Ooff. Another Facebook drama on the wires today. This time, a 2016 memo written by Andrew Bosworth made it way to Buzzfeed. It’s a horrible memo. Boz, as he likes to be called, argues that Facebook’s growth at all costs mentality justifies everything. And by everything, he means everything. Everything Facebook does, the scummy growth tactics, such as the contact importers. But more salaciously, the growth, as defined by connecting more people in more ways, justifies what happens due to the growth. Sorry if you’ve been exposed to bullies, Boz says, or if accidentally facilitated some terrorist plot.
Fallout is more predictable. Zuckerberg says it’s all water under the bridge, they’ve moved on to better things now. And also that’s just Boz being Boz. Boz says that his post was intentionally provocative and it’s always been unpopular. He argues it’s not what he really means. His argument has a whiff of Reddit-esque mind-games feel to it, which I like. I am also tempted to give him the benefit of the doubt though. Tech companies aren’t places where you generally rise up in ranks by having compassionate set of ideals, or have great ways to express them. This is probably changing, but you certainly don’t rise up in ranks by being warm and sensitive to others’ feelings.
I am less charitable that someone like Boz would think it’s OK to write something up so full of graphic details, almost engineered to go viral and send it to entire company. I don’t think any sane person thinks a few terrorist attacks would justify connecting the world via your app, but it’s an interesting thought experiment to have. Asking yourself what the world would look like if you took over the world is can be both sobering, and invigorating. But these are the stuff you think of, and maybe discuss with other people, and then make course corrections. Not post it to thousands of people, expect people to either not have the most uncharitable take, and worse, leak it.
Everything is forever on the internet, and definitely more so on Facebook. The fact this was written, and then actually posted are both huge lapses of judgement. This might sound cynical, that I might be advocating for more secrecy. But come on, the simplest explanation is that you need to know first imagine this could happen. However, you gotta think that that people in large groups of people, there are probably enough people to misinterpret your calculatedly provocative piece and actually take it seriously. I have a high opinion of Facebook employee base (more on this in a bit) but do you think at Facebook’s scale, they don’t have at least a few truly sick people.
The fact that this leaked is a harbinger of bad news for Facebook though. I think there are three big reasons why this isn’t going to end anytime soon. And if I were Facebook, I would be worried.
First of all, culture. Facebook has been notoriously secretive and good at keeping chatter within its doors. The idea is that Facebook is extremely open internally, but expects people to pay back that trust with never-ever-ever leaking things to outsiders. Ask any tech reporter, and they’ll say how hard it’s been to penetrate through the shroud of the Iron Curtain of Menlo Park. You can’t even peek through it, let alone get anything salty from an upset engineer. But clearly, that’s not the case any more. I think we saw the first few drops out after the Trump election, but it seems to be gaining speed. There’s a very drip-drip feel to the constant stream of bad stuff coming out. It almost appears that people have less allegiance to the company than they do the rest of the public. I am not saying this is good, or bad, for Facebook. Clearly, though, many people inside Facebook now believe what they was good for Facebook is no longer what is good for the world. How else do you explain that someone seek out a two-year old memo from the archives? You already had a guy who sold his company for a few cool billion dollars tweet out #deletefacebook (awkward!), and now people are leaking things to the press, and former employees are harping on how bad things were (and are) on Twitter.
And that brings to my second point. I don’t think Facebook is a net negative, more so in that we couldn’t rip it out of social fabric without major collateral damage. Many people Facebook hired, however, I think believed that working for Facebook meant that you were doing good both for the world, and your checking amount. Culture isn’t the primary factor for everyone, but for many it is. Especially if you are a talented technologist, where you have your pick of places to work, it’s right up there with money. The kind of people working at Facebook are generally “nice”, as far as technology companies go. It’s probably not the Kumbaya some other places are, and a little cliquey, but overall it’s a tech company with a nerdy feel. Maybe slightly more arrogant than average, but Facebook has a high bar and they are doing well, by their metrics, so some of it is earned.
Compare this to, say, other kinds of companies you can think of, or even some other tech companies with a recent history of public turmoil, fueled by seemingly never ending leaks to the press. I can certainly think of two, both of which I spend some time in.
Maybe this will go the other way, and nice people won’t leak things as much as the not-so-nice people, but nice people also tend to have a good, well functioning moral compass. If they believe the proper complaint channels no longer work, and going to the press seems like an option now, that’s what they’ll do.
But maybe the most important point is that whatever leaks through Facebook spreads like wildfire and has a very visceral tone to it. Part of it is that media, where these news get reported and amplified isn’t keen on Facebook and hasn’t been for a long time. Facebook eviscerated their business model, some argue which is just structural forces at play, which I don’t fully agree with. But more importantly, the visceral feel is because of what Facebook does day to day is so emotional, and close to people’s hearts. This is the same company that manipulates people’s emotions for science. It’s extremely likely that there is more of where that came from. You just know. (My personal favorite, for the lack of a better word, is when Facebook just almost bankrupted some media companies in Serbia. Sorry, Serbia! Good luck on democracy.)
Zuckerberg now talks about how Facebook’s goal is to not just connect people, but also bring them together. This is a company who is comfortable with putting its thumb on your relationship with the people you know. I don’t know how to make this more obvious, but this feels eerie to me. It wants to measure, cut and dice, and make it all pretty in the ways it wants to. I hope what you want, and what they want is aligned.
Ideally, none of this would happen. I am no fan of leakers or disgruntled people taking matters into their own hands. I am uncomfortable with the idea of someone making decisions that affect others without consulting them. Leaks, disgruntled people penning books for cheap fame, are cheap; things get presented out of context, and generally optimized for virility over content.
Sometimes, they are necessary, when you exhaust all possible options and what happened is horrible, beyond a doubt. And also, I find it that especially those leakers that happen to take credit, make the environment too toxic for others like them. Sometimes you have no other choice, legally speaking, but it’s hard to avoid draining the well for others like you wanting to take similar jobs at similar companies. And more importantly, when we have to rely on people leaking things, it means we are already fighting an uphill battle. Big problems that affect lots of people require oversight. Relying on people having the privilege to leak stuff is basically relying on luck to make things better.
But in the end, this is where we are. Facebook, for years hired maintained a culture of secrecy that seems severely damaged. The good people are clearly upset, and they are finding ways to express their frustration and impact changes. And whatever comes out of Facebook, is just viral, just the like the product itself. This is a perfect storm. Good luck to us all.