chris Cox: I mean it's like riding a rocket. It's been that way for a while. It's pretty crazy. There's a lot of stuff coming in from outside, you know, you walk outside and everybody wants to talk to you about the product and that's awesome. The interesting thing is that when we started nobody took us seriously and so we had to develop this sort of inner drive which said that even though everybody around you tells you that you're a joke or a fad or that nobody will ever put their name on the internet or that this is the bottom on the priority list of a bunch of the predominate important tech companies that you have something that is cool and that you have something that is eminently valuable and useful and that can be like a profound influence on the way technology works. You know, what if technology were organized around us? And that was this kind of like, you know, light that we had to hold and learn to see and have like in the building, in the company, like we believe in this, we know what this is. People would say "Oh, you're another MySpace," right. >>Molly Wood: Right, or how are you going to keep from becoming another MySpace? >>Chris Cox: Well, yeah and I think that's about your principles and we knew inside that we weren't another MySpace, you know, the first person you meet when you meet Facebook is your friends and I think now that we're big, what really prepared us to, now obviously people take us seriously and people think it's important and that's great and I think we're really proud of that but the sort of like depth when everybody tells you something is a bad idea for a period of time, I think you develop a you have to really believe in it, you have to like develop a core group of people that really believes and understands why we are doing this, why we are not selling this thing for a billion dollars, you know, why we are not trying to put ads everywhere and jack up or why we are not selling data or all this other stuff. It's like hard for people to imagine but I always just remember, you know, when it was a small group of people in a room and just the eyes wide of like, you know, the internet is an anonymous place and you can find out massive amounts of information about the President and Brittany Spears and you can find the GDP of Spain 10 years ago and you can read the Library of Congress but in 2004 you couldn't go figure out what was going on with your cousin. >>Molly Wood: Right. >>Chris Cox: And so it's like guys this is a really big deal. This is a big opportunity. >>Molly Wood: It must be that then, I mean we talked a lot about how like everything you do is up for debate everywhere including on Facebook, you know, you get the movements against the changes that you made. >>Chris Cox: Yeah. >>Molly Wood: And is that the core that you have that basically makes you able to say like look we believe that we're right, you know? >>Chris Cox: Yeah, but it's not, I mean, we've gotten I think humbled by the intensity and the amount of caring that people have for their experience on Facebook and, you know, it doesn't mean that we say just, oh, this is the right thing to do, peace out. You know, we took the entire engineering team after this privacy backlash started to build in the press and redirected, stop everything we're doing, let's go lock down and reorganize and re-simplify and re-commit to the controls that people can understand and this last announcement we had last week was called Granular Data Permissions, it's a way for users to more clearly see how the data that they've put into Facebook is going to [inaudible] when they use it and so we're investing a lot of time and energy in the stuff that just allows people to feel safe and in control. >>Molly Wood: And do you feel like you're in a state now where people will never be happy or do you still feel like there's more to do or you feel like you're kind of getting there in terms of what people are asking you for? >>Chris Cox: We have a massive amount to do. I mean we are literally 1% of the way there when we look at our product and when we look at the web page and we look at the mobile experiences when we look at the rest of the web and when you just imagine like what it feels like to be with people, your friends, your family, your loved ones and how when something happens to you, they're the people you go to to share it. You know, that's a feeling that can exist on the web if we build it, you know, and they like organized around them and we're really, really focused on that idea. >>Molly Wood: Okay, clearly. I mean you're like pretty passionate. Do you feel like you're prepared, I mean, do you feel like you, Facebook, you know, obviously it's got, you said you're riding the rocket, do you feel like you're prepared for what the future is going to bring 500 million people, a billion people, you know, do you have the leadership, do you have the belief. >>Chris Cox: Yeah. I mean I think one thing that's really emerged at Facebook is the strong leadership team. We've got a huge team of great engineers, we're continuing to bring in a great engineering team to make the site fast, to make it reliable to roll out all of this stuff but we're feeling ready to rock. >>Molly Wood: Alright, well, here it comes and I think that's a good place to end actually. Thank you so much for being with us and... >>Chris Cox: Thanks for having me. >>Molly Wood: Of course, thanks for coming in. You can join the conversation at our blog CNET.com/conversations. I'm Molly Wood. Thanks for watching and we'll see you next time.