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It might be time to retire Mark Zuckerberg’s annual personal challenge

It might be time to retire Mark Zuckerberg’s annual personal challenge


Reaching the limits of what content marketing can do

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Mark Zuckerberg
Photo by Nick Statt / The Verge

Inside Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg’s annual tradition of setting a personal challenge has been viewed as one of the company’s best public-relations opportunities of the year. Long before Facebook was under rigorous scrutiny for the unintended consequences of its growth, the personal challenge afforded Facebook with a chance to spin up a positive news cycle around its young billionaire founder and his efforts to learn Mandarin, eat only meat from animals he slaughtered himself, and so on.

This strategy arguably peaked in 2016, when Zuckerberg announced his personal challenge for the year would be to build an artificial intelligence to control his smart home. The challenge, which came at a time when Facebook was aggressively promoting its AI efforts as a recruiting tactic, positioned the CEO as a real-life Tony Stark building futuristic technology as a weekend hobby while also running the world’s biggest social network. Many journalists, myself included, ate it up.

So far as I know, all of Zuckerberg’s challenges have reflected a sincere interest in the subjects at hand. But his PR team has sought to maximize their reach, as part of an all-consuming effort to cement Zuckerberg as the human face of the company in the hopes that his calm, genial presence will earn goodwill for the company.

As 2017 dawned, though, that opportunity began to look far more constrained. As questions swirled over Facebook’s role in the US presidential election, the idea of a new, lighthearted CEO challenge risked looking more like a distraction from the pressing matters at hand. And so Zuckerberg pledged instead to meet people from all 50 states, setting up the nationwide tour that led to endless bad speculation that he was running for president. The following year he dropped the hobbyist aspect of the challenge completely, pledging instead to fix Facebook — which, he acknowledged, would likely take multiple years.

All of which made me quite curious what Zuckerberg might set for his personal challenge this year, if any. It arrived today via post on his Facebook page. Zuckerberg wrote:

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.

And so the personal challenge for 2019 is ... to launch a talk show? In some ways, he already has. For years now, Zuckerberg has held live question-and-answer sessions with users, academics, Facebook employees, politicians, and business leaders. Many of them have been streamed on Facebook, and often they have touched on questions about technology’s role in society. I have watched my share of these conversations, and while they have offered plenty of amiable chatter, it would be a stretch to suggest they’ve advanced our thinking about tech and society.

In September, when the New Yorker profiled Zuckerberg, I wrote about the challenges of centering discussions about technology and society on the views of the CEO:

I understand the value, from Facebook’s perspective, of regularly putting forward Zuckerberg to affirm that he is working on the problem. But I can’t help but feel like we knew that already.

Maybe tech platforms can be “fixed,” or maybe they can’t. But either way, it’s not an oral exam. And we ought not to treat it like one.

A 2019 in which the Mark Zuckerberg Show takes center stage threatens to once again present our future as an oral exam — and one that is also incidentally being presented as live entertainment. I’m all for open discussions of the most pressing issues facing business and government — and I hope Zuckerberg chooses to sit down with some of Facebook’s more thoughtful critics for a lively debate. (I’m available!) And yet I can’t help but wonder, given all his other responsibilities, why Zuckerberg sees a series of live broadcasts as a particularly good use of his time.

Perhaps I should shut up and let the man actually do a couple such discussions before rendering my verdict. As presented, these planned broadcasts sound much less like a personal challenge than they do good old-fashioned content marketing. But I suppose that’s what the personal challenge has represented all along. It may be time to retire it.


Facebook, Twitter Turn to Right-Leaning Groups to Help Referee Political Speech

Kirsten Grind and John D. McKinnon look at how social networks turn to partisan political groups when confronted with sensitive questions around content moderation:

Among the initiatives, Facebook has privately sought advice from the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian public-policy group, and its president Tony Perkins, according to people familiar with those meetings. Twitter’s Chief Executive Jack Dorsey recently hosted dinners with conservatives, including Grover Norquist, the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, which advocates for lower taxes. Advisers on the left include the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil-rights group that keeps a list of hate groups.

For users frustrated by the lack of clarity around how these companies make decisions, the added voices have made matters even murkier. Meetings between companies and their unofficial advisers are rarely publicized, and some outside groups and individuals have to sign nondisclosure agreements.

German Man Confesses to Hacking of Public Figures’ Data, Officials Say

A single 20-year-old German man, using relatively unsophisticated methods, was able to access online accounts for scores of elected officials, sending a shiver through Germany’s political parties:

Holger Münch, the head of Germany’s federal police, said the young man, whose identity was not released because he was being treated as a juvenile, had admitted during questioning to stealing the personal data of an array of public figures. Most of them are politicians, from all of Germany’s leading political parties — save for the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD.

“Based on our assessment so far, we believe he acted alone,” Mr. Münch told reporters, adding that so far, investigators had no evidence that the hacker had any affiliation with a political party or other groups. “He acted out of a general discontent with politicians, or journalists, or public figures, who he wanted to expose. That was his motive.”

LinkedIn Censored Another Critic Of The Chinese Government

Megha Rajagopalan finds another China critic whose LinkedIn page got blocked:

Corporate fraud investigator Peter Humphrey, who is British and lives in the UK, was informed by LinkedIn in December that his profile had been censored in China, but after being asked about it by BuzzFeed News this week, LinkedIn restored the page and said it had only been blocked in error.

It comes days after LinkedIn censored the page of a pro-democracy activist in China before also later restoring it after a wave of negative publicity.

Chinese tech investors flee Silicon Valley as Trump tightens scrutiny

Heather Somerville reports that the US-China trade war has chased off Chinese investment in Silicon Valley startups:

“Deals involving Chinese companies and Chinese buyers and Chinese investors have virtually stopped,” said attorney Nell O’Donnell, who has represented U.S. tech companies in transactions with foreign buyers.

Lawyers who spoke to Reuters say they are feverishly rewriting deal terms to help ensure investments get the stamp of approval from Washington. Chinese investors, including big family offices, have walked away from transactions and stopped taking meetings with U.S. startups. Some entrepreneurs, meanwhile, are eschewing Chinese money, fearful of lengthy government reviews that could sap their resources and momentum in an arena where speed to market is critical.

Politicians cannot block social media foes: U.S. appeals court

A federal appeals court ruled that a Virginia politician violated the Constitution when she temporarily blocked a critic from her Facebook page, Jonathan Stempel reports. He says the decision could affect President Donald Trump’s appeal on a similar case:

In a 3-0 decision, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Phyllis Randall, chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, violated the First Amendment free speech rights of Brian Davison by banning him for 12 hours from her “Chair Phyllis J. Randall” page.

The ban came after Davison had attended a 2016 town hall meeting, and then under his Facebook profile “Virginia SGP” accused school board members and their relatives of corruption and conflicts of interest. Randall had also removed her original post and all comments, including Davison’s.

HQ2 fight continues as New York City and Seattle officials hold anti-Amazon summit

Arman Tabatabai attended a briefing Monday organized by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union on the subject of Amazon’s proposed regional office.

Two current employees working in an existing Amazon New York City warehouse in Staten Island provided poignant examples of improper factory conditions and promised employee benefits that never came to fruition. According to the workers, Amazon has yet to follow through on shuttle services and ride-sharing services that were promised to ease worker commutes, forcing the workers to resort to overcrowded and unreliable public transportation. One of the workers detailed that with his now four-hour commute to get to and from work, coupled with his meaningfully long shifts, he’s been unable to see his daughter for weeks.

Various economic development groups and elected officials including, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, and New York State Senator Mike Gianaris supported the labor arguments with spirited teardowns of the economic terms of the deal.

How The Friends Of A Saudi Teen Fighting Deportation Got The World’s Attention With A Twitter Account

Talal Ansari has the dramatic story of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi teen who is seeking asylum and may get it thanks to a powerful social media campaign. It appears she will indeed be granted asylum in Australia.

Within 24 hours of seeing that Snapchat video, Qunun, Nourah, and two other friends — most of whom have never met in person but grew close over a private group chat about feminism on the messaging app Telegram — launched and ran a Twitter account that live-tweeted one woman’s struggle to seek asylum. The posts captured the attention of the world, especially the government of Thailand and United Nations officials.


