Friday 15 December 2017

Last night’s TV: Mark Zuckerberg: Inside Facebook

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg

It took a while, 50 minutes to be exact, but Emily Maitlis finally landed a punch on Facebook.

Funnily enough, it was the site's "Like" button that provided the killer moment. If you click "Like" on a product or business on Facebook – as 35 million people have done with Coca-Cola, for example – you could end up unwittingly flogging it to your friends in their sidebars.

When Maitlis raised the ethics of this advertising-by-stealth with Elliot Schrage, Facebook's VP Public Policy, he was struck dumb. "Let's pause," he said, freezing like a crashing website. "You're asking a profound question... What's advertising?"

It wasn't profound at all, it was pretty basic, but as Schrage flubbed around with phrases like "affirmative linking" and "ranking mechanisms", it became clear that Facebook didn't really have a worked-out policy on where its social network blurred into a commercial network – or at least not one that it is willing to share.

Mark Zuckerberg: Inside Facebook was timely for two reasons: privacy is the hot potato du jour and Facebook is poised for flotation on the stock market at any moment.

Used by 800 million people, it's set to be valued at £100 billion. Not bad for an idea which began in a Harvard dorm as a "hot or not" site for rating students' looks.

The documentary was most revealing when it focused on the "ecosystem" that has shot up around the site – games manufacturers, targeted ad agencies and people who "ghost-write" pages for various businesses.

It was less interesting on the man whose name featured in its title. By the looks of it, Maitlis scraped around seven minutes with Zuck, five of which were taken up with him saying "cool" and "awesome" a lot.

The rest of the time, she trailed around in his wake, looking at his empty office chair – "ah, the famous hoodie!" – and visiting the house in Palo Alto where Facebook first took shape. Gazing into its empty pool, Maitlis scrabbled for tales of glamorous excess among the geeks and came up with "barbecue ashes dumped in a flower pot" and a broken pool filter.

It was a tough job, to be fair. The origins story has already been told, with unbeatable flair, in The Social Network. The programme-makers acknowledged as much, supplementing their footage with lots of clips from David Fincher's film.

Still, it was worth sticking out the hour – not least for the creeping sense that no one at Facebook could quite put their finger on why the site was a force for good.

"We're better if we're more open and connected," said the chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg. "My life is improved by knowing what you're doing." Yikes.

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