Randi Zuckerberg admits she may be best known as "Mark's sister," but after leaving Facebook in 2011 and starting her own firm, Zuckerberg Media, the former Facebook executive has launched a new project to help everyone shape their own online identities. (She also enjoyed some brief notoriety after expressing displeasure that a personal picture of the Zuckerbergs made it to the wider Web last holiday season.)
This week, Zuckerberg released two new books, one aimed at adults, titled "Dot Complicated," and another aimed primarily at children growing up in a digital age, titled "Dot." Zuckerberg spoke with The Washington Post earlier this week about why she wanted to write these books and how being a parent has changed her view of the online world. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Hayley Tsukayama: What was the inspiration for making two books -- one for kids and one for adults?
Randi Zuckerberg: I’m always looking for new and innovative ways to market things, and it struck me: I wonder how many authors have released a non-fiction book for adults and a children’s book together? From what I've heard from my publisher, HarperCollins, it really hasn't been done before. But it really struck me that this was a perfect topic for that sort of release. Children as young as 1 to 2 years old are navigating apps and are very tech-savvy from a young age, and parents are overwhelmed.
You say in "Dot Complicated" that parents should be having early conversations with their kids about a tech-life balance. Were you hoping "Dot." could act as a way in to starting those conversations?
There’s a few things there -- as parents we can talk to kids until we’re blue in the face, but having another child talk to them in their language is often more effective. My other hope is that "Dot." is a message for adults who could use the reminder to put down the phone. I like the idea that, as they're reading about how Dot should put down her phone and enjoy the world, a parent is also getting a message out of it.
You do seem to be casting a wide net with both books, in terms of audience. Who would you say is your primary target audience?
I'll be interested to see that, now that the books are out! From what I've heard, "Dot Complicated" is hitting a pretty broad range. I had a younger, tech-savvier audience in mind but found that in telling stories about motherhood and tech, a lot of what I was writing was applicable to parents and grandparents. It is a pretty broad audience, and I'm excited to see who it’s most resonating with, now that the books are out.
You talk a lot in "Dot Complicated" about the tech-life balance and how it relates to the work-life balance. It's pretty clear from the books that you think people have to find their own balance, but how do you recommend they do that?
It really depends. A lot depends on their line of work, for example. If you're a doctor and you're on call, obviously I can’t tell you to unplug. But I can tell that to someone who’s a little more 9-to-5. But I would say that if you can find a chunk of time in the week -- even if it’s a few hours -- to put down the devices to focus, you find you’ll come back to it more productive, refreshed and energized. Also, if you want to get a good night’s sleep, try to keep those devices as far from the bed as possible!
One other thing that I will try to do, but haven't yet, is to buy a watch. Because I find when you use your phone to tell the time, it's easy to mindlessly flip through my feeds. So going a little more retro and getting a watch is a good way to limit your mindless scrolling.
It's particularly interesting to hear you talk about setting things aside and stopping some mindless scrolling, because you're obviously closely connected to Facebook -- both as an employee and personally. And Facebook, at least for me, is a primary source of mindless scrolling.
When I was working at Facebook, I didn't have children. I was always thinking about the present, and what we were doing right now. But a very curious thing happens when you have a child -- you stop thinking all about right now and more about the future. It got me thinking that, yes, the tools we’re working on right now are amazing, but they're also making it very complicated for the future.
You say in "Dot Complicated" that the age you recommend for a child's first smartphone is somewhere between second and sixth grade. How did you land on that range?
It's a huge range, I know. But I talk to a lot of parents, and while I expected to find one age for parents to say, "Yes, this is the right age," I found that wasn't the case. Well, most parents say, "not until they’re 45," but there's no one serious answer. There are a couple of things to consider. I've found that children with older siblings tend to be more mature more quickly, and they're ready for devices at a younger age. They've seen their older siblings use them. So some depends on where they fall in the family spectrum. There are also just kids who are more mature, more ready for these things. Maybe their parents have spoken to them about it, they may be a little more savvy.
In general, parents should think about it when they start doing activities -- like extra-curricular that take them out of your sight. That’s why I kind of put second grade as the age to start thinking about it -- that tends to be the age where those activities start.