T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T Are Selling Customers’ Real-Time Location Data, And It’s Falling Into the Wrong Hands

Everyone is talking about this Joseph Cox piece, which reports that T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T are selling access to your real-time location data. With this data, bounty hunters can find almost anyone, he says. If you work at Facebook — and even if you don’t! — I imagine you may read this piece and wonder how it isn’t a bigger scandal. It ought to be:

Whereas it’s common knowledge that law enforcement agencies can track phones with a warrant to service providers, IMSI catchers, or until recently via other companies that sell location data such as one called Securus, at least one company, called Microbilt, is selling phone geolocation services with little oversight to a spread of different private industries, ranging from car salesmen and property managers to bail bondsmen and bounty hunters, according to sources familiar with the company’s products and company documents obtained by Motherboard. Compounding that already highly questionable business practice, this spying capability is also being resold to others on the black market who are not licensed by the company to use it, including me, seemingly without Microbilt’s knowledge.

Motherboard’s investigation shows just how exposed mobile networks and the data they generate are, leaving them open to surveillance by ordinary citizens, stalkers, and criminals, and comes as media and policy makers are paying more attention than ever to how location and other sensitive data is collected and sold. The investigation also shows that a wide variety of companies can access cell phone location data, and that the information trickles down from cell phone providers to a wide array of smaller players, who don’t necessarily have the correct safeguards in place to protect that data.

Inside Facebook’s ‘cult-like’ workplace, where dissent is discouraged and employees pretend to be happy all the time

Sal Rodriguez talks to former employees critical of Facebook’s workplace culture, in particular its emphasis on after-hours socializing:

For instance, one employee who left in recent weeks said a manager was critical in a public team meeting because the employee didn’t attend a team-building event outside work. At the time, this person was going through a divorce.

“She definitely marked me down for not attending those team-building events, but I couldn’t attend because I was going through my own issues and needed work-life balance,” said the employee.

Samsung Phone Users Get a Shock: They Can’t Delete Facebook

On some Samsung devices, a container for the Facebook app remains even after customers delete it — sparking fears that it may be doing something nefarious in the background, Sarah Frier reports. It’s not:

A Facebook spokesperson said the disabled version of the app acts like it’s been deleted, so it doesn’t continue collecting data or sending information back to Facebook. But there’s rarely communication with the consumer about the process. The Menlo Park, California-based company said whether the app is deletable or not depends on various pre-install deals Facebook has made with phone manufacturers, operating systems and mobile operators around the world over the years, including Samsung. Facebook, the world’s largest social network, wouldn’t disclose the financial nature of the agreements, but said they’re meant to give the consumer “the best” phone experience right after opening the box.

Teens Are Spamming Instagram to Fight an Apparent Network of Child Porn

Taylor Lorenz reports on a disturbing outbreak of child porn on Instagram that spread virally through coded hashtags.

YouTube is fixing homepage recommendation issue after acknowledging “something weird is up”

Homepage recommendations on YouTube have been messed up for the past few days, sometimes recommending videos that are five or more years old, Julia Alexander reports. Separately, YouTube confronted a partial outage on Tuesday.

How Meme Accounts Surface the Meanest Parts of TikTok

Here’s a smart Alex West piece about the two TikToks: the one you see on the app, and the one you see on the viral “cringe” compilations on YouTube and Instagram in which dumb behavior is rounded up for folks to laugh at:

That the content of TikTok, a relative newcomer app, has already taken on such varying connotations depending on who is watching it and where it is being watched is remarkable. If the recentralized internet’s megaplatforms like Google (which index all the world’s information) and Facebook (one social network to rule them all) succeeded in expanding internet accessibility, they did so by making online a place that is somehow both impossibly loud and frustratingly flat. Teens are instead turning to Instagram meme accounts and YouTube channels that make it their business to curate the web and present it as something palatable, condensed, and comprehensible. Its more efficient for users to have content brought to them than to go out and find it. Sophiya estimates that almost all of the content she encounters on meme accounts is scraped from other platforms: screenshotted tweets, Tumblr posts, TikTok videos, etc. According to Blaire, “like, all of it is.”

