Facebook announced its latest media endeavor on Wednesday: a podcast from none other than its CEO. Tech & Society With Mark Zuckerberg debuted with two episodes, each clocking in at over an hour. The first episode, a conversation with Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain, was filmed and first published in February, and the second, a discussion about technology and journalism with Berlin publisher Mathias Döpfner, was filmed three weeks ago.
While the format may be new, Zuckerberg’s statements are anything but. Part of the CEO’s 2019 New Year’s resolution was to “host a series of public discussions about the future of technology in society.” Since then, he’s been publicly expressing his ideas about those topics ad nauseam. Whether it’s writing op-eds for The Washington Post, blogging, or hosting interviews, Zuckerberg won’t stop sharing his vision. But constantly speaking isn’t the same as being transparent. Zuckerberg’s podcast is less a revelation than it is a chance to recycle talking points. Facebook no longer throws engineers at a problem like they did in the old days, Zuckerberg told Döpfner. Now, they talk to experts.
While both episodes feature free-wheeling, esoteric discussions that oddly treat Facebook’s challenges as if they are hypothetical, it’s the conversation with Döpfner that gets into the real meat of what Zuckerberg most wants to talk about these days: Facebook’s privacy pivot. As he often does, Zuckerberg described the platform as a town square. “Where you’re coming together and you’re interacting with a lot of people at once, it’s very valuable,” he said. But now, Facebook is coming for users’ private online places too. “The digital equivalent of the living room is going to become an even more fundamental thing to our online space than even some of these broader platforms have been,” said the CEO. “Fundamentally, it’s a very big shift for us.” It’s what people want, and so it’s what Facebook wants. But transitioning from a town hall to a living room would make more sense had that town hall not proved irreparably dangerous and broken.
“I remember when we met for the first time in 2006 in Berlin, clearly, you were not focused on privacy,” Döpfner said. (You can barely make out Zuckerberg starting to reply, “Well …” in his defense). “I would like to understand to which degree this new focus is also a reaction?” Döpfner asked.
In response, Zuckerberg waxed philosophical about the human quest to exist both in public spaces and private spaces. “The more private modes of communication are underdeveloped,” he said. And Facebook wants to develop them. Details on what he means are vague, but when the conversation came around to a feature Facebook has said multiple times it will launch—the Clear History tool, which would allow users to wipe away information the platform gathers about them from outside apps and websites—Zuckerberg said the company isn’t ready yet. The tool was announced back in May 2018. The CEO said creating it has been a more complicated process than Facebook originally thought.
Facebook’s 2019 first-quarter earnings call fell on the same day it announced its new podcast. In his prepared statement, Zuckerberg repeated much of what he said to Döpfner about Facebook’s transition from public square to private living room. But he also talked about what that means for Facebook’s business margins, a less-discussed detail in his many media appearances. “The reality is any impact will be longer term, and we don’t know exactly how this will play out yet,” Zuckerberg said. But the company needs to meet consumer demand. Yes, the general health of the internet also relies on stronger government regulation and better user privacy and data protection. But the fact remains that Facebook’s fastest growing tools are private messaging, ephemeral stories, and small groups—stats he also used in his conversation with Döpfner. These products are how Facebook will stay in the game long after users abandon the overrun public square that is the News Feed, and it’s in Zuckerberg’s and the company’s best interest to not only invest in them, but also to talk about investing in them.
Despite Zuckerberg’s publicly stated pivot to privacy, his rhetoric was overshadowed by a crucial detail. During the earnings call, Facebook CFO Dave Wehner had the unpleasant task of announcing the company’s expenses, which rose considerably in the quarter—80 percent to be exact. Why? Because the company set aside $3 billion for a potential fine from the Federal Trade Commission over user privacy; it could owe up to $5 billion. Try as Facebook might, no amount of high-brow examination of internet cultural trends can make up for its years of playing fast and loose with consumer data. Those amends will be made in cash, not conversation.