Monday, March 28, 2011

BYU Forum: Mark Zuckerberg on Increasing World Empathy and Connection

When I clicked “Maybe Attending,” on the “Mark Zuckerberg and Orrin Hatch to Talk Technology and Policy at BYU” event page, I mentally conceived an image of Senator Hatch giving a tedious power-point presentation (laser-point clicker in hand) on the future of web development as envisioned by Congress. How fascinating . . . His remarks would be followed (I presumed) by a nervous Zuckerberg, speaking (in a nasal voice?) primarily on how he is nothing like his character on The Social Network. I wasn’t particularly excited. But my husband wanted to go, so somehow I ended up in the Marriott Center on Friday morning, along with 10,692 others (according to Brigham Young University’s official facebook page).


Surprise #1: The forum wasn’t held presentation-style the way most BYU devotionals and forums are with a speaker at a podium, and several rows of suit-wearing authority figures seated on the stand in the background. After an opening prayer (BYU tradition), and brief introductory statements, Orrin and Mark were alone on the stage with their microphones, padded chairs and a coffee table. It was an interview! Orrin was prepared to ask Mark a list of questions contributed online by BYU students.

Surprise #2: Orrin wasn’t that boring. He apparently has a gregarious talk-show-host personality that he must have pulled out his pocket for the occasion. I had a smurking, raised-eyebrows response to his constant, flattering interjections regarding both Mark and BYU. It was clear he was in the mood for orchestrating audience cheers, which he did quite successfully. Sure, he was over-the-top, but I give him credit for having the charisma to keep things interesting.

Surprise #3: Mark was cheerful, sincere, open, down-to-earth, and not just casual, but comfortable in front of his 10 thousand-something audience. He also didn’t seem to mind Orrin’s “stage presence.” He was clearly happy to be there, and clearly intended to talk about the things he cares about most.

Stuff Mark Cares About
1. Humanity

Mark explained that at Harvard he had been pursuing a double major in Computer Science and Psychology. He reiterated several times that part of Facebook’s success was the emphasis on human needs. At one point, he said it this way, 

All of these problems at the end of the day are human problems. What people are really interested in is what’s going on with the people they care about. It’s all about giving people the tools and controls that they need to be comfortable sharing the information that they want. If you do that, you create a very valuable service. It’s as much psychology and sociology as it is technology.

During his elucidation of Facebook’s “founding principles,” he emphasized the promotion of empathy and understanding throughout the world. He also mentioned the desire to make the world more open and connected, and the importance of freedom of information on the internet.

2. Entrepreneurship

At one point, Mark interrupted Orrin to ask, “Am I allowed to ask you questions? Because it’s not very often that I get to talk to a Senator. I’m wondering, what do you think government should do to help entrepreneurships?” Prior to this point in the interview, it had been brought up that Senator Hatch belonged to some congressional committee on technology. 

Orrin replied with, “I think the best thing Congress can do is stay out of the way.” I supposed that by “stay out of the way,” he was implying a position against the use of government funds to help private businesses. Instead, he expounded by talking about continuing to keep internet regulation down. [Aside: This seems a little ironic, in light of the fact that Orrin was the Senate sponsor for two laws that actually increase internet regulation: The Patriot Act, a law that gives the FBI the unchecked power to monitor any individual’s online activities, and The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a law that inhibits internet users from excercising Fair Use, an important right granted by copyright law.]

Mark put in his own two bits on support for entrepreneurships. He explained that at Facebook, they pride themselves in developing a platform that other start-ups can take advantage of. He explained that most of the apps on Facebook are created by other companies. And contrasted Facebook with Apple, a company that makes many of its products compatible only with other Apple products and applications. 

3. Internet Security

In response to Orrin’s oddly Star Wars-like question, “What about the dark side of the internet?” Mark said he believes that people used to be more fearful of sharing information on the internet, but the fact that Facebook allows people to control who sees what is helpful. 

