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‘There’s a Little Bit of Well, We’re All Just at Harvard, So What Could Happen?

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is testifying in front of Congress this week. To accompany the testimony, Select All is publishing transcripts of interviews with four ex-Facebook employees and one former investor, conducted as part of a wider project on the crisis within the tech industry that will be published later this week. These interviews include:

• Former Facebook manager Sandy Parakilas on privacy, addiction, and why Facebook must “dramatically” change its business model.

Former Facebook product manager Antonio Garcia Martinez on the “sociopathic scene” of Silicon Valley and Mark Zuckerberg’s “disingenuous and strange” reaction to the election.

Early Facebook investor Roger McNamee on Facebook propaganda, early warning signs, and why outrage is so addictive.

• Former Facebook designer Soleio Cuervo on Facebook’s commitment to users, what the media gets wrong, and why regulation is unnecessary.

This interview is with Kate Losse, an early Facebook employee who wrote speeches for Mark Zuckerberg. She is the author of The Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network.

I want to ask about the News Feed. When it was introduced, it was very exciting for the engineers and people internally, and they thought it was this great achievement, and then users were like, “This is terrible. What is this?”
It was a surprise. I feel like this Cambridge Analytica thing is similar in that, if you just were thinking about it from a developer standpoint, you just would never have thought about it from the standpoint of “Oh, wait, I don’t want my data all over the place.” And that’s not to say that every developer isn’t conscious of these issues. I think within the group of developers there’s obviously people who are more security-minded or have different viewpoints. That’s why I’m not surprised at what’s going on now with Cambridge Analytica and the scandal over the election. For long time, the accepted idea at Facebook was: developers are good, and giving developers as much data as possible to make these products is good. But to think that, you also have to not think about the data implications for users. That’s just not your priority.

Could you talk a little bit about the ways in which getting both more people to use Facebook and more people to spend more time on Facebook influenced this? It strikes me that as you can’t design an algorithm like News Feed without acknowledging, both to yourself and publicly, the goal here is to find ways to get more people to spend more time on Facebook.
Definitely. And this is directly related to the reason there was this huge push to launch the developer platform in tandem with the development of News Feed. Because those happened basically one year apart, right? So that was a lot of development really fast, and it was all toward the goal of making Facebook a platform and not a single application. And that speaks to the hierarchy in the developer community where it’s always better to be a platform than to be a single application, because the platform is the host and everybody comes to the party. People could be doing business at the party and making money at the party doing this or that little service that they do, but the host is the one who’s hosting it and has the biggest real estate and the biggest profile, and ultimately makes the most money. News Feed and the developer platform were sort of two pieces of making Facebook go from being an application to being the platform where all the other applications live.

There was a time when Facebook really clearly pushed this with social gaming and, like, Zynga games: Words With Friends, Farmville; the idea being that these are games that get people to spend more time on Facebook, and that’s the end goal. So the reason those games were perhaps the most successful apps ever built on top of Facebook entirely was because they were the ones that got people to spend the most time on Facebook. The Facebook ethos as you described it in your book was very much hackers: Move fast, break things. In time that became a ruthlessly effective way of making money. I’m kind of curious how that happened.
Right. Yeah, well, it’s interesting that you brought up Zynga, because in a way Zynga was too successful at this. Because they were making so much money off the platform, it was obscene. As far as Silicon Valley and capitalism are friends, that wasn’t a necessarily a problem. But they were making so much money that they were hacking the whole concept of Facebook as a social platform. The problem with those games is they weren’t really that social. You put money into the game, and then you took care of your fish or your farm or whatever it was. You spent a lot of time on Facebook, and people were getting addicted to it.

I remember people talking about it like it was just this complete gold rush, but the games they were making weren’t social. They were planting stuff, and not really interacting with friends. And I know that that seemed to be a problem because it was going too far. It was making tons of money without actually putting stuff back into the ecosystem that could then be used.

So it’s very interesting to me that the Cambridge Analytica quiz that yielded all of this information was a social game, which is more in line, ironically, with how Facebook would have wanted the platform to work.

Like really successful BuzzFeed quizzes, maybe. I’m curious about the ways in which you think Facebook’s rapid success and power might have affected how decisions were made. I know you worked sort of directly with Mark. What do you see as some of that, I guess, some evidence of that?
The thing that makes Facebook different than I think even some of the other tech platforms — I mean, I’ve never worked at Amazon, so I don’t know how they talk to their employees or how the company mission is expressed, but my experience at Facebook was that there was this very moralistic sense of the mission: of connecting people, connecting the world. It’s hard to argue with that. What’s wrong with connecting people? Nothing, right?

