As Mark Zuckerberg finished his highly-anticipated keynote address at the 2020 Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in Salt Lake City, Utah, I was reminded of a novel by E.M Forster. His book Howard’s End begins with an epigraph that reads, “Only connect.” This simple two-word phrase seems especially applicable to Zuckerberg’s own remarks, which featured the world-famous founder of Facebook talking about the creation of his brand, his struggles with authenticity, and how he sees his place in a cultural conversation growing more heated by the minute.
Connection Is the Heart of Facebook
A general theme throughout Zuckerberg’s address was his initial lack of vision for Facebook as a service and a brand. The popular social media site which initially began as Harvard University’s own version of “hot or not” was, for Zuckerberg, “always about connection,” even if he didn’t communicate that as clearly as he wanted to.
Being open about the goals for your business starts from within, and communicating your values to the people who work for you makes it easier to push your vision forward. Zuckerberg recounted a time when Yahoo wanted to purchase Facebook, and when he denied the offer, most of his senior staff left the organization within a year. Zuckerberg attributes this mass exodus to his failure to tell everyone why he was doing what he did. “When you’re building something yourself, you [think] you don’t need to articulate things so clearly. I think it’s really easy. . . to underestimate how much context you need to put out there, and how clear you need to be about what you’re trying to do.”
Connecting with employees and stakeholders through a shared set of values is one of Zuckerberg’s most important tenets. He suggested that companies focus on what they are rather than who they hope to become. This exercise creates values that are in-line with current operations and leave little room for the inevitable cognitive dissonance that can come when aspirational value doesn’t match real-world application.
Zuckerberg also believes these values should be ones that “people can legitimately disagree with.” In his case, honesty really is the best policy, not a value. Honesty should be a given with any organization.—everyone should agree to be honest. Values need to to be more than that. Facebook as an organization has two main values: move fast, and be open. Both of these, Zuckerberg believes, can be disagreed with. But they’re also central to how he operates, and he’s (for lack of a better word) honest about it.
In order to be great, you’ve got to set yourself apart, and values are a way to do that.
Social Media: Public Good or Cause for Concern?
One of the largest debates surrounding social media is whether or not it’s making us happier and healthier. Lots of data suggests it’s not. When asked about his company’s role in this perceived general decline in public welfare, Zuckerberg was adamant that Facebook still had something good to offer.
“At the end of the day, we’re all people,” said Zuckerberg. “We all need to feel like we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. I want our products to be good for people.”
When pressed about how he sees Facebook as affecting users in a positive way, Zuckerberg went back to his calling card topic of connection.
“Not all internet use or social media use is the same,” he claimed. “If you’re using products to stay connected to people, then that’s associated with a lot of positive aspects of well being.” Zuckerberg contrasted this with mindlessly scrolling through content without actively engaging, which he admitted wasn’t a proven way to increase happiness. Instead, he urged users to “be more proactive” in their use of social media.
“That’s What Leading Is”
When asked by the moderator, “Do you think you’re taking heat [on behalf of] the entire internet?” Zuckerberg responded simply, “That’s what leading is,” to a chorus of applause.
Zuckerberg acknowledged that Facebook and its Silicon Valley-born cousins are “at the center of a lot of social issues.” Zuckerberg sees himself and other business leaders like him as directing the charge on certain cultural points, stating, “We have a responsibility to step up and make changes on a variety of things.”
Facebook and Zuckerberg have been centers of several public debates regarding privacy and censorship. Zuckerberg refused to address any of these scandals head-on, but nodded to his general philosophy about Facebook as a public forum.
“The list of things you’re not allowed to say keeps on growing,” he explained. “[Now] we’ve got to stand up and say we’re going to stand for free expression.”
But this wasn’t always the way Facebook operated.
“Our initial approach was, ‘Okay, let’s try not to do anything that’s too offensive,'” he said. “It was positing, but it was shallow. If you’re not out there standing up for something, it’s not possible to feel that strongly.”
But today, Facebook is anything but lukewarm. The company is especially excited about several new initiatives, including creating private platforms to counteract the “town-square” type version that Facebook and other sites currently offer. They’re also working to improve the voice of everyday consumers and small business, the majority of whom use the site for free, as well as innovating in the field of augmented reality and VR. This work is underway in an effort to bring people together.
“The mission of the company is to help people build community,” said Zuckerberg. “The last thing I want is for our products to divide people.”
“I really care about what we’re doing.”
The final question of the afternoon asked Zuckerberg to tell the audience a common misconception about himself. He thought for a moment, and then responded, “The biggest misconception [about me is that] I really care about what we’re doing. The decisions that we make, when they’re controversial—I didn’t get into this because I wanted to make a bunch of money. It was never about that side of things.”
The entire conversation seemed rooted in this idea of human connection and innovation that requires the care of real people to be successful. As a company, we consider ourselves to be “technology-powered, human-enabled,” we’ll be thinking about Zuckerberg’s comments for a while.