Mark Zuckerberg’s 2019 challenge is to get out of his bunker and talk to people

How will he do?
How will he do?
Image: Reuters/Charles Platiau
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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced his annual challenge: hosting public talks about the future of technology. Zuckerberg, who doesn’t like public appearances, will every few weeks meet with leaders, experts and Facebook’s community members to talk about “the opportunities, the challenges, the hopes, and the anxieties” related to the topic, he said in a Facebook post on Jan. 8.

This will be intellectually interesting, but there’s a personal challenge for me here too. I’m an engineer, and I used to just build out my ideas and hope they’d mostly speak for themselves. But given the importance of what we do, that doesn’t cut it anymore. So I’m going to put myself out there more than I’ve been comfortable with and engage more in some of these debates about the future, the tradeoffs we face, and where we want to go.

This discomfort has shown during a year in which the CEO was forced to answer for the many scandals plaguing his company (note last year’s challenge: fixing Facebook). In congressional testimony he appeared repetitive and evasive. He came under fire after saying on a podcast with Recode’s Kara Swisher that Holocaust denial should be allowed on Facebook, and raised some eyebrows after admitting to The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos his fascination with Roman emperor Augustus.

It’s not the first time Zuckerberg’s tried to emerge from the isolation of his Silicon Valley headquarters. His 2017 challenge had him touring the US, a journey that often ended up looking staged, and the CEO rather stultified. The proposed format might bring something new, although you can argue it comes too late. Silicon Valley, and Facebook in particular, are often criticized for an “engineering mindset,” where growth and scalability trumps everything else, and where, in building products, there’s not much room for discussing their societal or moral implications. A lot of this damage is already done, and much of it is likely irreversible. But if the people Zuckerberg invites to the forums are indeed outsiders, it will be interesting to watch him get challenged, and deal with the problems his company has created in a public forum, and not his usual bunker.

At the same time, Zuckerberg’s post suggests a reckoning, or real introspection, is not his objective. To a number of the questions he poses in his post, the implied, whispered solution seems to be “Facebook:”

“Do we want technology to keep giving more people a voice, or will traditional gatekeepers control what ideas can be expressed?”

“In a world where many physical communities are weakening, what role can the internet play in strengthening our social fabric?”

“How do we build an internet that helps people come together to address the world’s biggest problems that require global-scale collaboration?”

Here’s the full post: