It hasn't been an easy week to be Mark Zuckerberg. He's been stating over and over again that fake news stories make up only a tiny fraction of the content on Facebook--even as criticism grows that the social network unduly influenced the outcome of the presidential election, and his own employees set up a renegade task force to tackle the issue.
It's just the latest deployment of the modern-classic Silicon Valley "we are a platform" argument. Being a technology-based platform on which users provide a service is this decade's hot scalable business model, and it's what birthed the entire "sharing economy."
But now, "we are a platform" seems to come up more often when a company has a publicity crisis, as a way to evade responsibility. Uber has used it to explain why it is not at fault when a driver doesn't make minimum wage or have health care. Airbnb used it after New York City opened the question of whether the popularity of its service was driving up rental prices. "Airbnb is an open people-to-people platform where listings come on and go," the company wrote. In other words: Not our problem.
As the media and consumers grow more savvy to the distancing-from-responsibility behind those words, Facebook is deploying a lightly veiled version of them, claiming it wants its users (rather than itself) to determine what "content is most meaningful." It's not working.
Other social-network chief executives ought to take heed, right?
On stage at The Next Web conference in Brooklyn, New York, on Wednesday, Reddit chief executive Steve Huffman answered a question about how the message-board startup he founded back in 2005 should be viewed in the wake of the recent election.
"Reddit is home to thousands of communities and those communities are choosing what they see and what they talk about," Huffman said. "To that extent, Reddit is very much a reflection of humanity."
He said the content that people are exposed to on Reddit, Facebook, and elsewhere online is far broader today than it was a decade or two ago. "We've created this whole new and very efficient way of communicating and sharing ideas. It's not just controlled by a couple gatekeepers," he said.
So...where did he come down on whether Reddit is a publisher or a platform?
"We are a communications platform primarily, bringing people together," he said. There it is. Reddit is on team "platform."
Despite that Reddit is the eighth-most-popular website in the United States, and is also "social," it is coming from a different position than is Facebook on this issue. While Facebook strives to require users to log in with their real identity and presents them with a clean, bright, and objective-appearing news feed, Reddit is another beast entirely. It is home to thousands-upon-thousands of user-created message boards full of memes, slang, and inside jokes. Reddit's communities make precisely zero effort to be unbiased--a fact they make perfectly clear.
Not that Reddit's chief executive is being shy about making controversial statements in general these days. Back in May at a previous The Next Web conference, Huffman joked about the power that comes with the platform, saying that Reddit knows "all of your interests."
"Not only just your interests you are willing to declare publicly on Facebook," he said. "We know your dark secrets. We know everything."
He called that a "tongue-in-cheek" comment when asked about it, and said he was trying to express that "Reddit is a special place where you can convey all of the different facets of your personality."
He continued: "Which also means that we have all this unique data about what you like to do, what you're interested in."
So, not exactly walking that one back, either.