It is not normal for a technology chief executive to announce a new product roadmap in the form of a 5,700 word blogpost that begins with a unified theory of history and ends by quoting Abraham Lincoln. But that’s exactly what Mark Zuckerberg has done in his letter to the “Facebook community”, published on Thursday.
The unusual aspects of the letter don’t stop at its length. Zuckerberg rapidly alternates between lofty statements of social principle and minor product updates. One minute, he is discussing the necessity for a strong civil society existing between the government and the people, implicitly rebutting Margaret Thatcher; the next, he is discussing the need for the administrators of Facebook groups to be able to support “sub-communities”, so that, for example, a Facebook group for a university can contain within it a sub-group for a particular accommodation block.
If an attentive reader overcomes the whiplash induced by the shifts in tone, they’ll find a founder clearly concerned by the growing discontent many are feeling about Facebook’s effect on the world. Zuckerberg proposes solutions to such varied problems as Facebook’s history of heavy-handed censorship, the social network’s role in enabling and promoting fake news, and the need to prevent terrorist groups from using Facebook’s tools to recruit and co-ordinate.
Those solutions are varied, but a number of them share one thing in common: an expectation that artificial intelligence technology will get significantly better in the short term, enabling technological fixes to problems conventionally thought unsolvable.
For instance, Zuckerberg proposes an AI capable of distinguishing between different levels of violence in a picture, thus allowing individuals to choose how granular their personal censorship settings should be. And he wants to train an AI to tell the difference between news stories about terrorism and actual terrorist propaganda, to automatically remove the latter but not the former.
While he admits that those capabilities are, in some cases, “several years away”, at least Facebook is investigating solutions. In other domains, Zuckerberg seems content to show that he understands the problem, without feeling the need to suggest much of a solution at all. For instance, he concedes that “there is more we must do to support the news industry to make sure this vital social function is sustainable”, but his solutions (which include growing local news, making mobile-first news formats, and developing new business models) feel back-of-the-envelope at best.
But a forensic breakdown of Zuckerberg’s letter risks missing the overarching point. If Zuckerberg wanted to simply announce some new features, he would have taken to the stage at F8, Facebook’s annual developer conference, and done his best Steve Jobs impression.
Instead, the letter is an application for Zuckerberg to take the position on the world stage he feels is his. Some have seen hints of a 2020, or 2024, presidential bid in his recent actions: between this letter, his folksy visit to Texas in January, and his hiring of an image consultant, they say, he’s surely got his eye on public office. Or maybe he just thinks running Facebook is the 21st-century version being president. Either way, it means what he’s saying is less important than how he’s saying it.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010