This is the badge post my friend and colleague Adin Rosenberg wrote before leaving Facebook. He originally posted it on his public Facebook timeline. Now that he has deleted his Facebook account, this excellent post needs a new home. With Adin’s gracious permission, I am sharing it here.
Tomorrow, October 6, will be my last day at Facebook.
I arrived at Facebook as a software engineer nearly six years ago, excited to move to New York City and join a group of talented, hard-working and good people. These past years working on Messenger and Instagram have helped me grow personally and professionally, and I look back at them with many fond memories. However, recently I’ve been feeling a growing sense of disillusionment.
Facebook is a for-profit corporation. Its purpose is to generate revenue, and its mission is to increase its reach and power. Strictly speaking, it cannot have values, only people can. One of the ways that Facebook achieves its mission is by building products that people enjoy using, so there is some overlap between the company’s goal and the public good. But this overlap is only partial, and the distinction between the two is critical.
For years, I have written off Facebook’s declared mission(s) to “make the world more open and connected”, “give everyone a voice”, etc., as mere corporate speak. But I have recently come to understand how harmful it can be when these statements serve as a way to conflate the company’s true goal with society’s welfare. It becomes easy to believe that the company’s good is identical with its users’ good, and to define the latter as the former. We are expected to believe that ultimately it is inconceivable for the company to be causing various problems (such as polarization or addiction) because such outcomes would be against the company’s business goals. This feels to me like part of a Libertarian hell where everything is looked at through the lens of the market, and society’s desired and best outcome is *defined* by what the free market produces.
The fact that Facebook’s mission is to maximize its reach is no secret. One of the company’s top executives published a well known manifesto, titled The Ugly (which has since leaked). This note was a rare and candid declaration of how “the ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good”. I understand “connect more people more often” as another way of saying company growth, and the fact that the note was later retracted does not, in my opinion, make it less true, only more poignant.
It might seem odd to employees at the company that Facebook’s true and ultimate mission is its own growth, when, from their point of view, they are serving so many other (and sometimes opposing) values and goals. They also see their colleagues working hard to make Facebook a better force in the world. This dissonance is difficult, and in most cases likely results in rejection of the point I am trying to make. But I think that a company as a whole behaves differently than the sum of its parts, just as a living organism is much more than a cluster of individual cells. This is also the reason why employees’ intent is not the dominant factor in the outcome that the company produces.
As a result of the company’s obsession with its growth, so many things go wrong.
Facebook claims to be giving everyone a voice, yet in practice it is amplifying the voice of the powerful and hurtful at the expense of the underrepresented and oppressed. This happens both externally (with the Community Standards) and internally (with the Respectful Communications Policy). In particular, the Community Standards take an explicit minimalistic approach that never attempts to read beyond the most superficial meaning of the content it is policing. If there is the slightest, most technical, way to interpret such content in a way that won’t violate policy (be it hate speech, misinformation or anything else), we choose that way, no matter how naive it is. A good example is Trump’s infamous “looting and shooting” post, which I believe was a watershed moment for many. We let bad actors abuse and weaponize the policy this way — they can spread their harmful content, the intended harm is done, and yet we do nothing.
Facebook receives much criticism regarding bias, both accusations of censoring too much and of allowing too much harmful content. It is easy to mistake the fact that the accusations are coming from both sides of the political and ideological spectrum as a sign that we are somehow neutral, and not being arbiters of truth, as if Facebook is implementing a balanced policy in regard to content. But in fact, I think that this is a result of Facebook being biased only towards something else, which is its long term growth. Moderating content risks hurting this goal, but Facebook can’t afford letting every type of content go unchecked either. So ultimately, Facebook’s content policy decisions are optimal only for its own benefit. Similarly, while welcoming regulation has been a talking point, various attempts of (or even talking about) regulation have been, in practice, treated as existential threats and vigorously fought against.
