Early Facebook executives have reached a surprising consensus about the company’s power

I.

Of the four people credited as co-founders like Facebook, Chris Hughes' contributions are perhaps the most unusual for a new employee. Unlike Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz, he did not write the code. Unlike Eduardo Saverin, he did not contribute to commercial development or sales. In contrast, as reported by Ellen McGirt in a 2009 profile, Hughes was known internally for what might be called his soft skills:

Hughes was the poet among the teenagers who created Facebook; unlike Zuckerberg and his roommate and co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, he did not write the software code and did not want to do it. Instead, he tried to discover ways in which people would want to connect with each other and share things more easily. (His nickname among Facebook initiates is "the Empath.") Hughes started making product suggestions, "screwing with the site," as he puts it. When they decided to open Facebook for students outside of Harvard, he argued that different schools should have their own networks, to help maintain the sense of security and privacy of the site. He became the official explainer of Facebook: part anthropologist, part representative of customer service, part spokesman for the media.

Even while on Facebook, Hughes was a heretic. While the other founders wanted to build a unified network, Hughes argued that each university should have its own network, to preserve a sense of united community. He lost the discussion at the time, although the recent embrace of the Facebook groups suggests he was in for something.

Hughes was removed from Facebook in 2007, three years after the founding of the company, by another prominent empath: Barack Obama. He continued to have rock careers in politics and magazine ownership. But today Hughes reappeared, with an op-ed in The New York Times to give up the company he helped build. He said Facebook must be broken, it's just too big and powerful for a person to execute:

Mark is a good and kind person. But I'm angry because his focus on growth led him to sacrifice security and courtesy for clicks. I am disappointed with myself and the first Facebook team for not thinking more about how the News Feed algorithm could change our culture, influence elections and empower nationalist leaders. And I worry that Mark has surrounded himself with a team that reinforces his beliefs instead of challenging them.

The government must hold Mark accountable.

More than 6,000 words, Hughes defends his case. The topics it addresses will be familiar to any reader of this newsletter: Facebook's anti-competitive behavior towards its rivals; its constant increase towards almost total market dominance; your rapacious consumption of our data and our attention; its power almost without control to trace and maintain the lines of acceptable political discourse throughout the world; and its negative externalities in the army of contractors that supports its work. (Hughes cites my recent article on Facebook moderators in Phoenix.)

Like many pro-regulatory Facebook critics, the remedies proposed by Hughes include forcing the company to separate WhatsApp and Instagram. It also (problematically) calls for the creation of a new government agency dedicated to protecting consumer privacy and regulating discourse on the Internet.

In some quarters, Hughes was praised as brave. Tristan Harris, co-founder of the Center for Human Technology, called the courageous editorial . Anand Giridharadas, a leading critic of Big Tech, called it " morally important ". Senator Elizabeth Warren said: " Chris Hughes is right ."

Others saw the op Ed was a good opportunity to soak, and acted accordingly. Many tweets were in the vein of "Oh, look, the man who became incredibly rich on Facebook has belatedly found the courage to criticize it." (Here one of those .) Gabe Rivera, of Techmeme, looked at the opinion piece as an opportunistic effort to recast Hughes's personal narrative away from failure.

The precise motives of Hughes can be a mystery. But leave them aside for a moment. The most important thing here is the consensus that reflects Hughes' opinion article now.

Consider how many Facebook executives have now come out against the existence of Facebook in its current form:

