Photo: Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images
Depending on the calendar they use, different human cultures choose different ways to mark the new year — the completion of a single revolution around the sun, for example, or of 12 lunar cycles. Facebook users mark the dawning of the new year with a post from the social network’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, announcing a new yearly challenge. Every year, Zuckerberg undertakes a personal challenge (what is called in non-Facebook cultures “a resolution”) — visit every U.S. state, run 365 miles, learn Mandarin, eat only meat he kills himself — and posts about his progress to his personal Facebook page. Yesterday, he announced his challenge for the coming year :
My challenge for 2019 is to host a series of public discussions about the future of technology in society — the opportunities, the challenges, the hopes, and the anxieties. Every few weeks I’ll talk with leaders, experts, and people in our community from different fields and I’ll try different formats to keep it interesting. These will all be public, either on my Facebook or Instagram pages or on other media.
In some ways, this is less a “personal challenge” and more “professional damage control.” Some of the “big questions” Zuckerberg suggests the forums will revolve around seem to have less to do with “technology” in a general sense and more to do with a specific technology company based out of Menlo Park. “Do we want technology to keep giving more people a voice, or will traditional gatekeepers control what ideas can be expressed?” Well, gosh, when you put it like that! “In a world where many physical communities are weakening, what role can the internet play in strengthening our social fabric?” Seems like the kind of thing that might be helped by, I don’t know, a major technology company built on networks of personal relationships? It all has the air of the CEO of Philip Morris announcing that he’ll host a series of public discussions about the future of smoking in society — the opportunities, the challenges, the hopes, the anxieties.
But there’s a sense in Zuckerberg’s post that the discussion series really is a challenge, or that there’s a challenge located within the damage control. “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,” he writes. “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.”
(Oprah might not be famous as a tech analyst, but she knows a thing or two about getting people to share their personal data.) Facebook has long since shown itself to be a conspiracy of moral ghouls harvesting human intimacy for ad dollars; as sickening as it is to imagine Netflix browsing your private messages, these new disclosures don’t change your basic understanding of the operation any more than, say, a snowstorm changes your understanding of December.
To the extent that Zuckerberg’s big idea has been speaking for itself lately, it hasn’t been saying anything we want to hear . (It seems to be saying something like “ Ethnic cleansing , election interference , smear campaigns , advertising monopoly !”) So Zuck, despite his obvious discomfort with speaking in public, will speak for it. His real challenge here isn’t the banal, PR-friendly “engage more in some of these debates about the future,” but to defend his life’s work in public.
To the extent Zuckerberg is willing to do that, his challenge is worth welcoming. “Do we want technology to keep giving more people a voice, or will traditional gatekeepers control what ideas can be expressed?” is a very boring question. “Has Facebook been worth it to society?” is a much more interesting one — and one that cuts much closer to the heart of “debates about the future” than a question about “weakening social fabric.” Right now, the debate over Facebook is mostly happening without the man who built it. It would be nice if he joined in.