YOU MIGHT EXPECT that Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg would dismiss the four NYU college students who want to take on Facebook’s dominance of social networking by building a distributed, open alternative that includes a way for people to run their own servers.
But instead, Zuckerberg said he donated to the Diaspora project, adding to the $190,000 it has raised, in part because he appreciates their drive to change the world. (Note: This reporter followed up with Facebook’s press office Thursday to ask how much Zuckerberg donated to Diaspora, but the press office said they’d rather not answer.)
In an interview with Wired.com on Wednesday after announcing simpler privacy controls for Facebook, Zuckerberg also talked about where he sees the site going, his drive to make the world more open, why the face in Facebook is so important and why he wouldn’t start a social network if he were launching a site today.
Wired.com: What do you think of the push for an open, federated social network and the four NYU students who raised $200,000 for the Diaspora project without having a single line of code?
Zuckerberg: I donated. I think it is a cool idea.
Actually it reminds me of this cool thing we built early on called Wirehog. Early on, it was clear that users wanted more photos on the site. There were a set of users who would change their one profile picture every day. And we looked at that data and took that as people want to share more photos.
I see a little of myself in them.
But photos are expensive and we didn’t have an infrastructure. We were just trying to grow the site and add more colleges to the site. So we built this personal web server that people could install on their computer where they could put all their files on it — which at the time were mostly photos but it supported videos and music — and share it with your friends. So in a way it was the prototypical platform app, but it was also a decentralized way to share information.
So I think it is a cool idea just based on that.
I think it is cool people are trying to do it. I see a little of myself in them. It’s just their approach that the world could be better and saying, “We should try to do it.”
(Editor’s note: Wirehog was killed off by Facebook after Facebook’s then-president Sean Parker — who co-founded Napster — argued that Wirehog would face the same ugly legal death that the infamous peer-to-peer music sharing site did. On Wednesday at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference, Parker called it “illegal” and said he “put a bullet in it.”)
In an interesting way, a lot of the privacy stuff is much easier to do in a centralized environment. Some of the simple stuff like friend-to-friend, peer-to-peer stuff is simple, but once you start getting into friends-of-friends, you start running into problems like we did with Wirehog. If someone can come up with a new approach, then [that’s] awesome.
It bums me out that people immediately go to ‘You must be doing this to make money.’
Wired.com: If you were building a Facebook competitor from scratch now is that the way you would go?
Zuckerberg: The thing I really care about is the mission, making the world open.
A lot of times, I run a thought experiment, “If I were not at Facebook, what would I be doing to make the world more open?” Because I think when I got started six years ago, building a social network was the best thing to do. Now, today, I’m not sure that’s the best thing to do. Now we exist and there is a big opportunity to build atop the platform. There are all these awesome, new technologies that didn’t exist back then, like EC2 and S3. (Editor’s note: He’s referring to on-demand cloud storage and computing services from Amazon.)
And if I were starting over, those would be awesome. It’s a good thought experiment to do, because if we as a company are not doing those things now that are the most important things to make the world more open three to five years from now, then we should be doing them. I would guess areas around mobile are more cutting edge right now.
Wired.com: How much do you think the backlash over the last few weeks is related to the size of Facebook and it starting to feel like a company on the scale of Google where people can’t always pinpoint what it is they are really annoyed about?
Zuckerberg: I don’t know, it is hard to say. There certainly are a lot more communities that we serve now. I think the feedback people had was really reasonable. The privacy controls were complex. We should make them simple.
So I don’t know, one thing that is personally a bit disheartening…. It bums me out that people immediately go to “You must be doing this to make money.” Because that’s just so different from the ethos of the company. It is so different from how we actually think about stuff that you feel so misunderstood.
Wired.com: Is that because there are things you could do to make a lot more money right now?
Zuckerberg: Yeah. I guess we could. There are really simple things we could do. For one thing, we keep advertising pretty sparse. If you look at how much of our page is taken up with ads compared to the average search query. The average for us is a little less than 10 percent of the pages and the average for search is about 20 percent taken up with ads. They may be relevant ads since they are related to your search. But clearly taking up a lot more space with more ads would make us more money.
That’s the simplest thing we could do. But we aren’t like that. We make enough money. Right, I mean, we are keeping things running; we are growing at the rate we want to.
Humans are just hard-wired to process people’s faces.
Wired.com: What is your vision for what you want Facebook to become for the internet?
Mark Zuckerberg: I think that there is something that is just fundamental about using products that are centered around people, as opposed to centered around information that is not about people. We see it in all of the user tests we do. We run all these eye-tracking tests and we see that when people look at the homepage of Facebook they don’t look at any of the [navigation links]. They look at people’s faces and they navigate by clicking on people’s faces.
