For its fearsome size and confident leadership, Facebook seems strangely precarious. Maybe it’s my feeling that something that can grow so big so fast might disappear swiftly, too. Or the sense that the world is revving up to take on Facebook. A hearing last week by a grand committee representing nine governments was brimming with anger, as politicians lashed out at an apologetic Facebook underling unlucky enough to be sitting next to an empty chair behind a Mark Zuckerberg placard. One Canadian member of Parliament spoke for the room when he concluded that, “While we were playing on our phones and apps, our democratic institutions seem to have been upended by frat-boy billionaires from California.”
All solutions are on the table: fines, regulations, breaking up the company. And as serious as these inquiries may be, the real problem for Facebook is internal, not external. The mythology of Facebook as a well-meaning company doing good by connecting the world didn’t only pacify an unsuspecting public for a decade, it inspired a fiercely loyal workforce. How does a company bounce back after its deepest myths have been smashed?
Noam Cohen is an Ideas contributor at WIRED, a writer living in Brooklyn, and the author of The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball.
More than other tech companies, Facebook has insisted that its commercial success benefits the world. There are examples of the wealth from a tech business being used by its founder to support a grand project like space exploration, as Tesla’s Elon Musk or Amazon’s Jeff Bezos do. Alphabet harnesses the money from the Google search engine to support expensive, speculative “moon shot” engineering projects with the potential to change the world. Facebook’s point is more direct: The business goals of Facebook are simply good for the world.
“The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is de facto good,” Andrew Bosworth, an outspoken Facebook executive, explained in a 2016 memo circulated within the company that only leaked out this year.
“That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified,” the memo continued. “All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in. The work we will likely have to do in China some day. All of it.” Once the memo was published by BuzzFeed News, Bosworth backtracked and declared that his forceful words were merely meant to provoke disagreement and thus help the company come up with reasonable limits to rapid growth. Um, OK.
From the start, the case for connecting the world wasn’t based on morality, but survival. Peter Thiel was an early mentor and adviser to Facebook, and his central message, Zuckerberg recalled in a 2013 talk at Y Combinator’s Startup School, was to respect the network effect. Thiel had learned as a founder of PayPal that the best way to lure new users was to have the most users: That is, you need to be here because everyone else is.
At some point, however, Facebook began projecting this business strategy as a mythical question. I remember trying to grasp what Zuckerberg meant when he said that he believed that a social network added to your “social capacity.” He had elaborated on the idea in a Startup School talk the previous year. “There’s this famous Dunbar number,” he explained. “Humans have the capacity to maintain empathetic relationships with about 150 people, communities of about 150 people. I think Facebook extends that.” Facebook, he believed, would make us more empathetic. That’s quite a claim.
From the start, the case for connecting the world wasn’t based on morality, but survival.
A belief in the inherent goodness of growth looks like the kind of thing you tell yourself and others as you devise stratagems to keep adding users to Facebook. This brings us to Thiel’s other big startup idea, which he outlined in his book Zero to One: “The best startups,” he wrote, “might be considered slightly less extreme kinds of cults.”
Indeed, with a revered leader and a mythic mission, Facebook followed Thiel’s path. Barely two years ago, the tech press was in awe of Facebook and its devoted workforce, what Inc. magazine called “Mark Zuckerberg’s Secret to Extremely Loyal Employees.” The crucial evidence of this loyal bond was a series of Friday meetings, in which Zuckerberg revealed corporate strategy and personal feelings, without worrying that an employee would leak to the press. As Recode reported last year, the strongest deterrent was shame. “People would be pissed if someone else leaked something,” one former employee told Recode. “You don’t betray the family.”
That has started to change. Facebook employees expressed discontent on internal message boards, like Women @ Facebook, over senior vice president Joel Kaplan’s flamboyant support for then Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh, even as allegations of sexual assault were emerging. Details of a Friday meeting meant to tamp down the anger, leaked to the press and the criticism aimed at the top leaders kept building. In response to the multiplying expressions of disapproval from below, the ever-blunt Bosworth wrote a memo about loyalty: “If you need to change teams, companies or careers to make sure your day-to-day life matches your passions, we will be sad to see you go, but we will understand.” (He again later apologized.)
A belief in the inherent goodness of growth looks like the kind of thing you tell yourself and others as you devise stratagems to keep adding users to Facebook.
Last week, a former manager at Facebook published a goodbye letter detailing the systemic problems at the company. The manager, Mark S. Luckie, listed the personal sacrifices he had made for the company: “being cut off from family, friends, and my now former fiancé, compromising my health and my sense of security.” Luckie, who is black, wrote that he’d gone along willingly because he believed in Facebook’s “ability to positively impact the world.” Until, that is, the scales fell from his eyes and he realized that Facebook, whether intentionally or not, wasn’t giving a voice to the voiceless but was helping to establish online the same inequalities that exist offline. Being a party to that, he wrote, “is more than I’m willing to sacrifice personally.”
For years Facebook’s “ethical mission” compelled its employees into airtight formation. But take away a faith in the goodness of Facebook, and what’s left is a monolithic entity, designed for relentless tracking and targeting and manic growth. Recently, to rally his employees, Zuckerberg has taken a different tack—promising to track down leakers and putting Facebook on a war footing. Instead of preaching the joys of being part of a connected world, Facebook is now digging trenches. Slowly, the company is giving up its claim to magical powers, which supports the sinking suspicion that before the government breaks up Facebook, it may break up itself.