The Apologies of Zuckerberg: A Retrospective
At this point, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s pattern on privacy is clear. Launch new stuff that pushes the boundaries of what people consider comfortable. Apologize and assure users that they control their information, but rarely pull back entirely, and usually reintroduce similar features at a later date when people seem more ready for it.
Of the 25 posts Zuckerberg has published on Facebook’s corporate blog in the past five years — including today’s acknowledging a long-term privacy settlement with the FTC — I count 10 that were written to address complaints. (The rest are his personal celebrations of milestones and new products.)
There are some common themes. Zuckerberg almost always tells users that change is hard, often referring back to the early days of Facebook when it had barely any of the features people know and love today. He says sharing and a more open and connected world are good, and often he says he appreciates all the feedback.
Most of all, Zuckerberg seems to take pride in offering an explicit, earnest apology, but doesn’t actually admit he was wrong, just that he’s sorry for how things were rolled out or perceived.
First up, this is a real gem. On August 29, 2006, Zuckerberg made his first Facebook company blog post. It was a pre-apology, warning users of upcoming changes they might not like — I think he was referring to the news feed and opening the site to the general public.
When we’ve made changes in the past, a lot of people have gotten upset and emailed in asking us to change the site back. Change can be disorienting, but we do it because we’re sure it makes the site better.
The next week, users did in fact go bonkers over the introduction of Facebook’s news feed. Zuckerberg famously wrote, “Calm down. Breathe. We hear you.”
We didn’t take away any privacy options. [Your privacy options remain the same.] The privacy rules haven’t changed. None of your information is visible to anyone who couldn’t see it before the changes.
Later, Zuckerberg dropped the condescension and admitted “we really messed this one up,” both in messaging and controls for the news feed feature.
Then a year went by without a Zuckerberg blog post. Until…
“Thoughts on Beacon.” This was the infamous feature that automatically shared users’ activities on other Web sites back on Facebook. (The concept has made a return in Facebook’s new frictionless sharing, which is to be rolled out more fully soon.) Zuckerberg wrote:
We’ve made a lot of mistakes building this feature, but we’ve made even more with how we’ve handled them. We simply did a bad job with this release, and I apologize for it.
After that, Facebook started experimenting with how it rolled out new products. In some cases it picks a group of users to try something first, in others it allows any user to opt in to try something new. Some products go out to every user within the course of a day. There doesn’t really seem to be a standard approach.
People kept complaining — as in the case of the 2008 redesign that made the Facebook news feed a chronological list like Twitter. This wasn’t a privacy uproar but instead an interface change many users didn’t like. Zuckerberg replied it would be difficult for Facebook to support both recent and relevant versions of the news feed (something the site later introduced, then took away, and recently brought back again, by the way).
At the end of that year Facebook made some major revisions to its privacy settings that set off widespread criticism. By this time Facebook privacy was a major mainstream media story.
Facebook eventually responded in May 2010 with a privacy setting overhaul. This time, Zuckerberg went to the Washington Post op-ed page to justify the changes in addition to his usual blog post. He wrote:
Facebook has been growing quickly. It has become a community of more than 400 million people in just a few years. It’s a challenge to keep that many people satisfied over time, so we move quickly to serve that community with new ways to connect with the social Web and each other. Sometimes we move too fast — and after listening to recent concerns, we’re responding.
“Sometimes we move too fast” seemed more of a brushoff than a real apology. “It’s a comment on the execution of a policy, not on the policy itself,” John Paczkowski wrote.
That brings us to the present day, where we have what turns out to be a textbook Zuckerberg apology acknowledging the FTC privacy settlement. This time, Zuckerberg tries to argue that Facebook has done more good than harm on privacy throughout its existence.
“I founded Facebook on the idea that people want to share and connect with people in their lives, but to do this everyone needs complete control over who they share with at all times,” he starts. “Overall, I think we have a good history of providing transparency and control over who can see your information. That said, I’m the first to admit that we’ve made a bunch of mistakes.”
Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my ethics statement.