I think humans are just hard-wired to process people’s faces and understand meaning and expression at such a more granular level than other types of communication. So, I think there is something about that that will find its way into all applications — whether it all websites or all mobile applications. And I don’t think we will do all of that but I hope that we can help make that happen.
Wired.com: Is Instant Personalization something that you’d really like to expand upon? Is that why it is opt-in, rather than opt-out? (Editor’s note: Instant Personalization is the new program where Facebook is sending Facebook user information to sites like Yelp and Pandora when a logged-in Facebook user visits a site. Facebook opted all its users into the system, and because of a user backlash, has made it easier for users to opt out.)
Zuckerberg: Well, we have a version of Instant Personalization that is opt-in, it is just Connect. (Editor’s note: This is the system that lets you log into another website using your Facebook credentials and share your profile information with that site.) And that’s what most people — most of the developers — use.
We believe that these experiences can be personalized right as you start them and that is really powerful. So, we took two approaches, we have social plug-ins — there are 100,000 sites that have social plug-ins. The idea is we create these simple plug-ins so that a publisher with one line of code can insert social functionality into their site. It’s a really engaging experience and there are really no privacy concerns around it, since we are not sharing information with that site, so you don’t have to worry about your data. So, that’s something we think we can roll out very broadly.
Instant Personalization is more of a pilot project [asking] “What can a company do if they can really customize things themselves?” If we owned Pandora, for example, (which we are not trying to) then I don’t think anyone would have a hard time with us building a customized experience because we are part of the same company.
I don’t think the world is going to evolve in a way that there is just one big site.
Wired: You are moving from being a place where people share photos and keep up with friends to a site where people define themselves online. Is that where you see the company going?
Zuckerberg: We don’t think about it in those terms exactly. When people think about identity in the past they think about building out all this profile information. I understand why people think that about us, but our view is the world is more interconnected.
Really who you are is defined by the people who you know — not even the people that you know but the people you spend time with and the people that you love and the people that you work with. I guess we show your friends in your profile, but that’s kind of different from the information you put in your profile. So in a way we are capturing and mapping what’s most important to you and that’s a big part of why we can build these services ourselves and build this platform that lets other people build really great services. But, by far the most important thing about people is who they care about.
Wired.com: Do you think there is a danger in Facebook getting too big?
Zuckerberg: I think that one thing that would be bad is if we tried to do everything ourselves, I don’t think any one company can. That’s why we have this strategy about building this platform. That is just going to be the most effective way to effect the change we are hoping to make.
We just couldn’t build all this stuff even though we have all these really smart people. No one is that good.
I don’t think the world is going to evolve in a way that there is just one big site. I think it is going to be that there are going to be a lot of really great services and we are helping to get it there. I think people are always a little skeptical when something grows to something big, but I think you need to look at what it is doing.
I think people have good questions about what we are doing, but I think they should ask the same questions about other types of models as well. We have a model based on control. You put everything in your profile or your friends do — but you get ultimate control over whether it stays there. It’s very different from a model like web search where you can look yourself up and you have no control over what is there.
The way our ads work, we will show you ads we think are relevant based on what you have told us but a lot of other ad networks will show you ads based on tracking you around the internet and seeing what you look at. So, I think the feedback people give us is usually fair if it is based on the right facts. We just think we are part of this important trend and we want to push it as far as we can, but I also think it is important to look at the whole ecosystem.
Wired.com: What about turning profile links into links to Facebook interest pages? When someone “likes” Wired.com, they don’t really mean they like the Facebook page representation of Wired.com, they like Wired.com.
Zuckerberg: This is the whole open graph, you can put a “Like” plug-in on Wired.com, and you actually like Wired.com. (Editor’s note: We have that plug-in.) It makes these pages outside of Facebook part of the Open Graph.
This is interesting. We were talking about decentralization early. This is us trying to push it in that direction to the extent it makes sense. For example, my favorite band is Green Day and they have a page on Facebook but they also have their own site GreenDay.com. So why should someone have to “fan” a page on Facebook. We want to make it so that when you connect to it, it shows up in your graph, it shows up in your music and if someone clicks on it, it goes to GreenDay.com and if you are connected to it, you can get updates in the stream from it. So, that is a lot of the stuff we launched at f8. So if I search for Green Day, I get the items that are most connected and if that Green Day happens to be GreenDay.com, I will link to GreenDay.com.
It gets really interesting with sites like Yelp and CitySearch. Again, we feel like we will be better off if we don’t try to do everything. Yelp is a much better service at that than we are. We are happy to link to them. If a person wants to find the best Mexican restaurant and they want to see what their friends like, the page they link to doesn’t have to be on Facebook.
Editor’s note: Portions of this interview were edited for length and re-arranged for clarity.
Photo: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg talks about the social network site’s new privacy settings in front of an image of the first version of the site, in Palo Alto, California, Wednesday, May 26, 2010.
Associated Press/Marcio Jose Sanchez