A Soulless Creature Sheds Its Skin

May 1, 2019

Mark Zuckerberg once promised Facebook would move fast and break things. Now Zuckerberg says Facebook is trying to fix the things it broke.

Standing on stage before an audience of developers at the annual F8 Conference on Tuesday, Zuckerberg—the same guy who spent years convincing billions of people to share their every thought and action with the world—explained all the ways Facebook is going to help people keep that same information under wraps.

“I believe the future is private,” the CEO said, almost as soon as he began, setting the tone for a day of product announcements across Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp.

In his much-anticipated keynote address, Zuckerberg readily admitted he’s an odd champion for the cause of privacy, particularly after the year Facebook has had. The social networking giant now faces more than a dozen international investigations into its history of privacy violations, from its years of willy-nilly data sharing to several recent data breaches.

“I know that we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly,” Zuckerberg said through nervous laughter. But he seems to believe a Facebook redesign and a litany of new products focused on messaging and groups could turn that reputation around. “At the end of the day, this isn’t just about building some new products,” Zuckerberg said. “It’s a major shift in how we run this company.”

To mark this supposedly new era, Zuckerberg unveiled a subtle redesign for Facebook that places more emphasis on Groups. There’s now a Groups tab at the center of the app, content from Groups will appear more often in News Feed, and Facebook will give users more prompts to discover and join new Groups. Facebook is also adding new features for specific types of communities. Groups related to jobs, for instance, will now accept job postings from employers, while health support Groups will enable users to ask administrators to post on their behalf, to protect their privacy.

“Basically, now, everywhere where you’re going to be able to see and connect with your friends you’re also going to be able to see and connect with groups that you care about,” Zuckerberg said. “It all adds up to this feeling that groups are now at the heart of the experience, just as much as your friends and family are.”

Other announcements were tailor-made to get people out from behind their computer screens and meeting up in person. One such product, called Secret Crush, gives Facebook users a way to indicate which of their Facebook friends they’re romantically interested in and get notified if the feeling is mutual. Facebook has also revamped its Events tab to make it easier to find nearby events.

These announcements are, in many ways, a continuation of a multiyear shift underway at Facebook. For more than two years, the company’s leaders have expressed a desire to reorient Facebook around smaller communities. Zuckerberg first indicated this switch in 2017, when he published a 5,000-world manifesto on making Facebook a platform for enabling real-world connections. It was a departure from the social network’s long-stated vision of connecting everyone in the world to the most possible people. The flaws in that vision became starkly apparent around 2016, when propagandists and bad actors abused so many thin, anonymous connections to manipulate and divide people for political gain.

Since then, many of the public-facing changes Facebook has made seem designed to deliver on this new, more personal vision of connection—though not always successfully. In early 2018, the company announced it was tweaking its News Feed algorithm to prioritize what Facebook called “meaningful social interactions,” a decision that ended up torpedoing traffic to news publishers that had depended on Facebook for years. A year later, driven by endless privacy scandals, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would be shifting even further toward privacy. If Facebook of the last 15 years has been the equivalent of the digital town square, Zuckerberg has repeatedly explained, it’s now working on building the digital living room.

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