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.