Lawmakers in the United Kingdom on Wednesday released a trove of Facebook documents that provide an intriguing glimpse inside the company — and obliterate any remaining notions of its chief executive officer as an innocent babe in the woods.
As Nate Lanxon and Sarah Frier wrote, internal emails show Facebook wielding user data like a “commodity that could be harnessed in service of business goals.” News organizations previously disclosed some of these details, in part from versions of some of these same documents. But this fuller set of company deliberations are now being scoured to assess how truthful Facebook has been about its business activities and privacy practices.
The documents are a Rorschach test of readers’ opinions on the company. If you’re inclined to believe Facebook is a scourge, there’s evidence to support the idea that the company treats user privacy like a soiled rag and abuses its power. The documents also show what almost any company would do to preserve its self-interest.
For me, the documents have illuminated the nature of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder and CEO, as a ruthless businessman and savvy corporate strategist. This shouldn’t be news to anyone who has followed Facebook’s history or watched the “Social Network,” but the documents add color to the less-discussed aspect of Zuckerberg character as a deeply involved tactician seeking to maximize Facebook’s revenue and as a cutthroat executive willing to (metaphorically) kneecap competitors.
This is not Mark Zuckerberg as a Mayberry-dwelling naif who sweats through his hoodie when he’s nervous and cheerfully pets a cow. This is Mark Zuckerberg as Vito Corleone of “The Godfather.”
Zuckerberg was intimately involved in 2012 as the company debated whether and how to generate revenue from mobile games and other features that outside developers were stitching into Facebook. In a discussion with executives over email in October and November 2012, he took the position that Facebook should permit companies fairly broad and no-cost access to information about Facebook users. He argued that the decision would give developers the incentive to build fun things for Facebook users to do and in turn compel people to share more information back to Facebook through the developer’s app.
“If we do this well, we should be able to unlock much more sharing in the world and on Facebook through a constellation of apps than we could ever build experiences for ourselves,” Zuckerberg wrote.
This was an astute and nuanced tactical argument — not a man who preferred to leave the messy details of Facebook’s business to lieutenants. And Zuckerberg was right. The approach with app developers helped build a young, still-unsteady Facebook into an essential piece of the internet. The decision to grant fairly wide latitude for developers to tap information about Facebook users also led to the scandal that erupted this year about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. It was both a smart decision and a seed of one of Facebook’s endemic problems. But either way, it was a clear-eyed Zuckerberg who called the shots.
Lanxon and Frier also write about the eye-catching example of Zuckerberg the savvy businessman from 2013, when the CEO replied, “Yup, go for it,” to a request to block Twitter Inc.’s Vine from pulling people’s Facebook friends into the new app for short web video clips. The decision was a serious speed bump for Vine and Twitter, which at the time was seen as a significant threat to Facebook. (Vine’s co-founder had some thoughts about this.)
Again, Facebook’s Vine block was previously reported. And there have been many other reported episodes of Facebook’s willingness to copy potentially threatening technologies or impede rivals by using the social network’s prodigious power. But seeing strategies like these discussed in internal emails is much more powerful and sheds light on Zuckerberg’s role in Facebook’s ruthlessness. One document said he personally approved a short list of rival companies that were subject to tighter restrictions on Facebook activity.
For some people, these insights might make them trust Zuckerberg less, and that’s a fair perspective. To me, the documents simply make Zuckerberg less of a two-dimensional cartoon character. Let this forever kill the simplistic impression of Zuckerberg as a technical wizard who — as he’s repeated many times — created Facebook in his college dorm room, and perhaps didn’t understand how big Facebook would become nor focus on what information it collected or how the company would profit from it.
People are complex. No one is purely Barney Fife, or solely a crime godfather. And we just got a valuable look at the full complexion of Zuckerberg as an executive.