In 2010 two privacy scholars published an op-ed criticizing the “Machiavellian” public-relations methods of tech companies like Facebook. They analyzed a PR script that may sound familiar to many of Facebook’s 1.2 billion users. A new feature, which shares more personal data with advertisers, is rolled out. A blowback ensues. Then comes the company’s response: minor changes that largely leave the new feature in place, plus reassuring noises like “we are listening to our users.”
“Guided by earlier battles fought by tobacco and drug companies, information-intensive firms have learned how to use rhetoric to distract the public while successfully implementing new programs,” the scholars, Chris Hoofnagle and Michael Zimmer, wrote in The Huffington Post. “They are the Machiavellis of privacy.”
On Friday, Mr. Zimmer announced a new way to track such rhetoric: “The Zuckerberg Files.” The project is an online archive that attempts to collect every public utterance made by Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder and chief executive, including blog posts, magazine interviews, TV appearances, letters to shareholders, public presentations, and other events. The archive runs from a 2004 interview with The Harvard Crimson to more recent fare, like Mr. Zuckerberg’s comments at an event The Atlantic held last month in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Zimmer, an assistant professor in the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, says he built the archive in part to enable scholarly investigation of Facebook’s “philosophy of information.” He plans to analyze Mr. Zuckerberg’s evolving response to privacy issues. “The Zuckerberg Files” offers revealing glimpses of those ideas, such as the chief executive’s remarks during a 2008 “Web 2.0 Summit":
Four years ago, when Facebook was getting started, most people didn’t want to put up any information about themselves on the Internet. Right? So, we got people through this really big hurdle of wanting to put up their full name, or real picture, mobile phone number …
I would expect that, you know, next year, people will share twice as much information as they are this year. And then, the year after that, they’ll share twice as much information as they are next year …
… as long as the stream of information is just constantly increasing, and we’re doing our job, and, and our, and our role, and kind of like pushing that forward, then I think that, you know, that’s, that’s just been the best strategy for us.
The archive’s bibliographic and metadata are openly available. Due to copyright, though, full-text transcripts and video files are restricted to scholars conducting relevant research.
Beyond privacy, scholars and others outside academe could use the database to look at variety of issues, Mr. Zimmer says, such as what the hot Facebook-related topics have been over time, or what characterizes Mr. Zuckerberg’s leadership style.
Mr. Zuckerberg is known for “not being a very good public speaker,” Mr. Zimmer notes. He sweats, seems uncomfortable, and gives answers that are brief or that come off as prepackaged. His mannerisms quickly grated on the students who spent hours listening to the Facebook CEO’s voice as they helped Mr. Zimmer build his archive. “I have a roomful of students who can do some really good Mark Zuckerberg impersonations,” the Milwaukee scholar says.
So why should people care about a Web site archiving his every public peep?
“It’s important because Facebook is so much a reflection of him,” Mr. Zimmer says. “Even though it’s now a public company, he still has an incredible amount of direct and specific control and influence in terms of what the platform is and how it works. And he has the final say on changes of privacy settings and default settings. So the way that Mark Zuckerberg the person views the world—the way he views online sharing, what his philosophy of information is—is really critical to how that platform is going to be designed.”
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)