As the “days since last Facebook scandal” meter hovers permanently near zero and life inside and around Facebook is described as “fresh hell” and a trauma floor, logic would suggest that the entity as a whole is facing an existential business crisis.
Nope. The company’s stock is up 40% so far this year as “fresh hell” continues to be stunningly profitable. Moreover, if you work in technology, at least one person you know who has a solid moral compass has excitedly started a new job at Facebook without a shred of cognitive dissonance.
How is any of this possible? How are our generation’s brightest minds — many of them staunch opponents of the current administration — still happily building, marketing, and selling algorithms that make Donald Trump and his ilk a self-fulfilling prophecy?
The root cause is quite simple. We’re asking people who don’t experience the consequences of Facebook’s existential flaws to fix them. This basic dilemma explains why so many Facebookers still possess unbridled zeal for the company’s mission and hover ominously over any attempts to reimagine what Facebook could be, preserving a status quo that works fine for tech’s elite but quite poorly for everyone else.
To explain this phenomenon, allow me to take you back to my days as a 22-year-old fresh recruit at LinkedIn, fueled by Silicon Valley idealism and exquisite fruit-infused water. As a LinkedIn employee, I naturally spent a good deal of time on the platform, where my feed was primarily populated with content from other LinkedIn employees and their networks. The result was that LinkedIn seemed to be a genuinely awesome platform, a potpourri of the best articles from the tech press and relevant job posts — and I realize that to anyone reading this who has never worked for LinkedIn, this is nearly impossible to believe.
After a few months, I moved into a role in customer success, easily my favorite of the fake job titles created by the software as a service (SaaS) industry. In order to replicate bugs and troubleshoot customer concerns, I occasionally had to (with explicit user permission) log in as the member and click around — meaning I experienced LinkedIn like a user did.
When I did so, my filter bubble was broken, and I entered a markedly different digital world. On a professional network, I saw blatantly xenophobic content that was thinly veiled as thought leadership on jobs. While this was fairly rare, many user feeds were a weird amalgamation of math puzzles, inspirational memes, and absurd self-promotional stories such as one growth hacker’s account of becoming pen pals with a dictator. Job postings, relevant professional news, and many of the other things LinkedIn was ostensibly designed to provide were often absent altogether.
Like the wealthy live in different worlds, the tech wealthy live in different digital worlds.
LinkedIn, to its credit, is a company with a fundamentally different ethos than Facebook, valuing human judgment over blind faith in algorithms. Yet despite the company having a team of nearly 100 human editors to curate content and users posting under their real, professional identities, the LinkedIn experience for the average user often devolves into a digital used car lot. I’m confident Jeff Weiner wouldn’t even recognize the platform the way many members experience it.
In a similar vein, Facebook is generally a great platform — for Facebook employees and those with a similar demographic profile. At worst to them, it’s a harmless vice with minimal fake news. There’s rarely a plausible path down the rabbit hole of extremism that holds real-life consequences for people and their loved ones.
While much has been made of the filter bubbles that create a red vs. blue Facebook newsfeed divide, a far more important chasm exists among social media users. Digitally savvy users enjoy nicely manicured feeds; while ads are present, they are imprecisely personalized and easy to glaze over. Meanwhile, the audiences that advertisers can successfully caricature are the groups that become the product and are shown advertisements to exploit their more closely held fears. The vast majority of Americans fall into the latter camp.
Politics offers the clearest example of this dichotomy. While the 3% of Americans who actually read the Mueller report might get their news from directly following prominent journalists or politicians on Twitter, the network is more like a funhouse mirror than the real world. Far more Americans are seeing political content on social media in the form of wildly unregulated advertisements that are inserted into their feed for fractions of pennies.
During the 2018 midterm elections, the Trump campaign put just shy of 10,000 ads on Facebook that averaged 7 million impressions each. For probably the grand sum of around $110,000, text reading “build the wall” in shining lights got 70 billion views. That isn’t a bug; it’s Facebook’s pièce d’résistance feature. The company can operate a platform that functions beautifully for the tech elite, offload the externality on more gullible users, and then sell their gullibility for billions of dollars.
While Tesla’s engineers are more or less driving the same car as their consumers, Facebooks’s engineers are building a product that, when it hits the market, fundamentally bears no resemblance to the one they’ve shipped. When it breaks, it’s like being asked to fix a car that, anytime you take it out for a spin, glides smoothly across the open road. But as soon as you hand the keys to a customer, it pulls slowly to the right until it crashes into a dumpster fire full of Nazis.
Like the wealthy live in different worlds, the tech wealthy live in different digital worlds. Facebook’s leadership is about as well-equipped to fix the monster it built as Andrew Cuomo is to fix the New York City subway. For all intents and purposes, neither have ever used the product.
To its credit, Facebook has tried to address this problem, once famously slowing internet speeds to 2G levels to simulate the experience for its users in the developing world. The company now needs to go further and force its leadership and rank-and-file product managers to dive deep into the belly of Chupacabra. Anyone who touches the core product should be onboarded by spending a month shadowing content moderation teams. Spend some time with users in the Philippines, where the belief that vaccines are essential has plummeted from 93% to 32% in just three years.
While these would be solid measures, no matter how much you force empathy, Facebook employees’ main point of reference for the product will always be their own Facebook accounts. Until the garbage invades their feed on a daily basis, they may never intrinsically feel that Facebook is broken. And the platform will be all the worse for it.
With its core business model ushering in a post-truth era, where does Facebook go from here? The trope of U.S. companies pivoting their business models to resemble their Chinese counterparts is an overused cliche, but in Facebook’s case, it appears accurate. Facebook wants to be WeChat, free to capture the spoils that come with owning a user’s social and financial life. To hide the authoritarian undertones behind that vision, it’s being packaged in a sudden epiphany around the importance of user privacy.