Mark said he believes that people used to be more fearful of sharing information on the internet, but the fact that Facebook allows people to control who sees what is helpful. He added, “We’re really focused on children’s safety.” Children 13 and under, Mark explained, must have signed parent consent in order to have a Facebook account. Orrin chimed in, commending Mark for Facebook’s reputation for keeping it clean.

I assume that by this he meant, censorship of violent or pornographic content. He said that Facebook belongs to the Family Online Safely Institute. (As was the case following many of Orrin’s praisings of Mark, the crowd gave this a hearty applause.) Mark gave two more examples of Facebook safety measures. He said that Facebook provides users the ability to keep their stuff encrypted if they want, to keep hackers out. He also said that Facebook has invented some login security questions like, “Which one of these [photos] is not one of your friends?”

Personal information security became a topic again towards the end of the interview. When Orrin asked, “Do you think ads take away from Facebook’s coolness?” Mark smiled and said directly to the audience, “Well, I think everybody wants us to keep it free, right?” He then responded to the rumor that Facebook sells individuals’ private information to companies who advertise. Mark gave the assurance, “We’d never do that, their trust is so important.” This issue has been brought up in the media several times, because of the concern that Facebook ads are strangely individualized and match the characteristics of the user. So, Mark explained the process. Advertisers indicate on Facebook what kind of people they want to advertise to, and Facebook does the targeting (directs the ads to people with the indicated characteristics.) He failed to mention, however, the media-reported concern that some of the apps on Facebook, created by other companies were allegedly guilty of selling the information of the Facebook users who added them. In an npr report, last year, Mark explained that adding an app is like adding that company as a friend, you are allowing them to see the same information your friends see.
4. Business-Consumer Relationships

Mark had some interesting things to say about how Facebook and other communication networks are changing the face of business-consumer relationships:

You also will start to see some disruptions in terms of how people relate to businesses, and how businesses try to relate to their consumers. I think the dynamic there is gonna have to be a lot more open. And I think you’re already seeing that with the internet--is that business can’t just, like, hide behind some big kind of corporate veil anymore. They really have to go out and engage with users in an open dialogue around issues that affect them. And I think that that’s starting to play out now. 

5. Civic Engagement

This seemed to him a transition to the topic of internet and government. He continued:

And I think the longest-term thing will be how tools like Facebook, but also just the broader internet, will affect civic engagement and governance as well. I do think in a way, the internet just gives everyone a voice. I mean, whether it’s Facebook or something else that you’re using, people now have an ability to share something and put their opinion out there and have people hear it in a way that just wasn’t possible twenty years ago. 

6. Peace

Mark then gave some evidence of the positive difference Facebook is making when it comes to world conflicts. is an organization that keeps track of facebook connections between countries with a history of bad relations, or no relations. “Again,” he added, “it’s about increasing empathy in the world.”

After the forum, I went to to check it out. It’s a simple website that displays a chart of facebook friendships between users who fit into the following traditionally conflicted relationship categories:


I began to think of Utahns and how we’d be represented in a chart like that. What international connections are Utahns making on Facebook? A friend pointed out to me that a lot of Mormon missionaries from Utah who served foreign missions use Facebook to keep in touch with people they taught and served with. I mentally added to that foreign exchange education, and study abroad programs. 

Then I started to wonder about (a website that only exists, as yet, in my imagination). What about cross-cultural connections within Utah? How does the number of Utahns’ international connections compare with the number of connections between persons of different religions, political beliefs, or ethnicities right here in Utah? 

Of course, I don’t have the answers to these questions. I guess where I’m going with this is to say that “World Peace” isn’t the ridiculously impossible ideal we once supposed it to be. If 17,453 Israeli-Palestinian friendship connections can occur on Facebook in a 24-hour period in 2011, then certainly there is hope that tolerance and acceptance will one day become mainstream in our world society. 

Meanwhile, our chances for international peace start in our own backyards. Rather than rolling our eyes at closed-minded world leaders, we need to find small ways to change ourselves, to recognize our own natural tendencies to judge based on stereotypes, and to increase our understanding of people with whom we have little in common. Real empathy is contagious. And maybe Facebook is a good place to start.

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