Meet ‘NoSurf,’ the Self-Help Group That Told Us to Log Off Before It Was Cool

Andrew Zaleski profiles NoSurf, a subreddit devoted to getting people offline:

Launched as a subreddit in 2011, NoSurf quickly became home to a growing group of strangers with one thing in common: They all thought the internet was having an adverse, uncontrollable effect on their lives and were looking for mutual commiseration — and help. The irony in turning to a social media site to explore the roots of his problem wasn’t lost on Gordon, but reading posts from the NoSurf community left him feeling reassured that his internet use wasn’t just a personal failing.

“Many people reported the same symptoms I had: difficulties with memory, extreme difficulty concentrating, and feeling unable to stop scrolling through these infinite feeds,” he says.


Twitter will test new conversation features out in the open

Twitter announced on stage at the Consumer Electronics Show today that it will soon begin testing various new features meant to spur friendly conversation, which I first wrote about in October.


Squad is a group video chat app that lets you broadcast your screen to your friends, letting you virtually hang out in whichever apps you like. A fun, weird idea that if nothing else seems well suited to tech support calls.


We Should Be Able to Take Facebook to Court

Neema Singh Guliani says individuals should be able to sue Facebook over privacy violations:

Huge privacy violations have become commonplace. Without a private right of action, consumers have little practical ability to seek relief in cases where their data was mishandled or misused. This eliminates a powerful enforcement stick that can be used to dissuade companies from violating the law. A private right of action is also important because government agencies often do not have the resources to investigate and take action in every case where consumers’ privacy is violated. So, a private right of action may be the only avenue to hold a company accountable.

In rare cases, the harm from a privacy violation may be clear, such as losing a job, money or sense of safety. But in most cases, the harm, while staggering, can be virtually impossible to measure. For example, how do you prove the collective impact of having companies profile you based on sensitive health data, affecting things like the content you see and the ads you’re served? How do you measure the national-security or societal impact of having people targeted with divisive and exploitative ads? How do you determine the collective impact of consumers’ being stripped of control over information they own and having intimate details of their life, like relationship status and political views, shared with countless entities?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Is A Perfect Foil For The Pro-Trump Media

Charlie Warzel compares AOC’s mastery of social media to the president’s:

To be clear, these entities are far from carbon copies — one is a sitting congresswoman and the other is a loose conglomeration of shock jocks, media personalities, conspiracy theorists, and trolls arguing on behalf of a billionaire president with a 41% approval rating and a 53% disapproval rating. And while the tone, tenor, and endgame of their politics are vastly different — one pushes tax legislation, the other Trump propaganda and stories about Clinton-adjacent pizza parlor child sex dungeons — they both know how to captivate and play to their audiences, leveraging the power of their followings, deflecting criticism, and staying on the offensive at all costs. That means being unafraid to get in the mix. Here’s how my colleague described Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter prowess: “She argues in threads, dunks on semi-randos, and is ready to mock the attempted sick own, harvesting and redirecting its power.” Sound familiar?

And finally ...

A $20,243 bike crash: Zuckerberg hospital’s aggressive tactics leave patients with big bills

Here’s a real no-good-deed-goes-unpunished story for you. A few years ago, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife donated $75 million to a San Francisco hospital as part of a fundraising campaign. As part of her ongoing investigation of emergency room billing practices, Sarah Kliff found that the hospital that bears Zuckerberg’s name has some of the such practices in all the land:

Dang’s experience with Zuckerberg San Francisco General is not unique. Vox reviewed five patient bills from the hospital’s emergency room, in consultation with medical billing experts, and found that the hospital’s billing can cost privately insured patients tens of thousands of dollars for care that would likely cost them significantly less at other hospitals.

This led to lots of contortions on Twitter among writers eager to make some link between Facebook and … hospital billing practices. But naming rights aside, this is one problem that we can say definitively has nothing to do with Facebook.

Talk to me

Send me tips, comments, questions, and your ideas for Zuckerberg talk show formats: