This is the second in a series of posts about my new book, Designing Media

Mark Zuckerberg, November 2009

Mark stares at you from the cover of this week’s Time Magazine with intense green eyes. Here is Time’s accolade:

“For connecting more than half a billion people and mapping the social relations among them; for creating a new system of exchanging information; and for changing how we all live our lives, Mark Elliot Zuckerberg is TIME’s 2010 Person of the Year.”

The enhancement of his stare in this image is obviously designed to strengthen the myth of his personality, building on the fabrications in the film The Social Network. My interview with him was not so exciting. It was short, but I got the sense that an endless conversation with him in a relaxed environment would be very rewarding. He is notoriously camera shy, so it was no great surprise that when we arrived to set up the cameras, we were told that our one-hour slot was reduced to twenty minutes. He used that short time to communicate some interesting ideas.

Mark’s Profile on the Original Facebook

His grimace in his photo on his profile for the original Facebook is prescient of both the strength and the dilemmas of his approach. People were fascinated by the chance to see themselves compared and connected to others online, with an interface that was more visual and welcoming than email or texting, but Mark’s desire to open everything up was getting him in trouble right from the start, posing a dilemma that is still difficult and contentious to solve.

During our conversation he emphasized his interest in psychology as well as his passion for algorithms, revealing a strong philosophy that complements his pragmatic design approach. I particularly enjoyed his enthusiasm for the creative delights of writing code: “You craft something, you build it … and you have something … that you can share with other people.”

Behind this pleasure in his craft is a combination of long-term vision and pragmatic evolution, attributes that you find in many examples of successful design development. He describes two necessary elements: First, a kind of big-picture thing that reflects the ideology behind what you are doing—for example, that the world should be generally more open and transparent. Second, a tactical use case that drives what people do on a day-to-day basis. He believes that the world is on a trajectory to become more open, that there will be more access to information, leading to a better understanding for people about of what is happening in the world. Mark is profoundly optimistic and believes that this openness will make people more efficient at what they do, more understanding, more tolerant. Let’s hope he’s right!

The opportunities for creating online communities have been slow to develop, but Facebook and other social-networking services show what is possible. Facebook is an application that pushes toward connecting people to one another and to information. The human-to-human connections in social networking are very personal and need to be designed to help people connect without an obtrusive technological interface. Mark is pushing Facebook to develop designs with a deep awareness of human perceptions as one of the elements to be synthesized in creating a solution. He wants the site to offer a social filter through which people can see what’s going on and what the people around them care about. This mandate, to help people see more and be better connected, is difficult to balance with the desire for privacy. Social-networking sites like Facebook will probably always suffer from the implications of this paradox.

 

Facebook's social graph

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