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Zuckerberg Kills What He Eats and Puts His Foot in His Mouth

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is developing an ability to clearly annunciate with a foot in his mouth rivaling that of Google (GOOG) chairman Eric Schmidt. Last week he basically said that Facebook waits for consumers to stop reacting to privacy issues so it can do as it wants and then wrapped it up by proclaiming that he only eats meat that he kills himself.

Anyone in business knows that customers often forget. And there's nothing wrong with people who eat meat being willing to slaughter livestock, rather than live disconnected to the origins of what hits their plates. However, these statements continue Zuckerberg's growing history of verbal gaffes and frequent palpable discomfort in public speaking. It raises the question of whether he can ultimately remain as CEO for the high profile company that wants to go public. If not, Facebook will have difficult decisions to make.

Zuckerberg's recent appearance at the e-G8 forum in Paris seemed unguarded, which, from a corporate view, was exactly the problem. He said that consumers are concerned about privacy issues when Facebook introduces new features:

"We'll roll it out, and pretty often there'll be this backlash, and people will say, ok, we don't like this new thing," said Zuckerberg. "It's I think a real anxiety. People were really afraid of more people being able to be involved in the social network."
Originally the site's news feed feature was controversial, as was (and is) giving third party app developers access to users' friends. Zuckerberg says that the company will "win debates" by implementing something and then letting people use it or not.

However, as anyone who uses Facebook knows, that's not what actually happens. The company suddenly drops features into place, like storing all old messages, even if deleted them, and then, if there's a big enough public stink, makes a few changes to humor users. It's an arrogant approach to customers, and Zuckerberg just undercut his ability to even claim that Facebook could have made a mistake. He's clarified that the company doesn't care, because it knows that people forget.

Banking on forgetfulness is dangerous. Often, you only drive discontent under the surface, where it builds and eventually explodes. That may happen en masse, or a company might simply turn customers into people waiting for another viable service. Given the degree of disruption that happens in high tech -- for example, tablets undermining PC sales or Microsoft (MSFT) Bing making headway against Google (GOOG) search -- there is no such thing as an unassailable competitive position, including Facebook's status in social networking.

Forget for a moment the ethical considerations. His statement was also pragmatically foolish. Zuckerberg essentially thumbed his nose at anyone who has ever been upset with how Facebook conducts business. And it's not the only time he's blown it in public. There were the company's attempts to smear Google over privacy issues -- hardly a strength of Facebook.

Look at Zuckerberg's statements to Fortune about wanting a reduction in regulations on collecting personal data on kids under 13. And then he tried to reduce the damage, only to confirm what people thought he said in the first place.

Now there's his statement -- taken from something he posted on Facebook, ironically enough â€" that, as a new personal challenge, Zuckerberg will only eat what he kills. Aside from the humorous thoughts that brings to mind -- What does he do when at a restaurant? -- it creates a palpable ick factor:

Zuckerberg's new goal came to light, not surprisingly, on Facebook. On May 4, Zuckerberg posted a note to the 847 friends on his private page: "I just killed a pig and a goat."This drew a stream of emotional comments, which were a mixture of confusion, curiosity, and outright disgust. Zuckerberg posted his own comment in response, explaining that he fixates on a personal challenge each year (in 2009, he wore a tie every day), and this year's is about animals and meat.
Zuckerberg isn't some 27-year-old talking to 847 people on Facebook about the morality of eating food without a sense of how it arrives. He's the head of a major corporation, which expects to go public, on the edge of some technical and societal trends. How could you paint a bigger target on the company for regulators or choose a worse time to draw negative attention?

Zuckerberg lacks the skills and life experience to realize that he's a public figure and to restrain his remarks accordingly. Facebook's board and investors have to decide what actions to take. Will it leave him as CEO and hope that he doesn't scare off investors? Let him be a product visionary (assuming that he's a major source for new service directions)? Does the company risk its future if it moves him out of a position of real power? All are questions that will only get tougher as an IPO gets closer.


Image: Flickr user Andrew Feinberg. Editing: Erik Sherman.
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