Amid all the talk of Facebook this week as it celebrates its 10th anniversary, I’m struck by how CEO Mark Zuckerberg has tweaked his tune on the the benefits of openness.
As Facebook rose to prominence, Zuckerberg preached the value of open platforms and sharing information. “If people share more, the world will become more open and connected. And a world that’s more open and connected is a better world,” he wrote in 2010. The year before he defined his company as one “that’s trying to bring innovative things to people that help them share more and make the world more open.”
Coincidentally, his idealistic view on the merits of openness aligned with helping him build a massive advertising business fueled by the troves of information users shared.
Then came 2013, a year in which Snapchat and Whisper, intimate social apps that allow private communication, thrived. Zuckerberg was so intrigued by Snapchat that Facebook made a $3 billion bid for it. It was a surprising move from a person who had long pushed radical transparency as a way to make a more tolerant world.
“I think Snapchat is a super interesting privacy phenomenon because it creates a new kind of space to communicate which makes it so that things that people previously would not have been able to share, you now feel like you have place to do so,” Zuckerberg said in a talk at Stanford last month. “And I think that’s really important and that’s a big kind of innovation that we’re going to keep pushing on and keep trying to do more on and I think a lot of other companies will, too.”
Facebook may even launch apps that don’t require users to log in with their Facebook credentials. “If you’re always under the pressure of real identity, I think that is somewhat of a burden,” he told Bloomberg Businessweek recently. It’s a dramatic flip-flop from a person who once said having two identities was a lack of integrity. Only two years ago in its S-1 statement, the company wrote: “We believe that using your real name, connecting to your real friends, and sharing your genuine interests online create more engaging and meaningful experiences.”
A cynic would say Zuckerberg the businessman pushed openness when he needed to convince the online world to join his transparent social network. Now the world is overwhelmingly on Facebook and he needs to grow his business in other ways. Snapchat has grown tremendously by bringing more privacy to a social network, and Zuckerberg wants in on the action, even if he appears to be a hypocrite.
No politicians wants to be labeled a flip-flopper, but different rules apply in the tech world. It’s okay to admit you’re wrong. Fail fast, and try something new. This glass-half-full term for this is pivoting, which isn’t the scarlet letter of “flip-flopping.” Steve Jobs was a pro at it.
“He would flip on something so fast that you would forget that he was the one taking the 180 degree polar [opposite] position the day before,” Apple CEO Tim Cook once told AllThingsD. “I saw it daily. This is a gift, because things do change, and it takes courage to change.”
Facebook has grown so large and successful that Zuckerberg needs to try new things to keep the company growing and keep shareholders happy. With the majority of Web users on Facebook, he’ll have to try other areas. Just remember that any upcoming, idealistic rhetoric may not be motivated by helping humanity, as much as by the desire to build himself a larger business.