Over the years, Facebook has made several acquisitions that have bolstered its growth, of companies such as Instagram, WhatsApp and Onavo (the latter has allowed Facebook to closely monitor the growth of competitors). Facing claims, both internally and externally, that such acquisitions make Facebook too powerful, we resort to explanations that focus on the narrow prism of market monopoly, citing examples of contemporary and past competitors. We also tout the benefits that the acquired products have gained (in areas of integrity, privacy, security and even growth) by being part of a single corporation (affectionately called “the Family of Apps”). Once again, public good and Facebook’s interests are presented as interchangeable. With the vital communications infrastructure it provides across multiple platforms, Facebook becomes an omnipresent force in the lives of billions. This gives Facebook a hold over its users that is akin to the power the modern state holds over its citizens. However, users of Facebook apps are not citizens, and are not equipped with the rights that we have come to expect from a democratic state.
We get defensive when we are criticized. At Facebook, Journalism is a target for mockery and anger, and its criticism is often written off as the result of bias, envy, or both. This is despite the fact that in a democracy the press’s role is precisely to keep strong forces in check, not to praise those forces. Not to mention the option that criticism, regardless of its motives, can be distilled to produce actionable corrections. Instead, our response is to remain on course, citing past successes (which themselves are questionable in my opinion), and assuming that doing more of what we think is correct will solve our problems. Internal criticism is not treated any better. Critics end up finding their way outside of the company, one way or another. And what we end up with is an army of loyalists, who accept the company stance without flinching.
Another problem is dealing with leaks. These are always treated with almost mourning over the loss of our supposedly transparent culture, when in my opinion such culture hasn’t really existed in years (if ever). Attention is therefore detracted from the problems surfaced by the leaked materials. In fact, we are even told to question the veracity of leaks, and instead to trust our co-workers, no matter how opaque they may be. A truly transparent culture would not do this.
Growth being the holy grail also results in scale becoming a constant justification for certain decisions, or failures to take action. We would not fathom scaling back even after we realize that scale is precisely what is causing a problem, be it abuse by bad actors or algorithmic amplification. When questioned about enforcement of policy, it is common to hear that possible solutions would not work at our scale. On the flip side, we also treat the (relatively) small scale of various issues as a sign that they are not a priority, while they can have disproportionately grave effects.
Finally, as a company that claims to be working for social good, I cannot square its actions with respect to its contingent workers (who are the force that enables the daily operations of the platform). The existence of this two-tier system, with one privileged tier, that enjoys compensation, benefits and overall treatment that the other tier can only dream of, is just plain wrong in my opinion. To make matters worse, there exists a wall between these two tiers, so the privileged must actively look very hard in order to even see the other side. The existence of a Facebook workers’ ‘underclass’ is especially poignant in light of our staggering quarterly reports, with their huge profit margins. It is also disheartening to see the flippant manner in which the company’s leadership tells people who feel they can no longer stay at the company that they are welcome to leave. This dismisses the challenges (financial means, immigration status, and just plain stress) and disrespects the insecurities of taking a leap into the unknown, in particular in the midst of a global recession and worldwide pandemic.
Some might question the venue I am using for this note. After all, it is customary to make farewell posts internally on Workplace, and using the very platform that I am criticizing might seem like an odd choice. To that I would answer that I don’t want to risk an internal note leaking (even though I don’t think anything here is a secret, these are merely my own thoughts), and then have the attention spent on that. And the use of this platform is only a testament to its power and reach, which is precisely what I am trying to highlight.
On a personal note, it is probably not a coincidence that I am reaching this decision and publishing this on the heels of the Jewish High Holiday season. Along with celebrating the new year and hoping for a better one, a central theme of this period is repentance. This includes personal and communal reflection and introspection, as well as seeking atonement. The ideas expressed here have been bubbling in me for a while, but it is only apt that they would reach their climax now.
These past months have been challenging professionally and personally. I would like to wholeheartedly thank all those who have supported me during this period. This includes first and foremost my family — my loving spouse and empathetic child — as well as several coworkers who have listened, shared their own thoughts, and saved me from a sense of isolation (you know who you are!).
— Adin Rosenberg, October 5, 2020