Opinion | Mark Zuckerberg, Let Me Fix That Op-Ed You Wrote

By Kara Swisher

I can tell the people what it is you’re really trying to say.

Kara Swisher

By Kara Swisher

Ms. Swisher covers technology and is a contributing opinion writer.

Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive officer of Facebook, in September.CreditCreditDavid Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Mark Zuckerberg has written an op-ed, and I wish he had not.

It was titled “The Facts About Facebook.” I would give that one tweak. I’d call it “Mark’s Facts About Facebook.”

In a piece for The Wall Street Journal timed to the social networking giant’s 15th anniversary, its once-young, now-not-so-young chief executive and founder tried and tried to persuade readers that they shouldn’t be afraid of what he has wrought.

But the post was essentially the greatest hits that we have heard Mr. Zuckerberg sing for a while now. He focused on the enormous advertising system that powers Facebook, while ignoring almost entirely the news from the last disastrous year, including Russian abuse of the platform, sloppy management of data, recent revelations that the company throws some pretty sharp elbows when it needs to, and more. You kind of get why Mr. Zuckerberg would want to forget it all.

Should I be annoyed by this? One person who favors Mr. Zuckerberg told me no, pointing out that the media is irked when he says nothing and even more bothered when he says something, so he cannot win whatever he does.

[Kara Swisher will answer your questions about her column on Twitter Monday at 1:30 p.m. Eastern: @KaraSwisher.]

O.K., so instead of just criticizing, I thought I would help him with his piece, given I do this for a living and he does not, by rewriting his work. Here goes:

MARK WROTE: Facebook turns 15 next month. When I started Facebook, I wasn’t trying to build a global company. I realized you could find almost anything on the internet — music, books, information — except the thing that matters most: people. So I built a service people could use to connect and learn about each other. Over the years, billions have found this useful, and we’ve built more services that people around the world love and use every day. Recently I’ve heard many questions about our business model, so I want to explain the principles of how we operate.”

KARA TRANSLATES: We old now. We big now. It came from my one really good idea: AOL sucked and I could do better and I did. Now the noise has reached me up on Billionaire Mountain, so I am going to have to pretend that I care.

MARK: “I believe everyone should have a voice and be able to connect. If we’re committed to serving everyone, then we need a service that is affordable to everyone. The best way to do that is to offer services for free, which ads enable us to do.”

KARA: No rich person is going to pay too much for this muffler, um, social media service, and poor people aren’t going to pay us at all because they apparently don’t have money. So everyone will have to endure the ads that we shovel out and stop griping, because free ain’t free, people.

MARK: “People consistently tell us that if they’re going to see ads, they want them to be relevant. That means we need to understand their interests. So based on what pages people like, what they click on, and other signals, we create categories — for example, people who like pages about gardening and live in Spain — and then charge advertisers to show ads to that category. Although advertising to specific groups existed well before the internet, online advertising allows much more precise targeting and therefore more-relevant ads.”

KARA: We have a lot of data. A lot. So much. Especially about Spanish gardeners. We are lousy with Spanish gardener information.

MARK: “The internet also allows far greater transparency and control over what ads you see than TV, radio or print. On Facebook, you have control over what information we use to show you ads, and you can block any advertiser from reaching you. You can find out why you’re seeing an ad and change your preferences to get ads you’re interested in. And you can use our transparency tools to see every different ad an advertiser is showing to anyone else.”

KARA: Sure, we give you tools to control the ads you see, but they are akin to the instructions you got to program your VCR back in the day. Thus, the modern-day version of a blinking light that you never fix.

MARK: “Still, some are concerned about the complexity of this model. In an ordinary transaction, you pay a company for a product or service they provide. Here you get our services for free — and we work separately with advertisers to show you relevant ads. This model can feel opaque, and we’re all distrustful of systems we don’t understand.”

KARA: To review: free ain’t free, Spanish gardeners, VCR.

MARK: “Sometimes this means people assume we do things that we don’t do. For example, we don’t sell people’s data, even though it’s often reported that we do. In fact, selling people’s information to advertisers would be counter to our business interests, because it would reduce the unique value of our service to advertisers. We have a strong incentive to protect people’s information from being accessed by anyone else.”

