In a lot of ways, you’d never know that Facebook just spent the past six weeks embroiled in controversy.
At F8, the company’s annual developer conference, which took place this week in San Jose, things felt pretty … normal. About 5,000 people showed up to hear from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, lining up hours early to get inside, then hooting and hollering at different announcements throughout the keynote. (The entire place erupted when Zuckerberg said that everyone would get a free Oculus Go, the company’s new standalone virtual reality headset.)
Facebook launched some new features — smaller stuff like goofy augmented reality face masks for Instagram, and bigger stuff, like a new dating service and the Oculus Go headset. Zuckerberg even made light of his recent congressional testimony, joking that Facebook’s livestreaming product is perfect for watching what your friends are up to. “Let’s say your friend is testifying in Congress …” he quipped.
There were some obvious Cambridge Analytica moments. Zuckerberg spent the early part of his keynote on Tuesday addressing the elephant in the room, thanking developers for attending and letting them know that Facebook is taking more responsibility for its influence on the world. CTO Mike Schroepfer did something similar in his keynote on Wednesday.
“I know that it hasn’t been easy being a developer these last couple of months, and that’s probably an understatement,” Zuckerberg said. “What I can assure you is that we’re hard at work making sure that people don’t misuse this platform so that you can keep building stuff that people love.”
The message seemed to work.
“Both keynotes did a really nice job of addressing it right away,” said Jared Feldman, the CEO of Canvs, a startup that uses AI to determine the sentiment and emotion tied to text. “That mentality is super appreciated in this time of ambiguity.”
“It does seem like they’re kind of taking some steps [to address Cambridge Analytica],” said Melissa Orgill, a software developer and first-time F8 attendee. “They’re a large company. Their main focus is on building and creating products, and that’s what this experience of a conference is about so it’s smart to keep the focus on that and innovation.”
Josh Guffey, another software developer from vehicle tracking startup Automie, said he liked so much about what he heard from Zuckerberg on day one that he actually bought more Facebook stock during the keynote.
The biggest impact Cambridge Analytica seemed to have on F8 came during day two, but it was more about what wasn’t said than what was.
Last year, Facebook spent the second day of the conference showing off some of its far-off research projects, like mind-reading technology and tech that will help people hear through vibrations in their skin.
This year, Facebook’s day two presentation was very technical and focused on short-term problems, like text translation and the use of AI to identify questionable content. The company never mentioned the in-home speakers it’s building, and Bloomberg reported before the conference that Facebook’s plan to unveil them at F8 was scrapped to avoid a bad look right after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Apparently it’s not a great time to ask people to put a Facebook speaker in their living room.
“I think we wanted to make sure we were putting a spotlight on the ways in which we’re using tech in the very near future to help with these [privacy and security] issues,” CTO Schroepfer said in an interview with Recode after his keynote. “We’re still working on other awesome stuff, but I didn’t think it was the time to come out with a big science show today.”
(When we asked when Facebook plans to unveil the in-home speakers, Shroepfer replied: “What speakers?”)
Even if Schroepfer won’t talk about all the “awesome stuff” Facebook has in the works, Zuckerberg wants people to know Facebook isn’t going to stop building new things just because the company screwed up. The most obvious example of this in action: Facebook’s decision to launch a dating service, which presents numerous privacy and data landmines for the company to navigate, just weeks after getting in trouble for how it handles user data and privacy.
“Yes, this is an important moment. We need to keep people safe, and we will,” Zuckerberg said to wrap up his keynote Tuesday. “But we also need to keep building and bring the world closer together.”
Like we said: You’d never know that Facebook just spent the past six weeks embroiled in controversy.