Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

A Profile of Mark Zuckerberg

This is a long profile by Evan Osnos in the New Yorker and, while it paints a well-researched vignette of Zuckerberg, it’s also confirmation of what you had already probably seen or expected. For example, it catalogues Facebook’s internal belief that if they launch a new feature that has negative reactions, users will eventually come around, even on issues of privacy — the withdrawal of Beacon being one notable exception where user feedback was actually listened to. And on the Alex Jones debacle:

Facebook relented, somewhat. On July 27th, it took down four of Jones’s videos and suspended him for a month. But public pressure did not let up. On August 5th, the dam broke after Apple, saying that the company “does not tolerate hate speech,” stopped distributing five podcasts associated with Jones. Facebook shut down four of Jones’s pages for “repeatedly” violating rules against hate speech and bullying. I asked Zuckerberg why Facebook had wavered in its handling of the situation. He was prickly about the suggestion: “I don’t believe that it is the right thing to ban a person for saying something that is factually incorrect.”

Jones seemed a lot more than factually incorrect, I said.

“O.K., but I think the facts here are pretty clear,” he said, homing in. “The initial questions were around misinformation.” He added, “We don’t take it down and ban people unless it’s directly inciting violence.” He told me that, after Jones was reduced, more complaints about him flooded in, alerting Facebook to older posts, and that the company was debating what to do when Apple announced its ban. Zuckerberg said, “When they moved, it was, like, O.K., we shouldn’t just be sitting on this content and these enforcement decisions. We should move on what we know violates the policy. We need to make a decision now.”

This confirms reporting by Charlie Warzel and Dylan Byers that Apple’s decision was the impetus for Facebook, among other companies, to make a move. Last week, Apple also banned Jones’ company from the App Store. “De-platforming” — as it is known — works, and it’s a decision that Apple, Facebook, and other companies should have made a long time ago.

This irks me:

For many years, Zuckerberg ended Facebook meetings with the half-joking exhortation “Domination!” Although he eventually stopped doing this (in European legal systems, “dominance” refers to corporate monopoly), his discomfort with losing is undimmed. A few years ago, he played Scrabble on a corporate jet with a friend’s daughter, who was in high school at the time. She won. Before they played a second game, he wrote a simple computer program that would look up his letters in the dictionary so that he could choose from all possible words. Zuckerberg’s program had a narrow lead when the flight landed. The girl told me, “During the game in which I was playing the program, everyone around us was taking sides: Team Human and Team Machine.”

I’m a hundred percent sure this was done in good fun. Nevertheless, it reminds me of something that has been rattling around in my head for a while. I’m a competitive person and I want to win at board games; but, I also want to have fun. I like playing with people who also make an effort to win, because it challenges me. Even when I know I’m going to lose, I still have a great time. But I dislike playing with people who need to win. They’re the kind of people who deliberately block all your routes in Ticket to Ride, or buy up one of every property colour in Monopoly. It’s not wrong to do those things, but it doesn’t actually make the game any good. People who have a problem with losing or being wrong sometimes are, generally speaking, destructive assholes.

Rhett Jones, Gizmodo:

The New Yorker can spill thousands of words probing Zuckerberg’s psyche and speaking to colleagues about how he’s growing in his unprecedented role of social media Pope to 2.2 billion users, but it’s still the same Zuckerberg who would apparently rather think about scaling and “community” than real-world consequences his company might be involved in.

Facebook has been aware of its role in violence and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar since at least 2014. It entered a market that it knew little about, where traditional media to inform the public was extremely limited, and found that it had built the perfect weapon for organizing mob violence and propaganda. We’ve seen similar situations in Sri Lanka, Libya, the Philippines, and India. One Sri Lankan official characterized the situation to the New York Times, “The germs are ours, but Facebook is the wind.”

But Zuckerberg keeps repeating the same talking points about being “slow” to recognize the problem and how it’s going to take time to fix it. He told the New Yorker that he plans to have 100 people working on translating and moderation in Myanmar by the end of the year. The fact that a company can connect 2 billion people in a little over a decade but can’t hire 100 people over the course of a few years is telling. But the real issue is scale, and the inability of current technology to keep up with that scale.

Facebook can’t play dumb here. According to Osnos’ profile, the “growth” team was the most celebrated and admired inside the company, and their goals were the company’s goals. If they wanted to “dominate” — as Zuckerberg half-jokingly closed every meeting with — they have no excuse for being bad at it when they actually started to do so, and continuing to be terrible years later.