Zuck's 2019 tech talk tour should tackle the questions Facebook spent 2018 dodging

Otherwise it's just another glossy, scripted PR op


Comment After the year he's had, Mark Zuckerberg probably felt he deserved a bit of a laugh.

Because, after spending 2018 dodging any unscripted discussion about Facebook's impact on society, he's decided his 2019 "personal challenge" will be... a set of scripted discussions about technology's impact on society.

Zuck's own brand of new year's resolutions, born in a more innocent time for Facebook, started with rather vanilla pledges: read books, write thank-you notes, wear a tie.

As Zuckerberg set his sights a bit higher, the resolutions escalated too. First, he was to build an AI house, then go on a US meet-and-greet tour (remember the days when Zuck had to deny he was running for president?) – and last year, when he realised his firm's rep was starting to crumble around him, he was going to "fix Facebook's problems".

Having failed – fairly spectacularly – to do that, Zuck has reined things back in, settling for a series of cosy fireside chats with "leaders, experts and people in our community from different fields".

Which seems a bit of a kick in the teeth for the UK's digital committee – not to mention the eight nations it banded up with at the end of 2018 – which has been badgering Zuckerberg for a face-to-face for months. Indeed, chairman Damian Collins offered a starting point for Zuck's "2019 tech talk tour".

That seems rather unlikely, especially as the "public" discussions will see the 34-year-old billionaire step into the shoes of social media editors, podcasters and influencers, broadcasting his talks on Facebook or Instagram – but don't worry, they'll be in "different formats to keep it interesting".

In his post outlining the plan, Zuck claimed it would be a personal challenge because, as an engineer, he is (apparently) used to building things, not debating their future impact.

Aside from leaning on the tired cliché that all boffins are incapable of interacting with the public or putting their work into a wider context, Zuck is trying to sell the idea that he is pushing himself. "I'm going to put myself out there more than I've been comfortable," he said.

(Not that he seemed that uncomfortable dodging Congress's questions for 10 hours or telling European parliamentarians their time with him was up.)

For the talks to be truly challenging, Zuckerberg must do two things: first, choose not just friendly sparring partners, but genuine critics; second, answer unbriefed questions that get under the skin of his firm, its actions and his leadership.

And, colour this vulture sceptical, but it doesn't sound like the questions Zuck has lined up will touch on many of the issues he should be facing.

Yes, there are some valid, worthy, "big questions" on the list – how to ensure people still have jobs as more work is automated, or how to use the internet to solve problems on a global scale.

But nowhere is there mention of democracy, oppression, competition, regulation or internal culture – all topics that seem much more relevant to Facebook right now, and ones its execs have been accused of studiously avoiding.

Moreover, many of the points seem to be a way of selling the positives of Facebook and its other companies.

"Should we decentralize authority through encryption or other means to put more power in people's hands?" Sure, why not use WhatsApp?

"In a world where many physical communities are weakening, what role can the internet play in strengthening our social fabric?" Sounds a lot like Facebook's original social mission, no?

Others suggest Zuckerberg's existing biases. After a year being hounded by traditional media outlets like The New York Times and The Guardian, it's not hard to predict an answer to the question: "Do we want technology to keep giving more people a voice, or will traditional gatekeepers control what ideas can be expressed?"

But equally important here would be an acknowledgment that social media platforms are now acting as what could be described in this context as modern-day gatekeepers, many of whom are struggling to balance proportionality and public protection in their content moderation.

Of course, the questions are a starting point – the proof of the pudding will be in how he uses them to frame the debates, and who he chooses to debate them with.

But beyond this, and underlying the whole post, appears to be an acceptance that, with technology, what you see is what you get.

"I used to just build out my ideas and hope they'd mostly speak for themselves," Zuckerberg said in his reflection of his time as an engineer.

Perhaps, rather than building out the ideas and then debating how they've changed the world, a big question for Zuckerberg's list should be whether and how to use his and his firm's position to think about, and build, technology differently in the first place. ®

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