The fact that Facebook was able to harness the universally, at least on its face, positive motive was extremely useful and helpful for Facebook. To be moving so fast and changing norms so quickly, but doing it under the idea of doing something that could be considered universally positive.

One of the things that Zuckerberg says now is something like, “When I was in my dorm room, I could have never envisioned this kind of stuff.” But people in Silicon Valley, they have to talk about how they have a grand vision — what it looks like if their start-up wins, if they succeed beyond their wildest dreams, as Facebook has. And it seems like this is the exact kind of thing that you’d think about if you’re building a platform. Do you think that this had occurred to them?
I have to say that when I heard the comment that he made, I was like, “Huh? What? What are you talking about?” That line was odd to me because it was like one of the strangest things that I’ve heard him say.

If he really meant what he said at that moment, here’s where I think it could have come from. I spent a lot of time thinking about this because part of the job of a writer is figuring out what people are not going to believe, or not going to understand, or push back on. And that’s why people like him have other people writing for them because it’s hard to see what the potential pushback is gonna be. And that’s why you have editors and all this other stuff.

So I spent a lot of time thinking about what the pushback would be on his vision. For me, the obvious criticism is: Why should people give up their power to this bigger force that they don’t control, even if it’s doing all these positive things and connecting them to their friends?

And the hardest thing for Zuckerberg seems to be getting his head around that. And the reason is because he has been in control of this thing for so long, from the very beginning. There’s a little bit of “Well, we’re all just at Harvard, so what really could happen? And at the end of the day, Harvard can pull the plug and no crime, no foul, right?” I’m just imagining this from a purely sympathetic perspective. Imagine keeping your head around that for that long at that level of scale. Why should everybody want me to be in control of it instead of them? And at some point, if you’re Mark Zuckerberg, you’d be thinking, What do they want? I did all this. I am in control of it.

And people keep using it, so how wrong can they be. In a sense, there’s no reason for people to tell you to stop. Except then the obvious implication is, well, that’s the government’s job. But that never happened. Is there any point that you saw that they were ever concerned with, or really thinking about, government regulation? I know that there was some Facebook lobbying around political advertising in the late 2000s, but it doesn’t really seem that it was ever a part of Facebook’s history until recently.
Facebook has always been technically so much farther ahead of where regulators or Congress or anyone in the United States government is thinking in terms of data and how it’s working and what the risks are, that at any moment, any regulatory force would have to catch up to where Facebook is now at the time that they try to regulate them in order for it to be successful. But it seems like there’s this lag.

People ask me about Cambridge Analytica and I’m like, “Well, he wrote the platform when it was open like this in the late 2000s.
There’s nothing new here.” And then people are like, “Wait, what?”

Facebook has insisted for a long time that it’s a platform, not a media company. I’m kind of curious about the ways in which you think this idea of Facebook as an entity absolving it of any editorial responsibility figured into the equation. How did that come about?
I think it’s important for Facebook that it becoming a news platform happened so late. Because the social stuff that Facebook grew on for years and years was just so much safer. If you’re gonna grow a social network, it’s much better for people to be talking about where they went last weekend than what they believe in a really contentious political election.

So the transformation of Facebook to a news site where people think about doing news and getting their news is something that, for Facebook’s sake, it’s good that it happened relatively recently, but it also has opened the Pandora’s box, obviously. Because the fact of the matter is, algorithms are editors. Even when it was all social stuff, the algorithm was still editing and deciding which pieces of content were seen by the most people. And the decisions that go into the algorithm are human decisions. But engineers decided, “Okay, algorithm is gonna work this way. It’s gonna privilege this kind of content. It’s gonna look for these signs. And then it’s gonna amplify things based on those signs.” So the algorithms are not ever even purely AI.

There’s also now all these people who used to work at the platforms saying, “These companies are killing our soul and our economy and are destructive to our society kind of fundamentally.” Do you think this represents a fundamental change?
I honestly read it as a sign of the success of the mission, generally speaking, of Silicon Valley over the past ten years. It’s basically a sign of success that there’s not a lot of risk in critiquing it. If you’ve been watching this for so long, it doesn’t matter what people say; it doesn’t matter what truth they tell; it doesn’t matter how sophisticated an argument is. They’ve come to consider the infrastructure as basically necessary to their lives, and they’re not leaving it. They’re not really refusing these platforms at a level that’s really hurting them. So far, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to cause much of a crisis for the platforms. How do you see it?

