Next week, when Mark Zuckerberg addresses the Senate’s Commerce and Judiciary Committee and the House’s Energy and Commerce Committee, he will be under the glare of a harsh spotlight like never before. All most of us know about him comes from the movie that gave a diffracted reflection of his history and nature in 2010. But the bones of the story are not promising.
The guy who started Facemash, the Hot or Not of Harvard, wasn’t just a bro with a healthy interest in sex, but someone who was fascinated by how viral other people’s interest in sex could make his software. As an entitled bro, he celebrated his own intelligence and held nothing but contempt for his users, whom he called a less complimentary name than stupid for trusting him with their private data. That was all long before Facebook was successful. In time, he learned to be more politically correct, but he was hooked on the allure of the viral phenomenon. What would make people come back? What would make them stay longer? He studied “stickiness,” that now-well-known metric for measuring social media effectiveness.
And his pals in Silicon Valley clued him in to how to hook this virality up to advertising revenue, creating a money machine. So, the bro who violated users’ privacy right from the start found the whole enterprise deeply rewarding. What in that narrative would have made him go back and carefully scrub the software to make sure people’s privacy wasn’t being violated?
In the past few days, the number of compromised Facebook accounts in the Cambridge Analytica story jumped from 50 to 87 million. But what’s few tens of millions of users among friends? Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, his number two, have spent a lot of time over the past several weeks talking about winning back trust and not letting anything like this happen again. What they don’t acknowledge is that for those users, and all their users, for that matter, the cat is out of the bag. Facebook has contributed to, but is by no means the only contributor to, the formation of its users’ digital twins.
You see, every one of us in the digital era now has a digital object associated with us that is central to our identity. All you need to start is an email address. Add to that a photo and phone number, and your object is well on the way to solidifying. Attach a Facebook account with some of your interests, more of your photos, your friends, your school history, and your geography, and your digital twin is now sharply focused. Over time, this image only builds and becomes clearer; it never fades or disappears. This is a one-way, permanent nailing down of your identity. Finally, append your Android GPS tracking data, and now your object includes all the places you’ve been since you activated your phone.
This matter of digital objects concerned me enough by 2011 to warn about it — to little effect. So, Facebook is a symptom of, contributor to, and beneficiary of the formation of these digital-object twins now trailing behind us like a string of tin cans tied to a dog’s tail, advertising our presence to all around us.
Zuckerberg can be as contrite as he pleases before Congress. He’s certainly not going to dismantle his empire and give back all the money he’s made. I’m sure his attorneys have coached him on how to look properly remorseful. He’ll hide his bro self and play the all-chastened-but-energetic young CEO, try to get Senators and Congresspeople to like him, admire him, be envious of him, whatever works, and just squeak by.
If Zuckerberg wants to study a master at this sort of inquiry, he should definitely take a look at how Rupert Murdoch performed in front of the British Parliamentary committee convened in July 2011 to look into violations of privacy in the United Kingdom via phone hacking by various Murdoch operatives. This guy was masterful, shape shifting among various characters: a toad on a log, an old dotard who could barely stay awake, a sharp critic of his own organization, an angry, beleaguered CEO, an amnesiac, a groveling apologist, and others, and in doing so kept the earnest questioners just out of reach. They couldn’t lay a glove on him. Here is just a taste of it. Zuckerberg himself might want to study the long form. In the end, the committee let Murdoch off with barely a slap. They were even intimidated enough by him to be polite and deferential.
Zuckerberg’s dance before Congress will be delicate, and I’ll bet that even a brainiac like him will have a damp shirt under his very nice suit coat not long into it. But in the end, he’ll agree to some meaningless adjustments to how Facebook operates just to get out of there in one piece.
Facebook may well fade like other social networks before it — The Well, AOL, MySpace, Friendster — as it undergoes the natural cycle from fresh, new forum for meeting and chatting with interesting people to polluted horror show filled with trolls that drive decent people off.
But don’t expect any particular remedy to come out of the hearings in Washington next week. And don’t expect a sincere performance from Mark Zuckerberg (really, when is there ever one in the nation’s capital?). Do expect some pretty good theater.