Two years ago, Mark Zuckerberg was one of the most admired people in American business, if not in all of America. There are polls that document  this, but they don't capture the degree to which Facebook's CEO was Silicon Valley's beau ideal--positively worshipped by his employees, held up by investors as a model founder, feared by competitors. People made jokes about his robotic affect and occasionally questioned the motives of his philanthropic endeavors, but it was rare to hear anyone in a position of power in the technology industry speak an ill word about Zuck.

These days, that is no longer the case. Zuckerberg's workers question his leadership and hope people at parties don't ask them what they do for a living. People he has made fantastically wealthy say they regret their association with him.

To his credit, Zuckerberg, who has been trying his best to take the pulse of the populace, knows he has an image problem. In April 2017, Facebook took the unusual step of hiring a full-time, in-house pollster to quantify it. Tavis McGinn spent six months designing and administering surveys to divine how different groups of Americans viewed Zuckerberg and his No. 2, Sheryl Sandberg, and what factors influenced their views for better or worse.

Then McGinn quit, for a reason too obvious to qualify as ironic. He had formed his own opinion about where Zuckerberg was leading Facebook, and it wasn't a favorable one.

"I thought, here's this huge machine that has a tremendous influence on society, and there's nothing I can do as an outsider. But if I join the company, and I'm regularly taking the pulse of Americans to Mark, maybe, just maybe that could change the way the company does business," McGinn told Casey Newton of The Verge, who broke the story. "But I decided after six months that it was a waste of my time to be there. I didn't feel great about the product. I didn't feel proud to tell people I worked at Facebook. I didn't feel I was helping the world."

Embarrassing? Sure. Hearing your pollster say he doesn't like you enough to keep working for you is like being told by your psychiatrist that you're too neurotic to be his patient. It says things are much, much worse than you thought.

But McGinn's project--a "very, very expensive" one, he says--was always doomed to failure. That's because it was premised on the idea that perception of Zuckerberg could be dragging down perception of Facebook when, in fact, it's the other way around. Facebook doesn't have a Zuck problem; Zuck has a Facebook problem. And that's not going to change as long as Zuckerberg believes the problem with Facebook is something cosmetic rather than something deep within the company's DNA.

This week, several of those people Zuckerberg made wealthy started something called the Center for Humane Technology, a nonprofit whose goals include things like fighting digital addiction and lobbying for regulations on social media businesses that harm consumers and society. The Center's executive director, Tristan Harris, is a former Google designer who coined the phrase "Time Well Spent" to capture his notion of how technology should serve users: helping them reach their goals efficiently rather than treating them as a captive audience for advertisers. Recently, Zuckerberg has adopted the phrase "Time Well Spent" as his own--only he has made it clear Facebook believes that any time its users spend interacting with each other fits the bill.

Appropriating critics' language may buy time, but it won't solve Facebook's image problems, or Zuckerberg's. To do that, he'll have to be willing to consider the possibility that what people don't like about Facebook is precisely what has made the company so successful for so long: its ability to elicit its users' worst time-wasting, argument-picking, bias-affirming selves.

But, then, if Zuckerberg were open to that kind of self-examination, he might still have a pollster working for him.

Facebook could not be reached for comment on this article.

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Published on: Feb 7, 2018