But 2018, it seems, is going to represent what Silicon Valley would call “an inflection point” on the morality graph. Facebook is leading the charge, with the announcement last week by Mr. Zuckerberg that the company felt “a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being.” In practical terms, this means that Facebook will be reducing the amount of so-called public content — often provocative posts from businesses and news organizations — in favor of personal content, posts from friends and family.
The public faces the unsatisfying question: Is it better to suffer an engineer’s neglect or an engineer’s concern?
Since Facebook’s earliest days, Mr. Zuckerberg has been fascinated by the power to understand and manipulate users by applying algorithms to the data it collects. In 2005, speaking at Stanford, he described how he and a friend were “seeing if we could use the information that we had to compute who we thought were going to be in relationships. So, we tested this about a week later, and we realized that we had over a third chance of predicting whether two people were going to be in a relationship a week from now.” Through this deep knowledge of its users, Mr. Zuckerberg explained, Facebook could determine “what actually matters to each person on a more granular level.”
More than a decade later, Facebook is still using these social-engineering tools to probe its users’ psyches. Now, however, the company, which reported $ 4.7 billion in profits in the third quarter, assures us that these tools will be refashioned to take account of the health of our society. In December, Facebook’s researchers tried to answer the question of whether social networks were a force for good and returned with a split verdict.
“When people spend a lot of time passively consuming information — reading but not interacting with people — they report feeling worse afterward,” the company said. By contrast, “actively interacting with people — especially sharing messages, posts and comments with close friends and reminiscing about past interactions — is linked to improvements in well-being.”
Mr. Zuckerberg says Facebook will be steering users to healthier interactions. “I expect the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down,” he wrote in a post on Facebook. “But I also expect the time you do spend on Facebook will be more valuable. And if we do the right thing, I believe that will be good for our community and our business over the long term too.”
At age 33, Mr. Zuckerberg is already worried about his good name, but unlike past business titans — Rockefeller, Carnegie, Gates — he doesn’t think he needs to wait until after he has built his empire to do good. Mr. Zuckerberg says he is making changes to Facebook so that when his young daughters, Max and August, grow up, they will “feel like what their father built was good for the world.”
So what does Mark Zuckerberg think makes the world good? In an open letter, published upon Max’s birth in 2015, Mr. Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, laid out some goals. First, was “advancing human potential,” which they described as “pushing the boundaries on how great a human life can be.” Most intriguingly, they posited that someday we could “learn and experience 100 times more than we do today.”
The other was “promoting equality,” which they defined as “making sure everyone has access to these opportunities — regardless of the nation, families or circumstances they are born into.” Often, “access” appears to mean relying on the internet to provide an education or work opportunity. Connecting people is what keeps society churning, improving. “For every 10 people who gain internet access, about one person is lifted out of poverty and about one new job is created,” they wrote.
Turns out, an enlightened, socially engaged Facebook has a similar outlook as the amoral, audience-seeking Facebook. Each sees connecting online as key to the good life.
In other words, don’t count on Facebook to disrupt Facebook any time soon.