By Denise Montgomery
As the brains behind Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s founder and CEO, can be a polarizing figure. The hoodie-wearing 29-year old who built the world’s most popular social network is notorious for a cerebral, detached communication style that can strike users and media alike as emotionally tone-deaf. When the company rolled out a new feature called the “News Feed” in 2009 and users wailed in protest, Zuckerberg notoriously told millions to “Calm down” and “breathe” in a terse blog post.
This did not, as they say, go over well.
Chris Cox, Facebook’s president of product, who has been with the company since 2005 when there were fewer than 100 employees, has a totally different style. Once Facebook’s chief HR officer and still the person every new hire meets on their first day of work for an introduction to corporate culture, Cox is rapidly becoming the second face of Facebook.
This spring, he became the star of a tour and video to support the company’s initial public stock offering. In the days running up to the May IPO, as pundits and Wall Street analysts media expressed diverging opinions about Facebook’s business model and offering price, they were united about one thing: Cox himself is a very likeable guy.
Cox will speak in San Diego during the October 7-9, 2012 The Atlantic Meets the Pacific, a forum for exploring human intelligence, imagination, inventions and innovations shaping the future. Registration information is at www.atlanticmeetspacific.com
Honest and unbridled passion—about social media, about people, and about relationships—Cox has earned near-universal regard from media and industry insiders. Ironically, it was that passionate enthusiasm that may have led to the Facebook News Feed kerfuffle of 2009. Building the News Feed was Cox’s first job at Facebook, which at the time was undergoing rapid expansion of its user base.
“People would click through profiles on Facebook looking for what’s new. It was amazing. We had this massive communications infrastructure, but we still couldn’t answer the question: ‘What’s going on?'” Cox said in the LA Times. After more than a year of research and development, the new feature was introduced quickly to all users—and reaction was kneejerk and immediate.
Cox said the News Feed backlash made him understand what Igor Stravinsky must have felt when his ballet, “The Rite of Spring,” triggered a riot after its premiere. “I had friends who I hadn’t talked to in years saying, ‘You just ruined something I really cherished. Please, please, please turn this off, Chris, I beg you,'” Cox said in the Chicago Tribune.
In the long run, of course, history was on the side of Cox and Zuckerberg. The News Feed became the integrated platform for the world’s most popular social network which continues growing at a breathtaking rate globally. Only Japan, where blogs are more popular, and China, which blocks Facebook, have held out against its dominance.
Sensitized to users’ fear of novelty and the potential for product blowback, Cox now directs rollouts of improvements and new features on a smaller, more gradual scale. Timeline, the latest major tweak to the Facebook user interface, centralizes users’ posts, pictures, friends and more into one page—a scrolling biography that can go as far back as birth and baby pictures, depending on what users choose to share.
But the new design didn’t just appear overnight. Lessons learned during the News Feed episode led Cox to introduce Timeline gradually, beginning with a beta release in September 2011, and a slow-motion introduction to more users that continues quietly today. By affecting the pages of just a (relative) few users at a time, this strategy allows early adopters to talk their more reluctant friends through the transition. Comparatively speaking, user reaction to Timeline has been notably muted.
At the conference, Chris Cox will offer insights into the much-talked-about question of how to make Facebook’s unparalleled user base profitable for companies and brands. One of the newest changes is just now hitting the News Feed: Sponsored Stories.
“We are moving from ads to stories,” Cox said earlier this year. “Lots of ads add up to noise. Lots of stories are how we build our relationships.”
Cox is passionate about stories. “Too many of our memories are still stuck at home, gathering dust on a shelf,” Cox says in 2010 video, quoted by the Silicon Valley Mercury news. “Your life is an amazing story that a lot of other people would be interested in if you told it. And Facebook is more than just a place to post links and photos. ”
“Maybe one day in 20 years, our children will go to Ocean Beach, and their little magical [phone] thing will start to vibrate, and it will say, ‘This is where your parents had their first kiss.’
The Atlantic Meets the Pacific event includes behind-the-scenes tours at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and UC San Diego’s Calit2 digital media laboratory. Attendees will spend a half-day touring the labs of their choice. The aim of the event is to engage a national constituency of CEOs, philanthropists, civic officials and media leaders in some of the most exciting developments shaping America and the world, linking the strengths of the traditional achievements of the Atlantic Coast with the promising ideas and opportunities emerging from the Pacific Coast.
Further insights from Chris Cox are just one highlight of a gathering of visionaries being brought together by The Atlantic Media Company and UC San Diego Extension this fall. The October 7-9 The Atlantic Meets the Pacific event will feature three-days of thought provoking conversations addressing new frontiers in science, medicine, art, technology and energy. Other speakers will include Stacy Snider, co-chairman & CEO of DreamWorks Studios; Gretchen Rubin, bestselling author of “The Happiness Project”; and Jane McGonigal, PhD, world-renowned designer of alternative reality games.
Founded in 1857, The Atlantic is an iconic American magazine that is greatly concerned with forward thinking. For many years the Atlantic Media Company and The Atlantic, along with the Aspen Institute, have annually gathered the nation’s intellectual leaders to discuss the ideas and trends shaping American’s future as part of the Aspen ideasFestival and the Washington Ideas Forum. The Atlantic Meets the Pacific expands upon that tradition.
Nestled on the Pacific Ocean in the enclave of La Jolla, UC San Diego is one of the nation’s most accomplished research universities. Renowned for its collaborative, diverse and cross-disciplinary ethos that transcends traditional boundaries in science, arts and the humanities, the university’s award-winning scholars are experts at the forefront of their fields with an impressive track record for achieving scientific, medical and technological breakthroughs.