In the past year or so, I’ve grown increasingly impressed with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Though he’s still young for a guy running the most important company on the Web, I felt he was growing into the CEO role. This was a reflection of his strategic insights, the way he’s expanded Facebook’s user base past 500 million, and his improved presentation skills. That last bit may sound shallow, but the ability to stand up in front of the world and convery your ideas and persuade people to believe in them and follow you is a critical skill for any tech CEO these days.
Given all this progress, I was left doing double-take after double-take as I watched the livestream of the Facebook Places announcement Wednesday afternoon. I lost count of how many times I found myself thinking, “Did he really just say that?” or “Did they really just do that?” It bordered on the surreal at times, and easily ranks as one of the most bizarre corporate announcements I’ve witnessed while covering Silicon Valley for more than a decade. To be clear, it wasn’t just Zuckerberg, but the whole crew of Facebook execs who toddled across the stage.
But let’s start with Zuckerberg, since he was up first.
When he first hopped onto the makeshift stage set up at Facebook, Zuckerberg seemed a bit lost. Holding up the microphone to his mouth, he said so the whole room (and the Web audience) could hear: “Hey, do I have to stand on this thing? Okay….It’s a driftwood stage we constructed. Awesome.”
Then, Zuckerberg explained the Facebook tradition of holding a launch party when they have new products. “These are a lot of fun to do, so thanks.” Another awkward pause.
Then: “This is going to be a long interesting summer. We’ve got a lot of interesting products we’re working on.” Pause. (Would I be nitpicking to point out that summer is two-thirds over?)
Then: “The thing we’re going to talk about tonight is a new Places product that we’ve been working on for a few months. Uh, awhile”
Then, Zuckerberg told a story about how he knew the product was ready to go when he was showing it to his girlfriend and they discovered that Facebook VP Chris Cox and his girlfriend were at a restaurant next door.
“I was in Menlo Park, and I never go to Menlo Park. I’m always at home or in the office.”
“When that serendipitous moment happened, I knew that the product was ready to go. And we were ready to start sharing it with the world and help people stay connected wherever they go.”
What struck me as odd, as I listened to Zuckerberg and some of the Facebook execs that followed, was that they sounded like they had just discovered the wonder of location-sharing and check-ins. Zuckerberg explained that Facebook Places was intended to do three things: Help people share where they are in a “nice and social way,” help you see who is around you, and help you see what else is going on. Fine. But that’s pretty much what Foursquare, Gowalla, Brightkite, Where, and many others, have allowed you do for a couple of years now. Facebook is a relative late comer, though potentially a game changer given its 500 million users.
Then Zuckerberg was followed by a gauzy, Hallmark-card-y video that tugged at your heartstrings with some warbly music and shots of people interacting in the real world, all thanks to the magical thing that Facebook had just discovered:
Up next was Michael Sharon, product manager for Facebook Places. “Places is not about broadcasting your location to the world,” he said. “It’s about sharing your location with your friends.”
And again, he went through the list of wonders that pretty much every other check-in service has allowed you to do. Check-in! See who else has checked in!
What should they have done? While many of other early leaders in the space appeared on stage after Sharon (Gowalla and Foursquare), I think Facebook should have acknowledged their pioneering work. And then pivot and say: Hey, these are great, but it still leaves this gap. Define what that gap is: These are early adopter services. Facebook represents a way to bring location sharing to the masses. The more people you know who use this type of thing, the more useful it becomes. Facebook’s opportunity is to bake this into its platform, make in a mainstream activity, and let other people build applications on top of it, just as they have on Facebook’s main platform.
After the competitors left the stage, Cox appeared on stage to kick the weirdness quotient up another notch. He started out with an attempt at a joke that sucked the air out of the room: “The thing about Facebook employees is that we’re all closet sociologists.” Um, huh? “We all get on a bus and go to the Stanford library and check out books on the history of designing public spaces.” Hello, is this thing on? “That was a joke.” Ah, thanks for clearing that up. Cue nervous laughter.
