Mark Zuckerberg Q&A: Dislike Button, Ferguson, Graph Search, News Feed Study Controversy

Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg held his second public question-and-answer session Thursday at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., and topics that came up included whether or not Facebook will add a dislike button; the social network’s role in discussions about issues such as the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y.; whether Graph Search will launch in other languages; and the controversial News Feed study by social scientists from Facebook, Cornell University and the University of California-San Francisco.

Zuck121114QA650Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg held his second public question-and-answer session Thursday at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., and topics that came up included whether or not Facebook will add a dislike button; the social network’s role in discussions about issues such as the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y.; whether Graph Search will launch in other languages; and the controversial News Feed study by social scientists from Facebook, Cornell University and the University of California-San Francisco.

A video of the Q&A is embedded below and available here, and highlights follow.

On the potential addition of a dislike button, Zuckerberg said:

We’re thinking about it. It’s an interesting question. There are two things it could mean, and we’re considering and talking about doing one and not the other. The like button is really valuable because it’s a way for you to very quickly express a positive emotion or sentiment when someone puts themselves out there and shares something. Some people have asked for a dislike button because they want to be able to say, “That thing isn’t good.” That’s not something that we think is good. We’re not going to build that, and I don’t think there needs to be a voting mechanism on Facebook about whether posts are good or bad. I don’t think that’s socially very valuable or good for the community to help people share the important moments in their lives.

The thing I think is very valuable is that there are more sentiments that people want to express than just positivity or that they like something. A lot of times, people share things on Facebook that are sad moments in their lives, or that are tough cultural or social things, and often, people tell us that they don’t feel comfortable pressing like, because like isn’t the appropriate sentiment when someone lost a loved one or is talking about a very difficult issue.

One of the things that we have had some dialogue about internally, and have thought about for quite a while, is: What’s the right way to make it so that people can easily express a broader range of emotions — to empathize, or to express surprise, or laughter, or any of these things?

You can always just comment. It’s not like there isn’t a way to do that today. A lot of people are commenting on posts all the time. But there’s something that’s just so simple about the like button. If you’re commenting, a lot of the time, you feel like you have to have something witty to say, or add to the conversation. Everyone feels like they can just press the like button, and that’s an important way to sympathize or empathize with someone in an important moment that they put themselves out there to share.

I think giving people the power to do that in more ways, with more emotions, would be powerful, but we need to figure out the right way to do it so that it ends up being a force for good, and not a force for bad and demeaning the posts people put out there.

On Facebook’s role in discussing issues such as the deaths of Brown and Garner, he said:

This is a really important question, and it’s something that we’ve been spending a lot of time discussing internally. It’s actually come up in every one of our internal Q&As that we’ve had since this started getting written about a lot.

We take our role in this kind of civic debate really seriously. There are two things that we want to try to do and enable for people in the world. The first is that we want to give everyone a voice. If some events like this had happened 50 years ago, you might have only read about it from the newspapers, or TV, a few voices. What we’re trying to do is make it so that every single person in the world has a voice and a channel and can share their opinions, or research, or facts that they’ve come across, and can broadcast that out to their friends and family and people who follow them and want to hear what they have to say.

That’s a pretty new thing in the world. I don’t think we can take it for granted. There are lots of governments that have different policies on this, and there are new technologies that enable it to exist better and better as each year goes by. We view it as our job to keep on making that as powerful of a voice as we can for people and giving everyone the richest tools to communicate and share what’s important to them.

We see this not only in the U.S. now, with Ferguson and Eric Garner and the debates around this, but with what’s going on in the Middle East, some of the unrest in Thailand — whenever there are important moments and tension around the world and in different countries, a lot of people turn to Facebook and social media in general now, because it’s an outlet and a voice that they have to be able to share what is important to them and spread information.

The second thing that I think is really important is diversity of opinion. That’s something that we also take really seriously. Historically, maybe somebody would watch a few TV stations, or read a few newspapers, or listen to some radio shows, and they would probably only get a few different kinds of voices. One of the things that we care about a lot on Facebook is making sure that people get exposed to a diversity of different opinions. We think that builds stronger communities and generally helps society move forward.

One of the things that we’re really proud of is that basically on Facebook, if you’re Republican or Democrat, you probably have some friends who are on the other count. If you’re Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, you probably have some friends who are other religions. That is really important, because that means that whatever TV station you might listen to that has an opinion, whatever news you might read, on Facebook, you’re hearing from a broader set of people. Even if the majority of people that you’re friends with have opinions that are similar to you, your network of friends and friends of friends who you’ll hear from in your News Feed is going to bring you more diverse opinions than you would get from any other type of media that you would have consumed.

I think that’s a really important change in the world, and we take this responsibility in terms of helping to build this News Feed for our community — it’s one of the most important things that we do here, and we’re happy to play some small role in enabling people to have this important discourse.

In response to a question about whether Graph Search would be rolled out in Spanish, Zuckerberg said:

Yes, but we want to get it right first. One of the things that people ask us for the most is the ability to find things that people have shared on Facebook in the past, or even that you’ve shared on Facebook in the past. Right now, a lot of Facebook is day-to-day. You’ll share a moment, and you’ll communicate with your friends and your family and the people you care about around that, and then it floats off the bottom of News Feed, and maybe you’ll look it up in the future, but that’s not a part of how people are using Facebook on a day-to-day basis by and large today.

I think there’s a big opportunity here. There’s so much knowledge that people have shared, recommendations that people have shared, things that they’ve had, experiences that they’ve had, trips that they’ve been on, products they’ve tried, businesses they’ve tried, movies that they’ve watched, the next time you want to go see a movie — the ability to learn from the wisdom of all of your friends and family and all of the people you trust I think is going to be an incredibly important thing that right now, it’s really very hard to use Facebook to do that. We have not made it easy for our community to do this very well. That’s an important focus for us, and one that we’re trying to do. It’s a lot of work, because there are so many different posts on Facebook. There are actually, I think, more than 1 trillion posts, which is kind of crazy if you think about it in terms of the amount of content that you need to be able to return when somebody needs to search for something.

I think the answer is that it’s taking a little longer than I think we all want. I’m an impatient person, so it’s definitely talking longer than I want to fully roll out search to everybody in the world. I’m glad that I’m not alone in that, although I feel like I’m letting you down a little bit, since it’s been two years that we’ve been working on this, and we haven’t been able to launch this yet. What I would say is: Please hang in there, and we hope to deliver this sometime soon.

And on Facebook’s study of users’ emotions in reaction to News Feed posts, and the resulting controversy, he said:

We took that opportunity to go internally and reflect on whether we had a good enough process internally around what we wanted to do. We tightened things up a bit.

The only way that we can make our services better for the world is if we try out different things and learn from feedback from the community. Every day, we’ll try out different features. We’ll try ranking or showing different kinds of content in News Feed to see if we can do a better and better job of actually showing you the content that you care the most about. We’ll test a lot of other different products, as well.

One question from earlier was are we going to think about adding a dislike button: I can assure you that before we add anything like that, we will try to test something to make sure that it has positive impacts and not negative ones.

We run tests to try to make Facebook faster. Some changes that we make, we’re not sure ahead of time if they’re going to make things faster or slower, or faster but have other downsides, so we want to run those tests to make sure we have a positive impact in everything that we’re rolling out to our community. Testing is a really important part of how Facebook works overall and how we continue to make our products better and better for everyone.

My wife is a doctor, and one philosophy that people have in medicine that I think is pretty interesting is that there’s this assumption that when you run a test as a doctor, there’s a cost to running the test. Whether you’re drawing blood or doing something else, that can be painful as a test, and therefore, you need to have an appropriate internal process to make sure that the test is actually teaching you something valuable enough that will help the community enough to be worth running a test on.

One of the things that we wanted to be careful about is that there are certain types of things that we’re just don’t want to be testing on internally. Things like privacy we’re just not going to test. Anything that we’re going to do that might affect how you share stuff or the type of data that you would be sharing with Facebook, that’s something that I really should know about before it goes out. That’s not something that an engineer at Facebook should just be able to test. Similarly, anything with young people, minors, or any kind of sensitive community is something that we need to be especially careful about. And anything around emotions and the emotional or psychological well-being of our community is just a really important thing that we made sure people internally just don’t have the ability to test.

The study that we did was because there was a bunch of press that had come up saying that seeing happy posts on Facebook about the moments in people’s lives was actually making people sad, because it made them feel like they were missing out. We care really deeply about this, and we don’t want to make people sad. We don’t want to do anything that’s going to be impacting people’s emotions in a way that we don’t understand. This is something that we have a responsibility to our community to try to understand what the impact of Facebook is.

That’s the type of thing that our community should want us to test. We should be making sure that when we make changes, they’re positive social changes. If something is happening on Facebook that’s going to have a negative impact on society, I think we do have a responsibility to understand that and make sure that we can take steps to make a more positive impact on society if something negative is happening.

The way that we did it, I think we could have done it a lot better. We need to make sure that when some engineer inside Facebook decides that they want to go test that, the right people inside the company know about it and can evaluate whether it’s an appropriate and good thing to be testing, which is what we now are going to do.

Readers: What did you think of Zuckerberg’s second public Q&A? David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.