Facebook's defining moment

As I wrote about in The importance of an Always Be Learning Life, I go to the TED conference every year and it just wrapped up on April 19. This year was particular poignant and it kicked off with this amazing talk by Carole Cadwalladr, which set the tone for much of the conference. I highly recommend you watch it if you haven’t already before reading further.

Then I was having coffee with someone this week (I’ll keep them anonymous), and they are about to go work at Facebook and having some regrets. You see, around the Thanksgiving table they are now going to be asking this person about why they made that decision instead of them getting high-five’d… because Facebook is really in the arena right now. Their answer isn’t going to be as easy as it used to be. And also this week Facebook just reported an earnings beat, even accounting for a record FTC fine-to-be of at least $3 billion, and once again it stock soared. What’s going on here?

Well, this is certainly not just a defining moment for Facebook, but for us as a global society. But in this case, there has been a grand bargain underway. Facebook gets all of our online social interaction data with friends and family - and is able to create the world’s best real-person ad-targeting machine - in exchange for us being able to easily stay in touch with our friends and family, network effects and all. It owns WhatsApp, it owns Instagram, and it owns Oculus but that platform didn’t turn out to be all that social - yet.

When I had my major injury in the gym at the beginning of last year’s TED, I turned to Facebook. The outpouring of love I received back was overwhelming, and I honestly really needed it. There would have simply been no other way to alert so many dear friends and family members of my condition. Facebook was simply my best possible venue to do so.

However, this grand bargain is currently under the microscope due to the election of President Trump as well as the results of the Brexit vote. And it is stunning to really contemplate how Facebook was used in both cases to precisely target us with the real-deal fake news, as Carole so eloquently describes in this hard-hitting TED talk. Zuckerberg just made the cover-story of Wired magazine yet again in the article 15 Months of Fresh Hell Inside Facebook. Zuckerberg has pledged to fix it, and I truly believe he is trying to do so. And he controls Facebook’s stock and has the complete ability to do so.

But on the other hand, Zuckerberg has record profits for almost any company of his size… in all of human history. And his company is worth $546 billion as of today. So how much incentive does he actually have to fix it? Well, I personally think he has a lot of incentive to do so. He is a citizen of the United States as well as this global village we all call home. He has a wife and a daughter. He has a legacy to think about. He has over 33,000 employees and over 19,000 contractors counting on him to do the right thing. He has leaders that attended TED and watched that talk, much to their pain - and their ultimate motivation to do so something. He has key leaders that have been leaving, presumably deciding that the vicious fight in the arena is just too much to bear when they are already so wealthy and fortunate to have been on the journey. The shiny allure of what’s next is to great to stay behind and fight this battle. Who knows - maybe they don’t even feel empowered to do so, I just don’t know what happens inside of the Facebook executive team.

So this is the grand bargain as I see it. It is Facebook’s Tylenol moment. What will Zuckerberg ultimately do? What will Facebook ultimately look like in one year? How will it affect 2020? Will they roll out new functionality in time to affect 2020’s election? How transparent will advertising be on Facebook going forward? How trackable are advertising campaign sources going to be on Facebook really? All of these questions will ultimately define the legacy of Facebook. Zuckerberg has been getting out there to speak about all of this. Perhaps his best interview on this front is with Kara Swisher, which I wrote about in this Lucky7 post.

Right after Carole’s talk, Chris Anderson challenged Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg to appear at this year’s TED. They did not. But Jack Dorsey was there, and Twitter is undergoing to same type of criticism. The reality, though, is that Twitter isn’t nearly as targeted or powerful as Facebook. People use it more for news than for social interaction. Jack Dorsey says that’s what it is primarily about - the immediacy of the news and the freedom of everyone having their individual press. I’ve seen him make that case at the Goldman Sachs Technology & Internet Conference in 2018 - he emphatically said that Twitter is not optimizing to be a social network. You can watch Jack’s TED interview and judge for yourself how he did. Frankly, I didn’t think it was that compelling of an interview. His sense of urgency to fix Twitter just doesn’t appear to be there. What will Twitter look like in a year? I applaud Jack’s meditation practice, which he covers extensively in this interview with Sam Harris, but it is time to get really going. He’s a little too zen in this moment for my taste. We need bold action from our social media leaders.

Yes, we truly live in very interesting times. To me, this is all a big wake-up call. You see, I’ve been programming since I was seven-years old. I started programming on the Internet in 1990 and created a very social online game named Renegade Outpost, that was supposedly one of the most popular games on the Internet by the time I was 20 and a Junior at U.T. Austin. People got married as a result of meeting on Renegade Outpost. Lifelong friendships were made. I was invited to speak in front of players and they even paid to fly me out. It was flattering, and I was the overlord of a little world of sorts. We had social rules and norms. We had different lands. And digital flesh met physical flesh when we met. It was all a little overwhelming and exhilarating at the same time. Culture mattered, and ultimately we all had a lot of fun with it. But Renegade Outpost was a game, and this is real life.

What happens with Facebook and Twitter over the next year will really matter. What happens in our 2020 elections will really matter. Facebook is real life, not a game. Twitter is real life, not a game. I’ll leave you with this interview by Sam Harris of Roger McNamee, who is an early investor and mentor in Zuckerberg. The book he recently wrote and has been promoting is titled Zucked. It is well worth your listen and consideration. Ultimately, I’m more positive than Roger, who I had an exchange with at TED. We’ll see who is right. No one knows except for Zuckerberg and Dorsey. They have a huge, huge job right now. I believe they’ll muddle their way through to do the right thing - and hopefully fast. RIP, Google+.

Update April 30: I forgot that it was F8 week (I’ve got my hands plenty full with data.world). Here are Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote highlights. How do you think he and his team did in addressing these challenges?