For almost 10 years, Facebook has used the information we've shared in the social network's pseudo public sphere for its own (usually advertising-related) purposes. Now Michael Zimmer, an assistant professor in the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin, wants to turn those tables with his just-launched project, The Zuckerberg Files, which compiles all of CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s public statements into a digital, searchable archive. "It's kind of playful to let him see what it's like to have all of your stuff data mined and used for some purpose you might not have originally intended," Zimmer told Fast Company. "Just like the stuff we put on Facebook."
But Zimmer's intentions are more than just "playful." He hopes to use the database to study Facebook's stance on privacy using its CEO's public statements as a lens. "Like any company, they want to control the discourse," he said. "If we're all talking about privacy and they’re all talking about openness, is there some kind of disconnect in how they build and operate the platform?"
We talked to Zimmer about how he and other academics can and will use his archive to understand privacy.
FAST COMPANY: Why did you single out Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg?
MICHAEL ZIMMER: What I did find really interesting is how early on Facebook was making changes that they considered to be very much for the greater good. Like introducing News Feed. I remember when they first did that and it was supposed to be "of course we’re going to do this. It's all the information that you have on your profile and we're just presenting it in a better way." User reaction was quite the contrary, where all of a sudden this seemed like a disruption of the existing norms of information flow on the platform. There was a subtle change that certainly caused this breakdown, in terms of people’s privacy, or at least their perception of control over their privacy.
That’s what really got me interested in Facebook, that they had such power to make these kind of changes that affected millions of people.
What do Zuckerberg's statements have to do with those big site-wide privacy changes?
For a long time, I’ve been working and critiquing in areas of Facebook and privacy, paying a lot of attention to changes they make to the platform, the way they communicate with their users, and how that impacts user privacy. One of the things that struck me is the language that they’re using. Oftentimes when there’s a big change, people complain, and then Facebook puts out a blog post to calm everyone down.
That, combined with a trip I made to Facebook a few years ago, where they kept talking about user control, user access, and open information. They never said the word "privacy." They must’ve had a memo going around saying "don’t say privacy." It got me thinking about the rhetoric they’re using to address this particular problem. I just started collecting presentations and speeches from Zuckerberg and it grew from there.
Grew into what, exactly?
There are two different collections. One is transcripts: every time Zuckerberg gave an interview in news media. We have a record for all of those instances, with all the bibliographic data and metadata and a link back to the source. We also created a plain text transcript of that source material. That transcript is behind a password. [Editor's note: The database is password protected and only accessible to academics for copyright reasons. Researchers can access copyrighted articles under fair use.]
I also have my own videos, the actual video files. Almost all of these are up on YouTube, or on NBC News. We grabbed copies of those videos just to create a digital archive—especially if the videos happen to go away—so we have a historical archive.
So now you have this big set of files. Where do you go from here?
Fundamentally, I want to try and understand Zuckerberg's philosophy of information. There used be a mantra that information wants to be free. I think Zuckerberg wants information to be shared and that the world would be a better place if we shared. Part of what I want to do is go through his rhetoric and get a better understanding of that and then end up with some kind of critique on whether or not the way he talks about things actually supports that goal.
What do you expect to find?
I suspect there to be some disconnects between what he thinks about privacy and what users think. And there are examples of that. He put out an op-ed and the way he articulates privacy there, to me, is problematic. What I want to try to do is sort of systematically take a look at his language to make that a stronger argument.
What do you find "problematic" about Zuckerberg's take on privacy?
In many ways, he and others at the organization are still looking at a binary notion of privacy. If I put something on Facebook, as long as I have a control—a switch I can flip—privacy concerns are taken care. What’s often lost in there is this nuanced idea that privacy is contextual. Maybe I wanted to share it with this group and not with that group.
Another issue is when Facebook makes a platform change, where all of a sudden information I used to be able to control, I can't anymore. They’ve done this a few times and they say it’s in the spirit of openness and transparency and we’ll connect better if we all automatically share certain information. I’d rather make sure the user has the ability to decide what kind of information they want to share and not make this assumption that we will all benefit if we share our hometown.
Have you found anything interesting so far?
We’re just starting to get into the actual analysis stage. If you do a word count, words like "control" and "access" show up more than "privacy." We have to take a closer look to see the nuances. We’re also curious to see if it changes over time.
Anything else... ?
Just by looking at the videos over time he certainly has become a better speaker. I don't know if that’s just him, or if he has had coaching or help. A couple of those were kind of disasters, I’m sure they’ve brought people in. [Editor's note: they did.]