SALT LAKE CITY — The joke circulating the internet about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is that he’s not quite human. Those black eyes, that seemingly expressionless face give off a robot-like vibe.
But the Zuckerberg who showed up at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit on Friday evening appeared a lot more vulnerable — more human — than perhaps anybody was expecting.
He’s not the best communicator, he admitted, after mistaking the name of Eagle Mountain, home of a new Facebook data center, for Eagle Rock. And it’s true, he’s not. His thoughts are stilted, occasionally disjointed and less eloquent than what’s expected of a major tech CEO and billionaire.
Even Zuckerberg’s presence was an expression of vulnerability — he doesn’t often take large speaking assignments (unless it’s from Congress).
But he loves beautiful Utah, he said — and the crowd took him at his word, giving him a hearty cheer. In fact, if Zuckerberg were to start building a new company from scratch, he wouldn’t start in Silicon Valley, he conceded.
There are “great things” about Silicon Valley and some “not so good things,” he explained in his characteristically straightforward way. When he first started building Facebook, he had no idea what he was doing. Silicon Valley allowed him to raise capital and connect with the right people in a way he couldn’t have done outside the Bay Area at that time, he explained.
But that infrastructure is available in other places now, he said. Though, 75% of venture capital still ends up in California, New York and Massachusetts, according to AOL founder Steve Case, who also spoke at the tech summit.
Yet Silicon Valley has become too much of a monoculture these days, Zuckerberg added.
“I could think of a lot of reasons why it would be stronger to start something in a different place at this point,” he said.
Zuckerberg has come under intense scrutiny recently, though, as issues of privacy and free speech swirl around the social media platform.
Free expression is an important value to the CEO, and calls to censor certain types of speech make him uncomfortable.
“It kind of feels like the list of things that you’re not allowed to say keeps on growing,” he opined, noting that there are definitely a lot of “bad things” that Facebook needs to censor (like terrorism, child explotiation and incitement to violence) and the company has 35,000 people working on content and safety.
“But at some point you’ve got to stand up and say, ‘No, we’re going to stand for free expression.’ … I think it’s unfortunate that this is such a controversial thing,” he mused. “(So) this is the new approach. And I think it’s going to piss off a lot of people, but frankly, the old approach was pissing off a lot of people, too. So let’s try something different.”
That’s not to say, though, that Zuckerberg feels his leadership at Facebook has been mistake-free.
The tech CEO has appeared before Congress a number of times to speak about Facebook’s privacy policies, especially after it was revealed that British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal data of millions of people’s Facebook profiles and used it for political advertising purposes during the 2016 election.
For the past several years, the tech world has acknowledged (or at least feigned concern in) customers’ desire for privacy.
Silicon Slopes executive director Clint Betts asked Zuckerberg if he felt he was taking the heat on behalf of the whole internet.
“That’s what leading is,” the tech CEO responded.
But he also blames himself for not being more proactive at the beginning of Facebook’s history and anticipating unintended consequences earlier.
“This is the lesson from Cambridge Analytica, right? There was a developer who gave people access to the data, and then the developer turned around and sold the data, which was against our policies. But, rather than waiting for someone to report that, we should have had systems that could proactively go in and identify that suspicious behavior,” he said.
While Facebook has since built up a lot of infrastructure to do just that (99% of terroristic content is taken down before anyone on the platform sees it, according to Zuckerberg), there will be new problems tomorrow, and the company needs to start planning for those today, the tech CEO said.
So who does Mark Zuckerberg call when he “needs advice?” Betts wondered.
Zuckerberg paused and thought before saying, “I’ve become more religious,” to a confused silence then loud applause from the audience.
“By the way, I expected Bill Gates, not God (as an answer to that question),” Betts said.
Gates is a wonderful mentor, especially philanthropically, Zuckerberg quickly said. But the last few years have humbled the Facebook founder, who no longer feels like he knows how everything works. And his life changed when he had children.
“I’ve found a lot of comfort in knowing and having the confidence that there are things that are bigger than me,” he said. “Given how complex modern society is and all the challenges that we face, you have to believe in things that are bigger than yourself, no matter what form that takes.”