A tense look at Facebook on '60 Minutes'

An interview with CBS' "60 Minutes" offers a rare televised appearance by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, with many of the questions expressing concern over its growing global power.
Written by Caroline McCarthy, Contributor

Unease about Facebook's growing global power under the leadership of CEO Mark Zuckerberg dominated a "60 Minutes" segment about the young company on Sunday night.

Interviewed by Lesley Stahl, Zuckerberg remained relatively unfazed and confident through a barrage of questions about privacy, intellectual property theft, and whether he wants to take over the world.

The centerpiece of the interview was a redesign of Facebook member profiles that puts photos front-and-center, personal information packaged into a blurb at the top of the page, and custom friend groupings. It proffers a Facebook experience that's more hyper-connected and categorized than ever, with even more portions of a profile connecting to other access points on the Facebook domain--separate new fields for tagging the sports you play and the teams you follow, for example--and new ways for members to organize and "tag" their friends. You can now, for example, add a sport as an interest and tag the friends with which you play it.

"When you can use products with your friends and your family and the people you care about, they tend to be more engaging," Zuckerberg said in the interview.

Facebook has been tightening its web of social connections and intricate chronicling of activities through a series of sweeping product announcements over the course of the past few months: from Facebook Places, which brought geolocation to the site for the first time, to the enhanced messaging client to the "friendship pages" that detail two-way interactions. The redesigned profile pages, in comparison, are a relatively light addition.

But on "60 Minutes," which attracts a mainstream viewership that differs dramatically from the tech press that hungrily follows its every move, the development of the new pages as a sliver of Facebook's "hacker culture" were treated as something foreign, malevolent even. The product was built in a "war room," to use Stahl's terminology, packed with a dozen Facebook employees and strewn with things like empty toothpaste tubes as a countdown clock indicating the project deadline hovered overhead like something out of a military thriller.

She referred to the company a "vast global empire." The engineering culture embodies "high-level competition" as employees choose to take breaks by playing speed chess. "It's a constant game of one-upmanship," Stahl explained. And on the exterior, of course, the narrative wraps up this internal heat into a force that ultimately hopes to dethrone Google as the reigning power in Silicon Valley.

"Is the goal for you to conquer the Internet, to own the whole Internet?" Stahl asked. Zuckerberg first dodged the question, and then suggested that instead it should be looked at as Facebook building products for the rest of the Web to make their own products better.

The competition in the tech industry, of course, has been well-documented. But the mainstream, long since accustomed to Facebook as a relatively anonymous platform for flipping through friends' photo albums and playing games like Words With Friends and FarmVille, is only just getting turned on to exactly who the young CEO is who runs it. Many of them learned about Zuckerberg through "The Social Network," a high-profile film about the origins of Facebook that the company has discounted as extremely inaccurate--but which audiences and critics loved.

Calling the onscreen Zuckerberg, played by actor Jesse Eisenberg, "a callous genius who betrays friends and principals to protect his creation of Facebook," Stahl supplemented the "60 Minutes" look at "The Social Network" with a particularly tense interview with Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, the identical twins who, attempting to build a social-media service called ConnectU while undergraduates at Harvard, enlisted Zuckerberg to build out their code. As "The Social Network" detailed, Zuckerberg eventually turned course to construct Facebook on his own and the ConnectU founders promptly served him with a court complaint.

"We were teammates. We were partners," one of the twins said in the "60 Minutes" interview, showing that their bitterness over events nearly seven years ago has not gone away. "He premeditatively sandbagged us because he knew getting there first was everything."

Yet Zuckerberg said that the ConnectU founders "had an idea that was completely different than Facebook" and that "it wasn't a job, they weren't paying me. I wasn't hired or anything like that". Further deflecting the events of "The Social Network," he added, "I've probably spent less than two weeks of my time worried about this lawsuit at all."

The interview presented an optimistic, yet sinister portrayal of the future of Facebook and its rising power around the world. But it was Zuckerberg who maintained a dose of levity, showing a remarkable change since his days as a famously press-shy young CEO, something Stahl referred to when she ran a few clips from the last time Zuckerberg had appeared on "60 Minutes," three years ago. In reference to "The Social Network," arguably one of the matters on which he should have been most defensive, Zuckerberg kept a grin on his face.

"We took the whole company to see the movie!" he said. "Watching, it's pretty interesting to see what parts they got right and what parts they got wrong. I think they got every single T-shirt that they had the Mark Zuckerberg wearing, (that) was right."

Disclosure: CNET is published by CBS, which broadcasts "60 Minutes".

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

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