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Zuckerberg Meets the Panopticon He Created

Photo: Facebook

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg found himself in a bit of a dilemma this week after the Verge published leaked audio of one of the Q&A sessions he regularly holds with employees. To journalists and other Facebookologists, these sessions have a sort of legendary aura around them — in part because Zuckerberg is reportedly very candid in them, and in part because Facebook is generally an extremely leakproof company.

The two-hour recording of a July meeting published by the Verge this week contained Zuckerberg musing on a number issues. He, for instance, called presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren an “existential” threat to Facebook’s existence, given her plan to break up big tech. He described reports of poor working conditions for content moderators to be “overdramatic.” He dished out some light trash talk aimed at Twitter, and pumped up his nascent TikTok competitor, Lasso.

The substance of the comments are, on the whole, unsurprising. Of course Mark Zuckerberg does not think WhatsApp and Instagram should be forcibly separated from Facebook. Of course he thinks Facebook treats its workers well. Of course he thinks Facebook is either doing a good job in all areas or is at least improving. What CEO, particularly a CEO as embattled as Zuckerberg, is going to get up in front of his employees and say, “I’m a big frickin’ bozo and I stink big time”? The point of an all-hands meeting is to project confidence. The only discernible difference between the leaked audio and Zuckerberg’s public statements was the level of polish and candor.

Coincidentally, Zuckerberg is encountering a problem that countless Facebook users (and Facebook designers) have struggled with for years, context collapse. Zuckerberg is addressing one group (his employees), but his remarks are being shown to an unintended audience (the public) and could potentially be taken out of context. Zuckerberg, who often goes to great lengths to maintain his privacy, has the same problem as his users. How do you cater to separate cohorts at once?

Yesterday, Zuckerberg leaned into the leak by livestreaming his weekly all-hands meeting publicly, and addressing the leak at the top of it. Some employees were shocked, he said, but plenty of people also reacted by saying, as Zuckerberg put it, “Fundamentally, we believe everything that we said that was in there.” I should hope!

The resulting livestream is a type of meta display. It’s partly a candid internal meeting, and partly a public performance. Zuckerberg makes jokes about his robotic public appearances (“Where do you go to plug yourself in at night to recharge?” he imagines viewers asking), and he also introduces regular segments of the all-hands meeting, like recognizing smart bug fixes and work anniversaries, as if people are tuning in for the first time ever.

Maybe these broad, performative tics are normal, but I’d have no way of knowing, since Facebook has kept these meetings largely under lock and key. (The company obviously keeps records, since Zuckerberg announced that the leaked meeting was likely one geared to interns.)

Maybe the most interesting part of the talk came when an employee asked Zuckerberg about Bernie Sanders’s recent comments, and a popular left-wing talking point, that billionaires shouldn’t exist. “As the only billionaire that I can consult on this, Mark, what is your perspective on Senator Sanders’s statement?” the employee asked.

I understand where he’s coming from. I don’t know if I have an exact threshold on what amount of money someone should have. But look, I mean, on one level, no one deserves to have that much money. That’s not like — I think if you do something that’s good, you get rewarded, but I do think some of the wealth that can be accumulated is unreasonable. Part of this is why my wife and I started the Chan Zuckerberg initiative … Some of this gets to a deeper question. There are people who would say, “Even that’s bad.” It’s like, there shouldn’t be an accumulation of private wealth that allows people to … We’re funding science, for example, and I think some people would say, “Well is it fair that a group of wealthy people, to some degree, get to choose which science projects get worked on?” I don’t know how to answer that exactly. On some level, it’s not fair, but it may be optimal, in that it’s better than the alternative. I think the alternative would be the government chooses all of the funding for all of the stuff.

There’s a little bit of “big government” bogeyman in there, but Zuckerberg clarified that he supports the National Institute of Health; he just wants to use his billions to take a different approach to funding research.

But perhaps more revealing than any of that statement was the worried, deflated whine/moan he let out after receiving the question, knowing that he had to answer it not just in front of his employees, but also anyone who decided to tune in — a very human “aw shit” reaction from a robotic and inhumanly wealthy enigma of a man.

Even if this week’s all-hands is the only one the company streams publicly, it permanently alters how Zuckerberg speaks to his loyal employees. Even in private, he has to keep the idea that anything he says can be made public in mind. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — it forces him to be more consistent, if not necessarily more honest. In other words, if he didn’t know it already (I assume he did), Mark Zuckerberg is always speaking publicly, 24/7.

That tension, that anxiety, has to be exhausting. It is also the core problem of Facebook as a whole, as it has expanded to perform every function that a user might need. Users have a number of different audiences collected under one online identity. Everything you do online feeds back into a single Facebook profile, and that’s how Zuckerberg wants it. Proponents of breaking up Facebook not only think it leads to a healthier overall tech ecosystem, but it could also lead to more authentic behavior from users who don’t have to worry about audience management and what they say being misappropriated elsewhere. Instagram, just this week, released an entirely separate app so that users could talk just to their “close friends.” Just as Zuckerberg might be more comfortable when the press isn’t watching, users might be more comfortable when Facebook isn’t. Just something to think about, imo!

Zuckerberg Meets the Panopticon He Created