Ultimately, a company must choose whether to be a really good platform for advertisers or a really good platform for merchants.
However, Facebook’s pivot to privacy looks doomed from the outset. For starters, it’s comically late. Zuckerberg is George Clooney trying to turn the boat around in the eye of the storm. But most importantly, Facebook still wants to keep all its fish. In the same keynote it declared that the “future is private,” Facebook proudly announced that it would love to know which of your friends you secretly want to bang.
It takes a lot for a large, publicly traded company to keep the wherewithal and forward-thinking mentality of investing in something at zero or negative revenue. A company that began its apology tour Morgan-Stanley-style is not going to commit to overhauling its whole business model. As its role as a propaganda machine became more clear, Facebook felt more compelled to apologize to Wall Street for lackluster advertising earnings than to Main Street for subverting its democracy.
As a first step toward realizing its brave new world, Facebook is frantically trying to move in on commerce, starting with the long-awaited release of Instagram Payments and P2P transactions in Facebook Marketplace. I’ve long believed that commerce would be Facebook’s endgame for one basic reason: total addressable market. In the next decade, more than $1 trillion of goods will be bought online in the United States alone. Even the most bullish projections of digital advertising place the market at a fraction of that number.
As a pure commerce play, pretty much everything about Facebook’s current product is working against it. Ultimately, a company must choose whether to be a really good platform for advertisers or a really good platform for merchants. When platforms like Pinterest and Instagram sell ads, they guarantee users won’t see a competitive ad. From a shopper’s perspective, this is completely absurd.
If Facebook really is pivoting to revenue streams that do not rely on personally identifiable information, the company must lose the fallacy that there is some set of win-win decisions that can address existential concerns. To really commit to commerce is to ditch the ad-based business model.
I think what we’re going, this is, we’re going to build more tools for people to buy things directly through the platform. … It will be more valuable to them and therefore that’ll translate into higher bids for the advertising and that’ll be how we see it.
Translation: While we may truly commit to commerce at some point, our main goal for now is to encourage people to buy stuff to show advertisers how valuable we are.
All of this suggests a remarkable callousness toward the real humans whose lives are affected. … The platforms are perfect — it’s us pesky humans that don’t get it.
The only company that has successfully walked this tightrope is Amazon, and at a heavy cost to user experience. Currently, if you run a search on Amazon for white jeans, your first two results are for sponsored blue jeans and khakis. This aggressive insertion of advertising makes Earth’s most customer-centric company nearly unusable at times. But it took Amazon 15 years of perfecting e-commerce logistics and buying customer goodwill (and monopoly power) before it earned the right to sell ads. Goodwill is not something that Facebook has in reserve.
As I write this column, measles — a disease that met the criteria for elimination in America in 2000 — has launched its U.S. reunion tour. While much of the toxic sludge on Facebook might be foreign to a Silicon Valley billionaire, Zuckerberg has his name on a San Francisco hospital and is married to a doctor. The wave of anti-vaccination propaganda on his platform that made much of this possible has to hit close to home. This begs several questions:
Could Zuckerberg’s awkward apathy toward Facebook’s flaws be a cover for a deeper ennui? What if he’s realized he has built something that he has no hope of controlling? In the span of one year, Facebook took down more than 2.8 billion fake accounts, and to the general public, it feels like it barely made a dent. What if conditions for the world’s largest social experiment have become unstable because the hypothesis Facebook is built on is fundamentally flawed?
As Pinterest went public, it didn’t have to answer questions about why users searching for crochet kits were becoming believers in chemtrails. People come to Pinterest to discover inspiration for tonight’s dinner or tomorrow’s DIY project. Put another way, Pinterest’s vision is fundamentally sane. Connecting the entire world on a single, centralized platform is not. What sane entity would ever want the kind of responsibility that comes with policing the entire zeitgeist?
This was the main question running through my head as I watched Jack Dorsey, another beleaguered platform leader, discuss his vision for the future of Twitter at TED. Dorsey, seemingly with no time to change after his set playing rhythm guitar for Paramore, spoke as if Twitter had become his Ultron, a beast borne of good intentions that he could no longer control. As I watched, I couldn’t decide whether to feel sympathy or disgust. The irony of Dorsey and Zuckerberg — two of the most powerful men in the world — living in purgatory at the mercy of their own algorithms makes for the perfect 21st century Shakespearian tragedy. But the real tragedy is that they’re not even trying to fight back.
To make Twitter functional again, Dorsey may well have to take the platform down to the studs. Yet somehow, he still has time to be the CEO of another public company, take 10-day retreats, and rebrand eating disorders. Until Dorsey steps down from his post at Square, he’s full of shit. Zuckerberg, in an attempt to win the “hold my beer” world championship, took the stage at F8 and made a joke about privacy. Rather than giving in to privacy advocates, Facebook is assembling a group of PR and legal Avengers led by a new chief lawyer who helped write the Patriot Act.
All of this suggests a remarkable callousness toward the real humans whose lives are affected by the Leviathan. The platforms are perfect — it’s us pesky humans that don’t get it. If the cretins could just get better at using technology, everything would work. It’s this smug attitude more than any technological problem that all but ensures Facebook will never be fixed.
Amid all the turmoil, Facebook is still hiring like crazy, with 2,900 open roles around the world at the time of this writing. In posts about how to build a winning team, thought leaders, growth hackers, and other Silicon Valley apologists still quote Sheryl Sandberg and Zuckerberg without a hint of irony. One of their favorite quips is Zuckerberg saying, “I will only hire someone to work directly for me if I would work for that person.”
Congratulations, Mr. Putin, and welcome to Facebook!
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