  • Moskovitz is one of the main donors of Color of Change. who are campaigning to fire Zuckerberg. (On Twitter, Moskovitz told me that he had misinterpreted this donation by saying he had the sole intention of helping the Democrats.) When I asked him what his argument was against a breakup, he said: "If the goal is improve democracy First, we should separate Fox and Sinclair. "Later, he eliminated the tweet.
  • Justin Rosenstein, who directed the development of Facebook's Like button, warned about the negative effects of social networks on individual psychology. Rosenstein co-founded the business collaboration company Asana with Moskovitz.)
  • Sean Parker, Facebook's first president, called himself a "conscientious objector" to the social network. "It probably interferes with productivity in strange ways" He said, "God only knows what he's doing to the brains of our children."
  • Chamath Palihapitiya, who led the important Facebook growth team in his In the early days, he told an audience at the Stanford School of Business to take a "hard break." social media. "I think we have created tools that are tearing apart the social fabric of how society works," he said. He added that he felt "tremendously guilty" for his time in the company, before reviewing those comments after receiving an angry call from Sheryl Sandberg.
  • Brian Acton, who co-founded WhatsApp, was not one of Facebook's top executives. But famously told people to remove Facebook when leaving the company.

Individual criticisms of executives vary in kind and in vehemence. But, taken together, they represent a point of view aligned with Hughes': that the company is too big, too powerful, and too damaging to the health of our individual psyches and our society.

It is worth noting once again how extraordinary it is to see so many early executives in a technology giant express such alarm over its consequences for the world. Certainly, the employees of Google, Apple and Amazon have left and complained about specific aspects of the work of these companies. But no senior executive has left and asked to be separated, let alone a parade of them.

Seen from that point of view, Hughes' specific arguments about the division of Facebook are less significant than the new consensus they reflect. As many Facebook co-founders now admit the radical change of the company as support to maintain the status quo. And anti-Facebook sentiment is now an overview between the core of Facebook's founding team .

II.

Of course, the current Facebook executive team had a different opinion on the opinion article. Nick Clegg, the company's new head of policy and communications, issued an insulting "do not worry":

"Facebook accepts that responsibility comes with success, but does not enforce responsibility by demanding the dissolution of a successful US company. "Nick Clegg, vice president of global affairs and communication for Facebook, writes in a statement given to The Verge . "The responsibility of technology companies can only be achieved through the meticulous introduction of new rules for the Internet. That's exactly what [CEO] Mark Zuckerberg has asked for. In fact, he will meet with government leaders this week to promote that work. "

It was up to journalists Olivia Solon and Steve Rhodes to point out that Clegg had for enforcing accountability by calling for the break-up of successful US companies before they opposed it.

If there was a legitimate criticism of Hughes' public opinion, it includes a rather radical anti-discourse sentiment. part of his idea to create some kind of online federal language monitor. "This idea may seem anti-American," he writes. "We would never appear before a government agency's censorship speech, but we already have limits to shouting" fire "in a theater full of people, child pornography, speech intended to provoke violence and false declarations to manipulate the prices of the actions.We will have to create similar standards that the technology companies can use. These rules must, of course, be subject to review by the courts, as well as any other limit in the speech. But there is no constitutional right to harass others or live violence. "

Adi Robertson explores the problem with that kind of thinking here:

In the most charitable and coherent formulation, Hughes is simply asking the police to do so, to enforce existing laws online, police departments do not always understand web platforms well, and the scale of the Internet facilitates the dissemination of harmful information and makes people's responsibility difficult, but in the United States. We do not need new agencies or speech guidelines to improve the investigation of violent hate groups or to stop people making threats.The criminal justice system has big problems, but it will not be solved with the delegation of private companies, especially because much of the harassment and extremism of the Internet take place in independent sites or through private channels such as electronic mail co

Internet is an ugly place and discussing how to make it less ugly is a legitimate and urgent task. But the simple act of calling to "create guidelines" to convert websites into content police, even if it implies that existing laws somehow no longer apply to the Internet, is an easy piece of hand that is not worthy of the broader manifesto of Hughes.

See also this valuable thread from the work of Stanford Daphne Keller .

III.

A criticism of the opinion piece that seems less convincing to me is that Facebook should not have to separate WhatsApp and Instagram because doing so would not solve all the problems Facebook has been implicated in, or it would represent some kind of massive excess government Among those who argue the former are Benedict Evans Mike Masnick, Shira Ovide and Kevin Kelly . For the latter, see Matt Rosoff. The taking of Ovide is representative:

I do not have the answers. But I worry that the "Facebook break" has become a general and relaxing solution for the feeling that Facebook is bad and that something should be done about it. A break can be the right approach. But I want advocates to start by bringing people together around the root problems and working backwards to find possible solutions before we all support a Standard Oil-style dismantling.