It could go in a couple directions. These companies employ lots of contractors and there are opportunities to raise a kind of worker revolt for the people who are interested in doing so. I think in a way that could actually yield some serious damage and put these people on the hot seat, particularly because of how Silicon Valley valorizes the engineering class. At the same time, it’s a way of life that is incredibly comfortable and very materially satisfying. And it’s a really hard thing to shake. When people say there may be a brain drain, I have a hard time buying into that. But what I’m really curious about is how does management respond? Facebook has historically been one of the hardest companies to get leaks out of, and now you see people actually doing it. Can that contribute to a change in structure?
When I think about it, I think about it first from a standpoint of what Mark cares about. One of the things he still really is emotionally committed to and excited about is developers. If I were a developer in Facebook wanting to influence Mark, I’d use that. “Oh, we’re the developers, and don’t you wanna be in good with us because we’re on the same team” kind of thing.

But, the problem is, if they were truly the most exciting hacker, they would have left and made their own company, because that’s what Silicon Valley leadership really loves, the person who leaves you and builds something else. And we’ve seen that with all the acquisitions Facebook has made. It’s cool to see the organization going on internally at tech companies, and I think especially it needs to take into account the underpaid contractors and the fact that not everyone who works at the company is making developer salaries. They could probably just have a little bit of an impact just based on solidarity and not letting the kind of corporate structure and the HR structure put everybody in their places.

To what extent do you think the start-up ethos affects the capacity for that? You were at Facebook at a time when a lot of the company’s norms were being set, ideas about how the company should be and how it should operate that have endured to this day. Could that directly affect the capacity for Facebook, either at the leadership level or as an organization, to change?
See, that’s the problem, that’s also where anything would fail. How many years into Facebook are we? We’re in the 14th year. There’s just a gap now between any engineer, no matter how cool or how smart they are, and the leadership structure in terms of how much money they have, how much power they have, how much they’re on the global stage. What the engineer has going for them is being a cool hacker. But there are always more cool hackers. It’s like you’d have to get a bunch of cool hackers together and they’d have to basically take a complete stand, “We’re only going to do it this way,” but that goes against every way that Facebook has ever functioned. Hackers have stood up to Facebook, to Mark, over, like, funny stuff. It’s like when Charlie Cheever put Wall to Wall messaging out in 2006, I think, and he wasn’t supposed to do it. But it didn’t matter. It was no big deal. It was sort of fun. It wasn’t a political statement.

And then there’s just something about Facebook that I think you have to see in line with everything that’s going on now. Because of Facebook’s origin as a social network and also because it censors itself as almost its own governing agency, there’s something strangely or profoundly apolitical about it.

It’s like it’s anti-political because politics is smaller than it. It’s like oxygen.
Exactly. Yeah.

Where do you think it goes next?
I don’t see Facebook’s business being profoundly affected by this. Within Facebook, it’s always like, Facebook’s good for the world. Why would you ever want to stop this? We’re doing so much good. And now you’re seeing greater challenges to that philosophy, and you’re seeing it come from more places, and you’re seeing potentially some actual action, such as in Europe. And so my sense is that either Facebook has to somehow start to understand those critiques in a real way, or it has to batten itself down more and continue to just say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I don’t believe it’s really going to be a business crisis, at least in the near future, but it’s definitely putting stress on Facebook’s ability to kind of hold to its claims about who it is and what it’s about, and why it shouldn’t really be challenged.

Do you think Mark Zuckerberg is the kind of person who can maintain and face that challenge?
Thus far, he’s been able to do it simply because the business keeps growing, so these flaps kind of just wear themselves out and he keeps going and things keep growing. But it does seem like the combined weight of the criticism is starting to wear Zuckerberg thin.

He needs somebody who understands the critiques. This is actually my concern: It doesn’t strike me that the people that are telling him what to say understand the critiques as completely as they might. And of course, my question is, is it because they aren’t really taking in the the critique, so they don’t know how to respond to it? Because I think at some point that’s where we’re heading. At some point they’re going to have to understand the full force of the critique they’re facing and respond to it directly. So, we’ll see. But it does seem like it’s a lot more of a discursive situation right now than it is a business-problem situation.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

A Q&A with Former Zuckerberg Speechwriter Kate Losse