And how old is your own son now? What are the habits you're setting for him?
He's two and a half, which means he’s on the very early end of this. for him I try to limit time on iPhone and iPad when out of the house. I also try to make it seem special -- not just something that happens automatically all of the time. I've hand-selected some apps for drawing, music, things like that we can do together. It's all aimed at being intellectually stimulated and engaged instead of passively entertained. That being said, when we’re on a long plane flight, those go out of the window.
Well, that seems like an extenuating circumstance. You also make this interesting distinction between "personal" information and "private" information, and what's appropriate to share on the Web. Could you talk about that a little more?
I've spent a lot of time thinking about this. After that incident over Christmas, I started thinking a lot about how, in our real lives, there’s basically three kinds of information: super-private information, personal information -- you know, stuff to share with moms at preschool but I’m not going to blast it out to the world -- and then there’s public information.
Online, that middle level of information is gone. You really only get super, super private and public information. But, as humans, so much falls into that middle category just as the distinction for personal information is going away. But we’re not thinking about things we want to share as being on the front page of the Washington Post, though it's public.
Most of the time when I post personal stuff on Facebook -- 99 percent of the time -- my friends behave responsibly and don't share it inappropriately. But it only takes one person to not behave responsibly. So, a lot of times if I’m part of a wedding party or something, we'll make a group just for the bridesmaids. But it gets overwhelming to manage those things, and that’s why I talk about unfriending in the book. It doesn't feel good all the time, but sometimes you have to houseclean your list.
Some social networks, including Facebook and Google+, have tried to make it easier to make clear distinctions between friend groups, to avoid those kinds of situations. Do you think the onus is on those companies to make sure that information gets shared with the right people?
These devices, these sites, they’re just tools. Like a car is a tool for driving, and there may be accidents or speeding ... the same is true of social networks. It’s a tool; it’s how we use it that defines our experiences. The onus is on us to be more responsible, to think, "How should I react to this?" Or "How should I treat this as a human rather than a person on a computer screen?"
Do you think those attitudes vary by generation?
I think that's true in some part. For younger generations, they don’t always know what it’s like. They're used to being behind their screen, and when you’re alone and typing something, it's really easy not to take into account the feelings of the person on the other end of the screen. I encourage people to say, to themselves, "Would you say that to someone’s face?" before they type something online.
On that note, I was surprised by how much of your own personal experience you wove into the book on how you dealt with curating your online presence. Why did you decide to get so personal?
It’s hard to put yourself out there like that, particularly wondering what people will think. But being on the front lines of social media, I was going through my own complicated relationship with technology. And I thought, well, I’ve learned a lot and made mistakes -- if reading my story makes people feel okay with their own complicated relationship with technology, that’s okay with me. A lot of people don’t know who I am or only know me through the lens of being Mark’s sister. This was the opportunity for people to hear who I am in my own voice
"Dot Complicated" is the name of your longer book, but it's also the name of a site you run that advises people about their online lives. How did running that site shape how your wrote the book?
It completely shaped how I was writing the book. Dot Complicated, the site, started as a passion project, some of the same questions kept coming up again and again. I thought, if people are asking the questions, then there must be a demand for answers about these things and decided to start making a newsletter. And it really took off -- that really helped guide the proposal that we went over with HarperCollins.
How was that process different from writing the children's book?
I had so much fun working on "Dot."; I loved working with an illustrator. I had it in my head that Dot should be a modern-day Eloise -- he really nailed that artwork.
I particularly liked how you play off the double meanings of words like swipe and tweet, showing how they work in and outside of tech.
Thanks! That came about because one day I was with my son and he started going “Tweet tweet! Tweet tweet!” And I realized, you know, he’s not talking about Twitter, he’s talking about a bird, he’s singing. And it made me think about how all the things we do in tech do have these other meanings when we're not immersed in tech.
That's a message you hit on in both books -- though Dot. is certainly an easier read.
[Laughs] Yeah, in the world of social media and short posts, Dot is probably more in the range of people’s reading desire right now.