Surely there is some truth in this: "someone do something!" The feeling is real and can have terrible consequences in politics, as we have seen with FOSTA (SESTA and Facebook). The case of Hughes and others seems clear enough to me: the creation of multiple large and economically viable social networks introduces valuable frictions and competition in the economy, and this friction is likely to make ideas slower and harder to disseminate. to humanity a little more time to think before reacting to the indignation of the day, and the competition will provide better incentives for the new networks to unravel thorny problems around political discourse, moderation of content, integrity of the platform, etc.

If you think that the United States in general has been given a good service by having 50 democracy labs, you could expect to see benefits similar to having seven or more strong American social networks, several hundred million. Each of them will struggle with many of the problems that the Facebook conglomerate faces today, but they will also have new and compelling reasons to innovate, and many new rivals that they can blatantly copy.

or Google, or Amazon, or Apple) depends a lot on what you think the problem is. If you think that terrorists who coordinate anonymously on WhatsApp is the main problem here, then you're right: separating Facebook will not address your pet problem.

But if you think that monopolies are intrinsically bad, and that you serve a client, the base in the billions creates problems that no person or company can solve, I think it probably supports Big Tech's division. And if you work in the government of the United States and you are considering this problem, it is worth noting that many of the people who created Facebook now practically beg you.

A small handful of bonus links

Instagram will begin to block hashtags that return erroneous information against vaccination

I wrote about some welcome changes that Instagram made today to reduce the spread of cheating against vaccination.

Hugo Barra leaves the Oculus team for a global AR / VR Facebook partner initiative

The Oculus division of Facebook is officially just a team within Facebook now and has no leader. I can not say if this augurs well for the company's virtual reality initiatives.

Facebook automatically generates videos that celebrate extremist images

Here are a lot of surprises, and something to think about whenever Facebook congratulates itself on its work. Automated systems are working:

Another automatic Facebook generation function that went wrong scrapes the user information from user pages to create business pages. The function is supposed to produce pages intended to help corporate networks, but in many cases they serve as a brand landing space for extremist groups. The feature allows Facebook users to "like" the pages of extremist organizations, such as al-Qaida, the Islamic State group and Somalia-based al-Shabab, which provide a list of supporters for recruiters. .

Al Qaeda page in the Arabian Peninsula, the AP found a photo of the damaged hull of the USS Cole, which was bombed by al Qaeda in an attack off the coast of Yemen in 2000, in which 17 sailors died. American Navy. It is the defining image in AQAP's own propaganda. The page includes the Wikipedia entry for the group and 277 people had visited it for the last time this week.

Now on sale on Facebook: looted antiquities from the Middle East

And others, from Karen Zraick:

Researchers say that looted treasures from conflict zones in the Middle East are sold on Facebook, including items that may have been looted by militants of the Islamic State.

Facebook groups promoting the articles grew rapidly during the turmoil of the Arab Spring and the wars that followed, which created unprecedented opportunities for traffickers, said Amr Al-Azm, a professor of history and anthropology in the Middle East. Shawnee State University in Ohio and former antiquities officer in Syria. He has monitored trade for years together with his colleagues in the Athar Project, named for the Arabic word for antiquities.

And finally …

Ben Grosser, about whom I wrote when he created the software "Demetricator" to eliminate "likes" and other participation numbers in social networks, is back with an agitprop supercut.

"I checked all the videos that appeared from 2004-2018 when I was talking about 'more', 'grow / grow' or 'when' a metric speaks (for example, & # 39; # 39; billion, "Grosser told me." The result is a nearly 50-minute film that examines what Zuckerberg is more focused on and what he hopes to achieve. "

Talk to me

Send me suggestions, comments, questions and how Facebook will be personally separated in such a way that it directly addressed your personal problem with the social network and from nobody else: [email protected]

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