Facebook Wants Great Power, But What About Responsibility? : All Tech Considered Mark Zuckerberg has announced a plan to make Facebook the only primary platform people use to connect to others virtually. But he fails to discuss the responsibilities that come with that power.

Facebook Wants Great Power, But What About Responsibility?

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It is the era of social media, when we distill our innermost thoughts and feelings into short pithy updates and tweets. Which is why it was striking when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently wrote a nearly 6,000-word essay about his company and its value in the world. It is a sweeping vision. And here to talk with us about it is NPR's Aarti Shahani. Hi, Aarti.


MARTIN: What's in this essay, and why is it getting so much attention?

SHAHANI: (Laughter) Well, the official title is "Building Global Community." And what Zuckerberg lays out is that people need to connect to each other quickly in local communities, across countries. And Facebook should basically be both the biggest, most comprehensive Yellow Pages ever seen on earth. And it should be the phone, email, direct message and/or group announcement tool you use all rolled into one. He writes that going forward he wants to measure Facebook's progress in part based on meaningful groups, so not just how many active users there are but how much they're using Facebook to do their work.

And, you know, one thing I will note is that in terms of tone, it's very hopeful and really speaks to people who want global citizenship, you know, a borderless world. He's not a politician per se, but this conversation about globalization versus stronger borders is very much part of the political debate right now.

MARTIN: OK. So that sounds nice and altruistic to some degree, but what are you reading between the lines here?

SHAHANI: (Laughter) There is so much to read between the lines. I mean, at its core what Zuckerberg is not spelling out but is the obvious implication is, hey, everyone, I know the internet's supposed to be this open thing with freedom and real competition, which of course puts a check on power. But Facebook is really convenient, and we want you to step into our walled garden where a handful of company chieftains set the rules and live your social economic and religious lives inside it.


SHAHANI: So just, you know, come in and trust us.

MARTIN: So there is that old saying with great power comes great responsibility. Any inkling that Zuckerberg gets that, that he's thinking through what it means to be Facebook as he has articulated the great sweeping altruistic power in light of all the criticism Facebook has gotten for how it's handled things like fake news?

SHAHANI: You know, no, he really doesn't speak to that. And I actually asked the company about that specifically. And the PR rep just sent me the press release again, which is a non-answer. You know, I'd say there are two industries that already illustrate the dangers of over trusting Facebook.

You know, for one, there's the news industry. And I've spoken with news leaders at different outlets who feel disappointed that Facebook's done so little to help users distinguish between news sources. You know, in the physical paper days you'd see clearly on the news stand what's The New York Times versus what's the National Enquirer. You know, on Facebook it's all blurred visually, which is great for making stuff viral but not for sorting out well-reported content from fluff or even falsehoods.

The other industry - and I'd say they deserve a lot more attention than they've gotten - is small advertisers, people who are trying to use Facebook to promote businesses or brands and already find, hey, this company takes my money, changes the rules a lot, and I feel like I've invested in a platform that may not be good for me after all.

MARTIN: So how's this going down? How's this so-called manifesto being received?

SHAHANI: (Laughter) There's a range of reactions. Some people have noted Zuckerberg is really evolving and being a politician for his digital state. And on his Facebook page, there's also, you know, a lot of praise, people who like that there's a leader out there spelling out a positive vision for how we can break down barriers, you know, in a world that feels like there are a whole lot of barriers right now. So really there's a range of reaction to it, you know, as you would expect.

MARTIN: I like the walled garden metaphor, Aarti, I got to say. NPR's technology reporter Aarti Shahani. Thanks so much, Aarti.

SHAHANI: Thank you.

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