“This has been an intense year!” shouted Mark Zuckerberg. “I can’t believe we’re only four months in!”
Fewer than three weeks after the Facebook CEO testified before Congress, discussing at length the privacy failures of his platform, he faced yet another expectant crowd, this time in San Jose, California. On Tuesday, Zuckerberg took the stage at Facebook’s Developer Conference, F8, full of swagger. In Washington, he was stoic and chastened in front of senators ready to shame him; here, Zuckerberg was greeted with cheers, applause, and laughs. (It seemed like a “DEVELOPERS DEVELOPERS DEVELOPERS” moment was coming.)
While F8 would inevitably be a different experience from the two days of questioning Zuckerberg faced last month, it is also a very different F8. The conference has long been Facebook’s chance to brag to and even titillate reporters and the public with the far-reaching possibilities its platform might one day render. But this year, for the first time, Facebook was forced to reckon with its negative side effects.
For every mention of “privacy” and “Cambridge Analytica,” there were 10 enthusiastic plugs for Facebook’s new augmented-reality creator suite or its VR ambitions. The company is eager to restore a sense of normalcy, for good reason. The fallout after Cambridge Analytica was brutal, and in truth that particular privacy failure became something of a scapegoat for all of the frustrations with Facebook that have been piling up for years.
On Tuesday, Facebook was expected to introduce its smart-home speaker, the company’s hardware debut (sort-of debut—remember the HTC First, the “Facebook phone”?). That didn’t happen. And while Facebook made bold predictions last year about how it would one day plug directly into our brains, such bravado was tempered this time around. Instead, Zuckerberg reviewed how Facebook plans to tackle fake news, hate speech, and data privacy. He revealed a new tool called Clear History: “It will be a simple control to clear your browsing history on Facebook,” Zuckerberg explained. “What you’ve clicked on, websites you’ve visited, and so on.” He went on to say that this would negatively affect your Facebook experience; you might have to sign back into certain sites and apps, and Facebook might feel “off” while it relearns what you like. “But we think people should have this kind of control,” he conceded. “So we’re building this.”
That give and take—this limits Facebook, but we now think you should have it—was more compelling than any update. Facebook was forced to build Clear History and talk about privacy, even if these things were packaged and presented with a positive spin. The recognition is what’s satisfying for many of us—even if at the same time, we must know it’s meaningless. Facebook is going through the motions of an apology tour knowing full well that its business is safe, and it believes enthusiasm for its platform isn’t only deserved, but necessary right now.
Still, this is a difficult F8 for Facebook and for Zuckerberg. Every year, there are battles happening in the background that remain unacknowledged on stage. But if you have to talk about your problems in front of Congress, and the nation, you sure as hell have to talk about them at your developer conference. And so Zuckerberg did, albeit briefly. The admission was both significant and worthless. A concession and a mea culpa of any sort is unfamiliar for Facebook; it indicates that the company is, at least publicly, reckoning with what it’s created. At the same time, it was just a motion it had to go through.
How that played out in front of the audience at F8 was in sharp contrast with what it looked like before Congress. The CEO repeated a number of the same phrases he said on Capitol Hill, but his tone had a subtle, upbeat twist. “It’s not about what you do on Facebook,” he said, keyed up. “It’s about the relationships you build and what you can do together. That’s what it’s all about. … If you believe, like I do, that giving people a voice is important, that building relationships is important, that creating a sense of community is important and doing the hard work of trying to bring the world closer together is important, I say this: We will keep building!” It was a statement of defiance indicating that no matter how much scrutiny Facebook undergoes, or how many times Zuckerberg will personally have to say, “I’m sorry,” the company’s ethos will not sway. If at any point Facebook was worried about its future, that moment has passed. Now we’re just witnessing the last stages of a necessary repentance.