Next Tuesday, Mark Zuckerberg will take the stage to give his annual opening keynote address at Facebook’s F8 developer conference. In the wake of months of privacy- and security-related controversies that culminated in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it will be one of the most important public appearances of his life.
The same was said about Zuckerberg’s appearances earlier this month on Capitol Hill. But while the senators and representatives who grilled him for 10 hours have the power to regulate Facebook–though no consensus on a solution–next week’s talk will let Zuckerberg directly address the developers in the room as well as users, investors, and others following his speech from afar. So the stakes, as Facebook aims to navigate the winding fjords of potential regulation, jittery shareholders, and the #DeleteFacebook movement could hardly be higher.
Traditionally, of course, F8 is a Facebook lovefest, with Zuckerberg and a conga line of other executives taking the keynote stage to unveil one new product, feature, or technology after another. Last year, for example, the company rolled out an augmented-reality camera system, new social VR features, music and games in Messenger, new Messenger bot features, professional-quality VR cameras, and even a futuristic approach to hearing through skin.
Facebook will certainly make numerous product and feature announcements this year. But they will likely be smaller and more measured. Big reveals like the company’s rumored smart speakers are surely being delayed, as will be any other major products or features that remind people of the myriad ways Facebook keeps track of their personal data and actions.
That’s not to say that the two-day event, held at the San Jose Convention Center, won’t be packed with important information for the thousands of developers who are the lifeblood of Facebook’s external ecosystem. Indeed, this year’s event is touted as “biggest F8 to date,” with a schedule offering 84 sessions on everything from “What’s New with News Feed” to “Updates to Facebook App Ads” to “Messenger for Businesses,” and everything in between.
And imagine how packed the house will be at the “Security at Facebook Scale” talk by chief security officer (for now) Alex Stamos. “You’ve heard that Facebook is investing heavily in security and safety in 2018,” the official session guide reads. “Come learn how we approach security to protect our community and company.” After all, nobody has a bigger interest in whether or not Facebook can get it right on security and privacy than the thousands of developers who build third-party tools on its infrastructure.
Facebook’s community of third-party developers has a giant investment in the future of the company’s many platforms–including Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Oculus. And those developers have little choice but to persevere regardless of whether or not Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg, or vice president Andrew Bosworth are being pilloried in the media or Facebook’s stock is plummeting and costing tens of billions of dollars of market cap loss. (At the moment, Wall Street is once again happy with the company after its stellar first-quarter earnings report earlier this week— its stock price is now within striking distance of where it was pre-Cambridge Analytica.)
“The biggest challenge that Facebook is facing right now is that they have not just one audience, but several different audiences that they have to satisfy,” says Sergei Samoilenko, a crisis communications expert and professor at George Mason University. “Developers, they think in terms of the future. They see how much [market cap] Facebook is losing. That’s a bad sign . . . because this is not just a business issue. It’s losses arising from reputational problems. Facebook has a reputational crisis. They have to understand that people who trusted Facebook for years are not really satisfied with the answers Zuckerberg provided to Congress. They didn’t hear what they want to hear.”
Samoilenko says it’s vital that Facebook show developers how it plans to build back trust, and assure users that they are safe using its platforms. Plus, Facebook must walk a tightrope at F8, finding the right balance between transparency about what’s happened and how it plans on making things right, while also giving developers the sense that they can trust the company to maintain a lucrative, growing platform on which to build tools and applications.
“Going forward, people are going to look for Facebook to put more specificity on what they’re doing,” says David Larcker, a professor of corporate governance at Stanford Business School. “Were people . . . who were doing inappropriate things demoted or fired? Are there real changes in the strategy?”
All of this begs the question of exactly what Facebook has in store for F8 and how directly it plans on confronting the headwinds it currently faces. (The company did not provide a spokesperson to answer Fast Company’s questions about its plans.) While it would seem to make abundant sense for the company to play down its product releases during F8, it’s still going to make some announcements. After all, in a post this week, Zuckerberg noted that during the developers conference, he’s “looking forward to sharing more of what we’re working on.”
During Facebook’s first-quarter earnings conference call on Tuesday, Zuckerberg said, as he has in other recent comments, that as the company has focused on connecting people over the years, “it’s clear now we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well–whether that’s foreign interference in elections, fake news, hate speech, or app developers in data privacy.”
Reading between the lines, you can see that it’s nearly certain Facebook will spend a good deal of time at F8 talking about the kinds of AI tools it plans to deploy in the coming months and years that bolster its bottom line while also maximizing users’s privacy and security. It could also break precedent by having Zuckerberg take open-ended questions from the keynote audience, including from some of the hundreds of reporters who will be in the room.
Should Facebook choose to have Zuckerberg field questions, it would be essential that he be transparent and be ready with answers to as many of the queries as possible. “If there’s Q&A, it’ll be very closely watched and evaluated,” says Larcker. “If he says, ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘I’ll get back to you,’ [as he did numerous times during his congressional testimony], people will clearly lay the transcripts [of the sessions] next to each other, looking for inconsistencies.”
But whereas many of the senators and representatives who peppered Zuckerberg with questions earlier this month seemed naive about the technologies and policies they were probing, that would likely not be true during an F8 Q&A. And that could be an issue. “The risk is coming across and saying nothing, and not being candid enough,” says Abhishek Nagaraj, an assistant professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “The questions [would] likely be much more pointed” than they were in Washington, D.C.
And Nagaraj agrees with Larcker that if Zuckerberg didn’t provide clear, unequivocal answers, it could be a problem. For this reason, “I would be surprised if he did a lot of Q&A,” he says.
What Facebook Needs To Address
That said, there are a series of questions Facebook would do well to address during F8 if it wants to put the Cambridge Analytica mess behind it. To be sure, the company may feel that the recent rebound of its stock price insulates it a bit, but it also knows that all eyes will be watching closely to see just how much more it shares about how and why it was possible for 87 million users’ personal data to be compromised, and whose heads, if any, have rolled as a consequence.
For one thing, the company claims it hadn’t known that researcher Aleksandr Kogan passed on the millions of users’ data to Cambridge Analytica without its knowledge. But it would do well to address why Kogan is banned, but his former associate Joseph Chancellor, who built the app that enabled the purloining of user data, works at Facebook to this day. Why did Facebook ever take Cambridge Analytica’s word that it planned on deleting all that user data? And what are the other companies that, as Zuckerberg told Congress, Facebook suspects got data in the same way as Cambridge Analytica?
The company also needs to spell out its plans to roll out security and privacy policies around the world that match those required in Europe under the new GDPR law–and how those policies will protect users.
Other questions that need answers include how users can easily opt-out of being tracked anywhere online by Facebook’s hidden web trackers, and whether the company is planning to give users an easy way–such as a button on each ad–to opt-out of hyper-targeted political advertising.
It would also be good to know whether Facebook has seen an uptick in fake accounts in recent weeks and months, even as it says it’s been ramping up efforts to ban such accounts. When will it fully roll out the dashboard it has promised for getting information on political ads and who they’re targeting? Finally, the company owes it to non-Facebook users to make clear just how much data it’s able to collect about them.
In his post this week, Zuckerberg said that Facebook’s major focus this year is “to keep people safe, and to keep building the experiences people expect from us. We are taking a broader view of our responsibility–to not only give people powerful tools, but to make sure these tools are used for good.” That will take a while. But the F8 stage provides the company with the opportunity it needs to start rebuilding trust. Though it may not answer every question on the minds of users, developers, and investors, it should overcome its fears–and any new sense that its rising stock price lets it off the hook–and do its best to put minds at ease.