Features & Columns

Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe

Broken Book | Excerpt

When a company grows from nothing to 2.2 billion active users and forty billion dollars in revenues in only fourteen years, you can be sure of three things: First, the original idea was brilliant. Second, execution of the business plan had to be nearly flawless. And third, at some point along the way, the people who manage the company will lose perspective.

If everything your company touches turns into gold for years on end, your executives will start to believe the good things people say about them. They will view their mission as exalted. They will reject criticism. They will ask, "If the critics are so smart, why aren't they so successful and rich as we are?"

Companies far less successful than Facebook have fallen victim to such overconfidence. The culture of Silicon Valley, which celebrates the brash and the bold, breeds overconfidence and then lets nature take its course. The corpses of overconfident companies litter the landscape of the tech industry. Companies like Digital Equipment, Compaq, Netscape, Sun Microsystems and MySpace were hot growth stories in their prime. Then there are the survivors who had lost prestige as their growth slowed down, companies like Intel, EMC, Dell, and Yahoo. The executives of these companies confidently predicted strong growth right up to the moment when there was none and the stock—and their dreams of endless growth—came tumbling down. Then there are companies like Microsoft, Oracle, and IBM, at one time undisputed leaders but whose giant market capitalization masks a dramatic loss in influence.

It took me a very long time to accept that Zuck and Sheryl had fallen victim to overconfidence. I did not pick up the signal when I first reached out to them in October 2016. It was not even clear to me in February 2017, when I gave up on trying to convince Dan Rose to investigate my concerns. The evidence started to pile up in the month prior to the hearings on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, 2017, but I still wanted to believe that Zuck and Sheryl would eventually change their approach...

Instead, Facebook finished 2017 as it had begun it, by not giving an inch, thus violating a central precept of crisis management: embracing criticism. Instead, Facebook defied its critics without even acknowledging their existence. The company's message to the world—"nothing to see here, move along"—was so completely out of step with what we already knew that I was taken aback. What were they thinking?

The idealist in me still hoped there would be a way to persuade Zuck and Sheryl to look at the situation differently, to recognize that the 2018 U.S. midterm elections were fast approaching and only Facebook had the ability to protect that election from mischief similar to 2016...

Back in early October 2017, Barry Lynn of the Open Markets Institute had convinced me to write a long-form essay describing the dark side of social media, our journey to date, and our best policy ideas. He then persuaded the editors of Washington Monthly, a venerable magazine for progressive policy advocates, to commission a 6,000-word essay. My goal was to crystallize the issues and our policy recommendations for policy makers inside the Beltway, an intellectual one-stop-shop that would frame the debate and create a platform for the next phase of our work. I submitted the first draft in late October.

I would get a master class in the Socratic method from the piece's editors, Paul Glastris and Gilad Edelman, who provided a series of brilliant questions, the answers to which filled in many holes. We showed the policy prescriptions to a number of others on Capitol Hill to get their feedback. The editing and reviewing went on through the month of November until one day Gilad told me we were done. The essay would be the cover story of the January 2018 issue, slated for publication on January 8. It went beyond election interference to talk about the threats from internet platforms to public health, privacy, and the economy...

On Jan. 1, 2018, Zuck published a post announcing his goal for the year ahead—to fix Facebook. He offered a nine-point plan. Wait. What? Fix Facebook? Where did that come from? No one at the company had previously admitted to problems that might require fixing. Suddenly Zuck acknowledged concerns about fake news and the possibility that too much Facebook (or other social media) might lead to unhappiness. He offered a classic Zuck fix: more Facebook! Zuck's plan for addressing the problems created by Facebook was for users to do more of the things that created the problems in the first place.

In response to Zuck's post, Washington Monthly published my cover story online a few days early, on Jan. 5. Even though I had completed the essay more than a month earlier, it read like a rebuttal to Zuck's New Year's resolution. Where Zuck's post had framed Facebook's flaws obliquely, my essay was direct and specific. Where his remedy was more Facebook, my essay recommended ten remedies, aimed at user privacy, ownership of data, terms of service, and election interference. The press picked up on it, and the next thing I knew, an essay designed for a handful of policy makers in Washington began spreading outside the Beltway. We had managed to find a pretty good audience for our message in 2017, but we had made no progress with the only audience that mattered: the top people at Facebook. The company's PR people had begun to say unflattering things in private but were ignoring us in public. And it was working for them. Then came Washington Monthly. The lucky timing of the essay would lead Facebook to engage directly.

'Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe'
Roger McNamee
Out Now
Penguin Random House

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