Has Mark Zuckerberg created a monster that’s now beyond his control? While it’s true much of Facebook’s vast digital empire is watched over by machines of lucrative grace, it’s a bit credulous — as Wired’s Erin Griffith pointed out last week — to suggest the company is unable to police its platform effectively. Even Zuckerberg’s heavily qualified statement of regret about his declaration last year that it was “pretty crazy” to suggest the spread of fake news via Facebook influenced the election, doesn’t sound like it’s coming from someone who has lost control. It sounds like someone trying to figure out how to wield power with a bit more confidence.
More than any other living tech leader, Zuckerberg is emblematic of his company. You might make an argument for Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos, but the nature of their businesses means neither of them are thrust into the public eye as frequently as Zuckerberg is today. In light of all this, it was a real pleasure to read Max Read’s thoughtful consideration of Facebook in New York Magazine about the company’s protean qualities and Zuckerberg’s relationship to his creation. Through a mix of interviews and a close reading of Zuckerberg’s statements, writings, and actions over the past couple of years, Read manages one of the clearest distillations of Facebook’s many problems. (He’s also compiled a useful list of some of the writing that influenced the article.)
Over the past year I’ve heard Facebook compared to a dozen entities and felt like I’ve caught glimpses of it acting like a dozen more. I’ve heard government metaphors (a state, the E.U., the Catholic Church, Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets) and business ones (a railroad company, a mall); physical metaphors (a town square, an interstate highway, an electrical grid) and economic ones (a Special Economic Zone, Gosplan). For every direct comparison, there was an equally elaborate one: a faceless Elder God. A conquering alien fleet. There are real consequences to our inability to understand what Facebook is. Not even President-Pope-Viceroy Zuckerberg himself seemed prepared for the role Facebook has played in global politics this past year. In which case, how can we be assured that Facebook is really safeguarding democracy for us and that it’s not us who need to be safeguarding democracy against Facebook?
Every year, Zuckerberg likes to take on a personal challenge, which he announces in a Facebook post. (Last year he declared he would read two books a month and code a personal assistant, “like Jarvis in Iron Man.”) Read’s article is largely framed around Zuckerberg’s personal challenge for 2017: to travel and speak with people from all 50 states. This challenge, with its whistle-stop quality, has spurred rumors Zuckerberg is thinking of running for president in 2020, even though he’s publicly and repeatedly denied it. (Nitasha Tiku has pointed out he’s doing is exactly what you would expect the CEO of a company should do to appease his shareholders.)
Zuckerberg has consolidated power both for Facebook and for himself within the company. When the latter fails, Facebook is structured so that it minimizes damage to Zuckerberg himself. Last year, Zuckerberg and Facebook’s board proposed a plan to create a new class of non-voting stock which would allow him to remain in control of the company in the long-term. Last month the company dropped the plan when it settled a shareholder lawsuit. In a post about the settlement, Zuckerberg wrote that he had asked the board to withdraw the proposal in part because he could still follow through with plans to sell most of his stock to fund his (quasi-)philanthropic activities, and retain voting control of Facebook for 20 years.
The natural rejoinder to this argument is that it elides two different senses of control, but recent reporting bears out the fact that the way Facebook’s advertising tools may’ve been used to manipulate the American electorate is largely in line with how the company intended for them to be used. And as at least one tech reporter has pointed out, Facebook’s recent changes are a way for the company to head off potential regulation that would limit its control over itself, and by extension, Zuckerberg’s control.
Read is right in his assessment that it’s unclear what Facebook is or what it will become. Billions of people are increasingly reliant on Facebook’s products — whether it’s for getting invited to parties, or as a sole point of access for the internet. What’s scary is that this bizarre tesseract is run not by someone who has lost control, but by someone who’s done everything possible to maintain that control, even if nobody understands what he’s doing.