Utah’s Silicon Slopes Tech Summit 2020 was a major success that attracted industry heavyweight Mark Zuckerberg and hosted the state election season’s first gubernatorial debate. At the Salt Palace Friday, US Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) introduced the tech legend in a video recording that was displayed to a packed crowd that included many Utah Valley University students.
Addressing the Salt Lake City audience in an on-stage interview, Zuckerberg began with a blunder by accidentally calling the city Eagle Mountain, Eagle Rock, the location of Facebook’s new data center in Utah. The audience laughed, and the summit’s executive director, Clint Betts, quickly corrected: “It’s Eagle Mountain,” to which Zuckerberg responded, “My bad,” and joked how he was off to a great start.
“The powerful people are always going to have a voice.”—Mark Zuckerberg
Betts then dove into questions, starting with what Zuckerberg meant when he once said that it is more important to be understood than to be liked. Zuckerberg segued from the Eagle Rock blunder by conceding that communication is not a strength of his, which could already be seen since he “messed up the name of our data center in the first 30 seconds.” As an engineer by training, he said, and as a 19-year-old that loved coding and building products but didn’t know anything about hiring, managing, or building a company, he learned how his lack of communication proficiency led to some early setbacks at Facebook. “We weren’t winning because we were communicating well, but because our products were great,” he conceded.
Zuckerberg then delved into the issue of censorship versus free expression, a debate stage on which Facebook has been front-and-center. He expressed discontent that the topic has become so controversial and said that this wasn’t a problem during the 2004 inception of the social media platform. Zuckerberg lamented that the principles of free expression are under attack and that he is not okay with society’s enlarged, politically-correct culture. He said that although Facebook historically shied away from some of the principles that they believed in, principles that became more controversial in the world, today, Facebook stands for free expression. The crowd then applauded as he highlighted the firm’s commitment to take down content that is harmful, a move made possible by 30,000 employees who work with artificial intelligence for content safety.
When asked if social media leads to enhanced polarization in the world, Zuckerberg retorted that research into this question refutes mainstream narratives. He explained that if polarization does occur at the scale implied, we would see it manifested in other countries as well. He claimed that those who submit such ideas are grounded in the data of the past and are not openminded to new data.
Zuckerberg revealed that the product innovations or trends of the next decade that he most looks forward to would revolve around the evolution of digital town squares, small business e-commerce, and virtual reality. He believes in an outlook of “private social platforms that are as robust as the digital town square,” providing an enhanced sense of intimacy with our communities. He wants small businesses to have access to the same set of sophisticated tools that traditionally only the “big guys” had access to. Future apps, he said, will streamline international e-commerce by piercing the traditionally national hedges surrounding payment infrastructure. He suggested that virtual reality could enable us to live in a place that matches our values while still benefitting from big city opportunities, to play ping pong with someone halfway across the world, or to participate in hologram interviews with employers.
“We weren’t winning because we were communicating well, but because our products were great.”—Mark Zuckerberg
When asked if California’s Silicon Valley would be his startup hub, if he began fresh today, the audience cheered when Zuckerberg responded: “No.” The crowd laughed more when Betts joked, “Move to Eagle Mountain.” Zuckerberg said that during Facebook’s budding stages, a lot of the tools for companies weren’t as built out, that it was a lot more complicated back then, so Silicon Valley seemed like an appropriate hub for Facebook. But Silicon Valley, he said, is a monoculture, an all-tech town with “not as much diversity of how people think about things as you’d like in a lot of ways.”
When asked if he was “taking heat on behalf of the entire internet,” Zuckerberg responded, “That’s what leading is.” He said that “we’re certainly at the center of a lot of issues” and that they have a responsibility to step up and solve them. Whether it’s free expression versus safety, privacy, competition, or well-being, he said, “we need to get these right,” and that it weighs on his team a lot. He claimed that government intervention would be necessary to facilitate appropriate solutions.
Hillary Clinton at Sundance claims Facebook “intend[s] to reelect Trump” and calls Zuckerberg immensely powerful, authoritarian, and Trumpianhttps://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/01/hillary-clinton-mark-zuckerberg-is-trumpian-and-authoritarian/605485/
Zuckerberg recounted his hardest time at Facebook in 2006 when his team fell apart. Outlining organizational behavior and human resource deficiencies, he said that “not being clear enough internally about what we were trying to do” was Facebook’s biggest setback. This was the time when Yahoo! offered the company a substantial buyout but was turned down. The experienced management team at Facebook wasn’t in line with Zuckerberg’s overall strategy, he said, and “18 months after that every other person on the management team either quit or were so dysfunctional that I had to fire them.” He continued his advice about management principles by saying that if you’re “clear about the principles,” you can “perform miracles.”
Today, he said, Facebook has adopted a better strategy. When it comes to creating a mission and goals for an organization, “you really want to be clear about what you stand for.” He called out firms’ tendency to write down platitudes that no one disagrees with, and juxtaposed that “you want values that people can legitimately disagree
He went on about how their company opted to be more open internally. One of the ways they do this, he said, is by conducting a Q&A with all the company’s employees every week. Then they look for the hardest questions that were voted on, often submitted anonymously so that Zuckerberg, as the CEO, can know what his people are honestly wondering about. He said Apple is on the opposite side of that spectrum, showing that it’s a principle that can be disagreed with and that the tone of Facebook’s internal openness supports positive employee morale.
While responding to the claim that social media causes depression, Zuckerberg suggested that users choose not to use their products to scroll through content passively but rather to use it to interact with people actively. He said that, in response to this problem, his team cut out 50 million hours of viral video content per day by making sure content from a user’s community shows up in their newsfeed. He then quipped that, although “we’re here to do good things in the world,” the move cost them $100 billion of market cap in one day.
“You want values that people can legitimately disagree with.”—Mark Zuckerberg
Stating how he’s become more religious, Zuckerberg said that “we all need to be parts of things that are bigger than ourselves” no matter what form it takes. He explained how his Jewish culture is important to him and how much he values his two daughters, ages 4 and 2. “I try to put my girls to bed every night,” he said, and that he “draw[s] some boundaries so I can do that.”
Zuckerberg concluded his on-stage interview with more comments about freedom of expression. He expressed concern that there are people out there that are fundamentally asking “is giving people a voice good?” Zuckerberg pointed out that “the powerful people are always going to have a voice” and that they suggest a need for more censorship, but are never at risk of being censored themselves. He argued that his passions include standing up to give everyone a voice and promoting broad economic success based on small businesses everywhere, succeeding: “That’s me—that’s what I care about.”
“I try to put my girls to bed every night.”—Mark Zuckerberg
Ballooning to an enrollment of 25,000 attendees in 2020 from just 5,000 four years ago, the tech summit is poised to capture even more mass in upcoming years. With Zuckerberg as the highest profile speaker to attend and legitimize the conference that symbolizes Utah’s tech hotbed, more are sure to come.
Austin Skousen is a communication student at Utah Valley University who enjoys Christopher Nolan films, motorcycling, philosophy, and political analysis.