I’m about two thirds of my way through “Conspiracy,” Ryan Holiday’s book about Peter Thiel and Gawker, when I read a page where I had to put it down. At this point in the book, the Facebook board member is three years into his multimillion dollar conspiracy to destroy Gawker when he received this email from Gawker’s founder.
From: Nick Denton
Sent: Wednesday, September 17, 2014
To: Peter Thiel
Subject: Your political agenda
This is a long shot, but I’m going to try. Would you get together for a coffee when I’m next in San Francisco?
We obviously have our differences, primarily over the politics of outing. And some of our coverage on Valleywag and Gawker has been needlessly gleeful.
But your political views—while mockable—are a breath of fresh air. We have more in common than might meet the eye.
I’d like to get some constructive debate going between the New Left—which is represented rather heavily in a New York editorial operation—and the Valley libertarians.
The enemy is stagnation, and the vested interests that ensure stagnation. (And yes, sometimes also the culture of internet criticism that stymies original thought.)
That’s all I got. Let me know if there’s a conversation to be had.
Peter Thiel doesn’t agree to meet. Instead, Thiel continues to fund and direct secret proxy litigation. Two years after Denton sent the email to Thiel, the conspiracy is successful. Gawker is bankrupted by the lawsuit. To this day, Thiel and Denton have yet to meet for a public conversation. The invitation is open and unanswered. When I think about why so many people are frustrated with Facebook, I can’t get this email out of my head. Thiel’s actions have damaged his reputation with many, but Facebook leadership isn’t learning from what went wrong.
Why is it so hard for the people behind Facebook to have a real conversation about their impact? Why do they go to such elaborate lengths to evade critique and questions about their work? Thiel and Zuckerberg say there is a rich, nuanced, internal debate about Facebook’s direction, so what are they afraid of?
In the past few months, we’ve gotten a taste of Facebook’s internal conversation in a way we haven’t before. Employees are leaking. Leak after leak is putting the company in a place where they are obligated to answer questions with a honesty they haven’t before. And, much like Gawker, Facebook has pissed off so many people over the years that when leaks happen, the employees don’t know where to look. There is a paranoia setting in at Facebook HQ. We’re at a point where leaks about the leaks are happening. Casey Newton from The Verge got it in bulk. All of these below are from FB employees responding to a note from Boz about the leaked memo.
“Keep in mind that leakers could be intentionally placed bad actors, not just employees making a one-off bad decision. Thinking adversarially, if I wanted info from Facebook, the easiest path would be to get people hired into low-level employee or contract roles.”
“Imagine that some percentage of leakers are spies for governments.
“I don’t think we’ve seen a huge internally leaked data breach, but I’ve always thought our ‘open but punitive’ stance was particularly vulnerable to suicide bombers. We would be foolish to think that we could adequately screen against them in a hiring process at our scale. … We have our representative share of sick people, drug addicts, wife beaters, and suicide bombers. Some of this cannot be mitigated by training. To me, this makes it just a matter of time.”
“If this leak #$%^ continues, we will become like every other company where people are hesitant to discuss broad-reaching, forward-looking ideas and thoughts, that only the very average ideas and thoughts get discussed and executed,” one employee wrote.” Making them average companies.”
“Will become? Seems like we are there.”
It’s reasonable for companies to have secrets. Its possible that a company like Apple is loved, even more, precisely because it has secrets. What’s not ok is if the company struggles justify why it was hiding something that leaked. That’s where trust starts to corrode.
The leaks at Facebook will keep coming. There are simply too many smart, conscientious people who work at Facebook who are putting the pieces together and calling bullshit. They know what the internal conversation is at Facebook, they know where it is stagnant, and they know the only way to develop it is to air it out. Facebook has had a decade to talk privately about their role in the world without much scrutiny. That era is over.
If there was a kill switch for Facebook, Inc, I wouldn’t pull it. The digital infrastructure they built the past 10 years is a sight to behold. It’s hard to imagine ever going back to a time where access to these tools isn’t there. What is up for discussion is everything about how Facebook monetizes these tools and their responsibility for the information flowing through these networks. When pressed by Kara Swisher about Facebook’s role in addressing hate speech, Zuckerberg had this to say.
“I feel fundamentally uncomfortable sitting here in California at an office, making content policy decisions for people around the world…I mean, who chose me to be the person?”
Zuck is learning what conquerors have learned, the hard way, for millennia. The price of rapid territory expansion is control. The skills and strategy it takes to expand your rein to 2 billion people is far different than the skills and strategy required to maintain the trust of these 2 billion people. Can Facebook turn a corner? Can it trust its users enough to level with them? Can Thiel or Zuckerberg get to a point where they feel comfortable defending their impact in front of Congress? What about a UK parliamentary committee? Or a town hall in Myanmar? I’m not optimistic.
The next major Social Network will be led by people who don’t evade the conversation about its impact. It will have board members who have the guts to defend their views in public. It will have something to say.