KARA: We do not sell people’s data. Duh. We monetize people’s data ourselves and offer audiences to advertisers. I cannot believe you all think we would hand over a hard disk with all your posts on your dumb intermittent fasting theories to Procter & Gamble. We worked too hard to suck that information up and guard it like the goblins at Gringotts Wizarding Bank. Obviously, greedy information borgs do not share the actual specific information they greedily borged. All your data are belong to us.

MARK: “Some worry that ads create a misalignment of interests between us and people who use our services. I’m often asked if we have an incentive to increase engagement on Facebook because that creates more advertising real estate, even if it’s not in people’s best interests.

We’re very focused on helping people share and connect more, because the purpose of our service is to help people stay in touch with family, friends and communities. But from a business perspective, it’s important that their time is well spent, or they won’t use our services as much over the long term. Clickbait and other junk may drive engagement in the near term, but it would be foolish for us to show this intentionally, because it’s not what people want.”

KARA: Well, we did throw an all-night rager several years ago by offering all kinds of third-party app companies access to lots and lots of specific audience data in order to grow to the behemoth we are today. Remember Farmville? Me neither. Bygones. The point is we used to love clickbait and junk and other icky things that drive engagement, but now we pretend like we never dated.

MARK: “Another question is whether we leave harmful or divisive content up because it drives engagement. We don’t. People consistently tell us they don’t want to see this content. Advertisers don’t want their brands anywhere near it. The only reason bad content remains is because the people and artificial-intelligence systems we use to review it are not perfect — not because we have an incentive to ignore it. Our systems are still evolving and improving.”

KARA: We suck. O.K., let me clarify: We are incompetent to control this digital version of the Pacific trash vortex of plastic bottles. Except our oily mess is bigger.

MARK: “Finally, there’s the important question of whether the advertising model encourages companies like ours to use and store more information than we otherwise would.

There’s no question that we collect some information for ads — but that information is generally important for security and operating our services as well. For example, companies often put code in their apps and websites so when a person checks out an item, they later send a reminder to complete the purchase. But this type of signal can also be important for detecting fraud or fake accounts.

We give people complete control over whether we use this information for ads, but we don’t let them control how we use it for security or operating our services. And when we asked people for permission to use this information to improve their ads as part of our compliance with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, the vast majority agreed because they prefer more relevant ads.”

KARA: Of course we collect and preserve more information than we should. We are like beavers who are building a giant dam of information. We need every single twig we can grab to make it the most secure dam ever. All the twigs. In the world.

MARK: “Ultimately, I believe the most important principles around data are transparency, choice and control. We need to be clear about the ways we’re using information, and people need to have clear choices about how their information is used. We believe regulation that codifies these principles across the internet would be good for everyone.”

KARA: Did we say we were sorry enough? Did we promise to change enough? We know we’re going to be forced to put right the giant city we have built without adequate police, fire, medical or safety personnel, decent street signs or any kind of rules that would make it work smoothly. So now you have a service that is a little like a modern-day San Francisco, except the Purge is a weekly event.

MARK: “It’s important to get this right, because there are clear benefits to this business model. Billions of people get a free service to stay connected to those they care about and to express themselves. And small businesses — which create most of the jobs and economic growth around the world — get access to tools that help them thrive. There are more than 90 million small businesses on Facebook, and they make up a large part of our business. Most couldn’t afford to buy TV ads or billboards, but now they have access to tools that only big companies could use before. In a global survey, half the businesses on Facebook say they’ve hired more people since they joined. They’re using our services to create millions of jobs.”

KARA: We are not above playing to the cheap seats here. Free stuff. Lots of free stuff. Hopelessly compromised stuff, but it’s free. Also, we create jobs while making a mint off your data that we did not sell, but that we monetized. Monetized. Got it?

MARK: “For us, technology has always been about putting power in the hands of as many people as possible. If you believe in a world where everyone gets an opportunity to use their voice and an equal chance to be heard, where anyone can start a business from scratch, then it’s important to build technology that serves everyone. That’s the world we’re building for every day, and our business model makes it possible.”

KARA: The real power is in the hands of one person, which would be me. I am founder, I am chief executive, I control 60 percent of the stock that matters, I control the board. So stop complaining, especially you Spanish gardeners.

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Kara Swisher, editor at large for the technology news website Recode and producer of the Recode Decode podcast and Code Conference, is a contributing opinion writer. @karaswisher Facebook