This was all leading up to Cox’s sociology lecture. He gave a nod to noted sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who was apparently sitting in the audience. Cox then elaborated on Oldenburg’s theory about “third places.” He started by filling us in on particularly obscure sociological term that describes the first place: “home.”
“Home is where you wake up, it’s where you go to sleep, it’s where your family is, it’s where you eat and it’s where you go to digest and reflect upon the experiences you had during the day.” Got that? To recap, home is where you eat, sleep, live. There will be a test on this later.
Second place: work. (Do I need to explain that?) The third place is called….”the third place.” These are bars, restaurants, anywhere people go to share their lives with other people.
“Oldenberg made a pretty crazy hypothesis that the technology we were creating in the 20th century was in danger of destroying the third place. There was a fear that now we have television and phones and radios, we would just sit at home on our couches rather than going to the amphitheater to watch the play, rather than going out to have coffee, we’d just call our friends on the phone. Rather than experiencing the world outside, we’d cloister ourselves indoor…Over time, these third places would be destroyed and we’d be sitting in these pods. It’s like Wall-E, with these fat people rolling around in their bubbles.”
Cox: “Technology can be the thing that pulls us out. Technology does not need to estrange us from each other.”
“Maybe one time you walk into a bar, you sit down at the bar, and you put your magical 10-years-into-the-future phone down. And suddenly it starts to glow. ‘This is what your friend ordered here’. And it pops up these memories…’Go check out this thing about the urinal that your friend wrote about when they were here about eight months ago.’ ”
Cox explained that all these check-ins, photos, and videos could be gathered on pages about a place to create “collective memories.”
Yeah, he said that.
“Too many of our memories are still stuck at home, gathering dust on a shelf.” Now those stories are going to be on Facebook! “So that maybe one day in 20 years, our children will go to Ocean Beach, and their little magical thing will start to vibrate, and it will say, this is where your parents had their first kiss.”
As one journalist remarked to Cox later: He practically had tears in his eyes at this point.
Cue Zuckerberg back to the stage to introduce the product team. This included attempting to pronounce the name of one Indian engineer on team. “Did I get that right?” Zuckerberg asked. “Awesome.”
For the finale, Zuckerberg recounted the tales of Facebook’s legendary hack-a-thons, in which people stay up all night working on a project not related to what they work on during their day job. Apparently, someone at one such event decided it would be cool to build a “launch switch.” Which would be: a wooden plank on the side of the room. That gets pulled whenever the launch a new product. But first, a gong must be banged:
Phew. That’s a wrap.
Now, I know I’m older (41) than probably just about every single person who works at Facebook. But the event felt like I was watching some guys in their dorm commons room knock back a few beers and practice their first presentation. Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise given Facebook’s famous roots in a college dorm room. But it was hard for me to imagine the group I saw overseeing the massive company Facebook would become if it ever does an IPO.
Also odd: The performance of Zuckerberg won some healthy doses of praise. Dean Takahashi at Venture Beat, said Zuckerberg was “in his element”:
“The affair started late and Zuckerberg had some awkward pauses while on stage. But the 26-year-old handled himself well enough as he introduced a new feature that will likely make rivals in the location-based services business tremble with fear. We’ve uploaded scenes from the press conference in several videos for your enjoyment. You’ll also see the company’s video describing Facebook Places, which lets you share your location with friends, find out where your friends are, and discover new places.
I always find it fascinating to see how one of the world’s youngest billionaires at one of the hottest companies in Silicon Valley handles himself on stage. He seems like a pretty ordinary guy, just one more coder among many.”
Henry Blodget praised Zuckerberg’s performance:
“One final observation: We thought Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg were at the top of their games tonight. Mark was relaxed and in his element, and after a couple of challenging and awkward public appearances recently, seeing him in his element was refreshing. Facebook, meanwhile, is positively bursting with excitement and energy, as might be expected of a company that has wrested the center-of-innovation mantle from Google and is really, truly changing the world.”
I agree with the bit about Facebook taking the mantle from Google. But if this was Zuckerberg was “at the top” of his game, then I’m terrified to think what those other appearances were like.