Friday, November 23, 2018

The Decline and Fall of Facebook

Apparently, Facebook has a problem. According to the New York Times and numerous other outlets, the problem lies with its leadership, especially with COO Sheryl Sandberg. The great feminist heroine, the role model for many aspiring young woman, made a complete botch of its the company investigation into the way the platform was being used to influence opinion. It did not, of course, just investigate. It leaned in and attacked its critics.

New York Magazine’s Max Read offers a good summary of the problems Facebook was trying to manage:

A 6,000-word report published in the New York Times last week disclosed in humiliating detail the lengths to which Facebook has gone to protect its dominance and attack its critics. As various interlocking crises concerning hate speech, misinformation, and data privacy widened, top executives ignored, and then kept secret, evidence that the platform had become a vector for misinformation campaigns by government-backed Russian trolls. The company mounted a shockingly aggressive lobbying and public-relations campaign, which included creating and circulating pro-Facebook blog posts that were functionally indistinguishable from the “coordinated inauthentic content” (that is, fake news) Facebook had pledged to eliminate from its platform. In one particularly galling example, the company hired a political consultancy that spread a conspiracy theory accusing George Soros of funding anti-Facebook protests. Zuckerberg, it seems, had taken the “really harsh approach” to establishing digital hegemony.

The company did not aim to reclaim its good name. It saw its problems as a power struggle, Facebook against the world, or else Facebook against its competitors.It sought to crush the competition, not to manage a public relations embarrassment.

For his part, Zuckerberg seems not to have been very interested in the problem. He delegated full authority to Sheryl Sandberg:

Sheryl Sandberg, the adult-in-the-room COO … presided over the entire suspicious and hostile crisis response. ... Zuckerberg ... seems to have been consistently absent — or plainly uninterested — during key meetings about Facebook’s handling of hate speech and misinformation. It’s hard to be a historical visionary hailed for brokering stability by making morally complex decisions if you can’t even be bothered to show up to the Morally Complex Decisions meetings.

Surely, Sandberg is an exceptionally competent executive. She has helped the company expand and grow and become extremely profitable. And yet, she has also gotten caught up in the culture wars. Besides pretending to be a feminist thought leader she has been beating the corporate drums for diversity. Leaning in was genuinely bad advice. And hiring for diversity is not the same as hiring for merit. Or for competence.

Could it be that Sandberg bought into her own hype, to the point that she thought that the best approach to Facebook’s problems was to lean in, thus, to assert oneself, to get in everyone’s face, to be aggressive, even to the point of bullying. As I have often pointed out, leaning in is macho posturing. It is bad when men do it. It is worse when women try it.

Then again, it could be that a diverse executive committee does not necessarily produce good leadership and good management.

By now, feminists seem to believe that their heroine has feet of clay. Hmmm.

Facebook, Max Read explains, has another more significant problem, often noted and more often ignored. For all the dazzle, the company does not add very much  value to our lives. We would have to change our routines significantly if Amazon dropped off the map. We would have real problems doing research without Google search. Facebook… meh?

Read writes:

It’s the public outrage that should be most worrying to Facebook. Other tech giants have managed to escape the opprobrium directed at Facebook because they have obviously useful services. Amazon delivers things to your house. Google helps you find things online. Apple sells actual objects. Facebook … helps you get into fights? Delivers your old classmates’ political opinions to your brain?...

Over the past year, I’ve spent time trying to wean myself off tech mega-platforms, generally with little success. Google’s search, for all my complaints, is still the best way for me to navigate the internet; Amazon is still so unbelievably convenient that the thought of quitting it exhausts me. But I logged out of Facebook more than a year ago and have logged back in fewer than a dozen times since. Checking Facebook had been a daily habit, but it also hadn’t improved my life or made itself necessary.

The bottom line is, for all the posturing, we can easily live without Facebook. Its problems cannot be solved by leaning in or with diversity quotas. It's not about a power struggle. The company mission is flawed, at its root.


Christopher B said...

Feeding into this is a technical problem for Facebook. Google will still present lots of hits even from a carefully censored list of approved sites, and someone will always say something outraging on Twitter regardless of who they ban, but FaceBook can't present a curated newsfeed without losing the ability to capture the kind of information that their ad buyers have come to depend on.

Ares Olympus said...

How many times can they apology I wonder?

I see Facebook's stock is down 37% since July, and a pretty steady decline, but still 6 times higher than its 2012 low soon after its IPO. And 2018 has been a wash for most stocks. At least they were smart enough to get rid of "trending" which ended up a cesspool of rumors and "fake news", whatever could provide maximal outrage in a given echo chamber.

Frontline had a recent program on Facebook's history and problems.

I used to think laws against free organic public assembly of individuals seemed excessive, but now I better see that the self-awareness and collective behavior of mobs is approximately equal to the lowest of its members. It appears online mobs follow a similar degeneracy. Someone must play authoritarian, and anyone who tries becomes the enemy of the mob's animus.

Back to the beginning, I might consider stockholders are another sort of virtual mob which only cares about its own short term bottom line, and perhaps their threatened wrath is the real cause for stupid efforts to manage reputations in disreputable ways.

David Foster said...

re social media and mobbing, see my post Freedom, the Village, and the Internet:

(On this dimension, Twitter seems to be worse than FB)