One of Facebook’s Biggest Fans Is Angry Now
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “Never before has one company’s failure had such a devastating effect on the world,” wrote the technology journalist David Kirkpatrick recently.
Racists, autocrats, and purveyors of hate and disorder have found Facebook the perfect medium for spewing poison, normalizing it, and gaining adherents. … Societies around the world are reeling from the consequences. Politics and democracy are under duress. And thus far, Facebook does not have an effective way to fight back.
Kirkpatrick is hardly the first person to use such harsh language to characterize Facebook Inc.; these days, it’s hard to find anyone not employed by the company who’ll offer a full-throated defense. But Kirkpatrick’s criticism falls into a special category. In 2010, he was such a fan of Facebook that he wrote a book called “The Facebook Effect.” It portrays the company as a positive force, while casting its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, as an idealist, far more concerned with connecting people than with making money.
Today thoroughly disillusioned, Kirkpatrick has become one of Facebook’s fiercest critics. Roger McNamee, the well-known tech investor, is the other person I would put in this category. I remember McNamee telling me years ago how proud he was to serve as a mentor to Zuckerberg; now he writes op-ed articles describing Facebook’s business model as a threat to “public health and democracy.”
These days, McNamee is keeping his powder dry because he has a book about Facebook coming out in early 2019. But Kirkpatrick is under no such stricture and, as I discovered when I visited him recently, he has thought a lot about why the Facebook he wrote about eight years ago seems so different from the Facebook that exists today.
To my mind, Kirkpatrick’s fundamental mistake was that, swept up in the idealism that then surrounded the company, he simply wasn’t skeptical enough. And he acknowledges it. “I was naïve,” he told me. “I started the book thinking that Facebook was a fantastic tool to give ordinary people the ability to make changes politically.”
Although it was a year before the Arab Spring — the high point of Facebook-inspired activism — there had already been lots of examples of Facebook helping citizens who sought to challenge authority. Kirkpatrick opened his book by listing a few: how Facebook amplified the voices of activists in Colombia, resulting in 10 million people marching against the rebel army; and how it made possible a 2009 protest in Iran against the outcome of a national election.
As for Zuckerberg, he was 22 when Kirkpatrick first met him. When the journalist told him he seemed like a natural chief executive, Zuckerberg cringed. “I never wanted to run a company,” he replied. “To me, a business is a good vehicle for getting stuff done.”
A few years later, when Kirkpatrick was reporting the book, Zuckerberg talked often about the benefits of connecting — and empowering — people, and almost never about making money.
Is this truly where Zuckerberg’s heart was back then? There’s no real way of knowing. Others who were around him then heard him say many of the same things he said to Kirkpatrick.
Thus, from Kirkpatrick’s point of view, it was never inevitable that the downside of “connecting the world” would overwhelm the upside. Instead he points to two key events. The first was the hiring of Google executive Sheryl Sandberg as Facebook’s chief operating officer.
In 2008, shortly after Sandberg joined the company, Zuckerberg took a lengthy backpacking trip, leaving her in charge. Although he had hired her primarily because of her government experience — she had been chief of staff to Larry Summers when he was treasury secretary — she had also built Google’s advertising business. And Facebook was losing money.
She held a series of meetings that began with her writing on a whiteboard: “What business are we in?” The answer, ultimately, was that Facebook was in the ad business. It would make its money by sharing the data it collected about its users with advertisers who sought to send them targeted ads.
“She built the best business there ever was,” Kirkpatrick told me. “But she also bears enormous culpability” for creating a model that could easily be abused by, say, Russian interests trying to influence an American election.
Kirkpatrick’s second event, which took place after his book was published, was the rise of Twitter Inc. “Facebook was the first system that made people think their stuff was protected,” he said. “You were authenticated by who you were connected with. You only allowed your information to be seen by friends. It was safe.”
But, he said, “when Twitter came along, Facebook felt pressure to become more and more of a public system, so that individuals would have more and more broadcast power, like they did on Twitter. But as they made Facebook more and more of a public thing, they lost sight of the initial motivation, which was to give users a space that they could control.”
My own feeling is that there was a third event that changed Facebook: the introduction of the News Feed, which, among other things, presented users with personalized list of news stories throughout the day. The News Feed was the vehicle through which the alt-right and others flooded Facebook with false information.
As I’ve written before, and as Kirkpatrick reiterated when we spoke, growth was always Facebook’s priority — even after problems began arising that required something more than a Band-Aid to fix. Imagine if Facebook had decided against adding the News Feed. Imagine if it stayed true to its original intentions: a place where people could connect with their friends. Facebook would probably not be one of the world’s most profitable companies, but it also wouldn’t be confronted with allegations that it has become, among other things, a tool of authoritarian government.
“I wanted it to be successful and a tool of empowerment and liberation,” Kirkpatrick told me. “And increase freedom and opportunity. And when the Arab Spring took place, it felt like that prediction had come true.”
But, he added, “As they pursued global growth, it would seem obvious to a well-managed company that they weren’t going to successfully operate as the town square of 190 companies. I would have loved to have been more prescient about every last thing that could happen. But I also think that someone who has become a billionaire from working there is a little more responsible than me for what happened.”
Kirkpatrick thinks Facebook simply has to reprioritize, putting “governance,” as he calls its problems, ahead of growth. Yet despite his disappointment at what’s happened to the company, he hasn’t given up on it entirely.
“I still think they do more good than harm,” he said. “I still have the naïve hope that they won’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Their problem,” he added, “is that they are so caught up in the good they can’t acknowledge the bad. They act as if it is just a minor consequence. They just can’t straightforward acknowledge the enormity of their problems.”
“And it pisses me off.”
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is co-author of “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA.”
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