SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg kicked off the company’s annual F8 developer conference Tuesday with more details about his new “privacy-focused” vision for the social network — including a major redesign of Facebook’s app and website that is built around letting people connect with small groups.
The new features are part of Zuckerberg's strategy for batting away Facebook's growing array of critics, emboldened regulators and competitors. Zuckerberg acknowledged the skepticism of the company during his keynote.
"Look, I get that a lot of people aren't sure that we are serious about this," he said to laughter from the crowd. "We are committed to doing this well and to starting a new chapter for our products."
Zuckerberg and his lieutenant, Sheryl Sandberg, have apologized repeatedly over the past year for Facebook’s ever-expanding list of mishaps over privacy, data misuse and security problems. Last week, the company said it is setting aside $3 billion to cover a possible fine from the Federal Trade Commission over privacy violations. Facebook has suffered hacks, allowed hate speech and live-streamed mass-shooting horror.
Amid all that, Zuckerberg is focusing Facebook's future by emphasizing private messaging and Facebook's role in "communities."
A redesigned Facebook app and desktop version of the site puts private groups in the center of the page. More than 400 million users are in "meaningful" groups — Facebook pages meant to bring people with similar ideas together — according to the company. The redesign is structured to make it as easy to connect with groups as with individual friends, Zuckerberg said.
Recommended groups will appear on users' homepages, and Facebook users will now be able to share a status to friends and a group from the same text box.
Groups have also caused controversy for the company, especially as communities pop up around extremist topics. Facebook is working to remove groups that have "harmful content," Zuckerberg said, and deemphasize groups that share misleading information.
The redesigned mobile app is live for U.S. users today, and the desktop version is coming later this year.
A desktop app for Messenger is also coming later this year — and Messenger will eventually make end-to-end encryption the default setting for all messages, rather than an opt-in choice. Facebook executives mentioned that eventually users will be able to send Instagram and WhatsApp messages all from Messenger.
Inside WhatsApp — by far Facebook's most secure app — the company is making statuses more secure. Only people in each other's contact books will be able to see statuses.
The privacy changes extend to Instagram as well — Facebook executives say the company is starting to test new features that hide "likes" from photos. Users will still be able to see how many likes their photos get, but the number won't appear at the bottom of each post.
Facebook also announced expansions to its hardware devices, including bringing WhatsApp to its video screen hub Portal and expanding sales of the device to Canada and Europe.
The company will begin selling the new version of its virtual reality headset on May 21. The $399 Oculus Quest was announced last year.
It will be accompanied by a new twist on Oculus' original Rift headset. The new version, called Rift S, also will cost $399. It won't require being tethered to a high-priced personal computer, like the original Oculus Rift.
Zuckerberg said last week that Facebook's focus on private communications will be built out over the next five years or more. The model for this, he said, will be WhatsApp, a Facebook service that already offers end-to-end encrypted messaging — messages that can be opened by only the sender and the recipient and not by Facebook itself. But that approach comes with its own sets of problems. In India, for instance, misinformation spread on WhatsApp has led to real-life violence and even killings.
A few years ago, the company probably would have rolled out these changes right away and dealt with problems as they came up, Zuckerberg said. But no longer. "We have to change a lot of the ways we run this company," he said.
Last year’s F8 conference took place weeks after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which tens of millions of Facebook users had their personal data accessed by a political data-mining firm without their consent. Zuckerberg had also just testified before Congress about that and other privacy mishaps, but at F8 was already trying to put those troubles behind him.