Facebook’s Chaotic, Destructive Corporate Culture

TPM Reader MS has a critique of my recent comments about Facebook, both on the podcast and the Editor’s Blog. I spoke of “sleaze” and a “if we can code it, we should totally do it” ethos. On “sleaze” he’s probably right because that’s just a loaded word and too imprecise in its meaning. On the latter point, I think we were actually talking about something similar or even the same thing. In any case, here’s MS’s take …

I heard you talking about this on the podcast, with some befuddlement, as to why Facebook has such problems playing nice etc. etc. Then you make this remark in the Editor’s Blog about Facebook’s “sleaze and ‘if we can code it, we should totally do it’ ethos,” which seems to me a very inaccurate take on what’s going on inside Facebook. I don’t think sleaze and “whoa, that’s cool I like it” are driving much of anything over there. To me it’s all fairly clear and has very deep roots in Zuckerberg specifically and the way Facebook all got started in the first place.

This will probably be inarticulate but (I hope) it should be clear enough. I’m an adult who was much older than college-age in 2005 (therefore observed Facebook go from something I was not allowed to join to something I was allowed to join) and has spent the last 5 years writing for a website that makes its money by getting articles to become more popular via Facebook. Nobody at my website ever intended as a business plan for Facebook to have so much control over our fortunes, but it was an unavoidable outcome of working for a place that depends on clicks. In 2014 it was Facebook or nothing, which was just the way Facebook wanted it. All of which is to say I may not have your experience dealing with them as some kind of unreliable business partner but I do have a pretty valid stretch of experiences with them using a slightly different lens.

Facebook started at Harvard, and Zuckerberg consciously used Harvard’s cachet as the most revered school in the country to drive a dynamic whereby he has the thing and you, the client, the product, are on the outside seeking entry. He did it within Harvard, he did it within the Ivy League, he did it for the collegiate world as a whole…. He set up a closed world that was by definition private and unknown to the uninitiated and traded on people’s FOMO, fear of missing out. The unclarity of Facebook’s goings-on and the indifference towards the customers’ collective voice were baked in very very early.

You know that thing about deciding whether you are going to ask permission to do something or do it and beg forgiveness later? That little trope describes Facebook’s MO to an unusual extent. There’s zero transparency and very little accountability to outsiders at Facebook. For several years the website I work for has ridden a roller coaster of unpredictable booms and busts because Facebook twiddled some knob in or against our favor and we’re forced to live with the result. We’re often in a semi-panic as a result. Oh Facebook, can we have some idea what those changes you made are or mean so we can plan around them? Don’t make me laugh. They’re not going to tell us that. What’s that? We made a change and decided in 2011 or whatever that this subset of your data couldn’t be private anymore even though it was implied that it would stay private? Oh well sorry, you should probably just adjust to that because we like things better this way. In a month we’ll make some other change without consulting you and you won’t be able to get any information about that change either. We’re going to do these things and we don’t care even a little what you think of them or how they affect you. Is there someone at Facebook regular users (including businesses) can contact so that people can appeal or get some information about how they should proceed with interacting with Facebook? Don’t be ridiculous, there is no such person. You can’t call Facebook tech support, that is just not a thing that exists. More than most companies, Facebook conducts its affairs using the frustrating method of the unarticulated fiat, choices made from on high with no transparency.

Greed and desire for control drive this to be sure, I’m not sure “sleaze” does.

Look, about 3 years ago it became clear that Facebook and the publishing world at large were joined in some kind of death dance…. Facebook had every opportunity to meet with those publishers as equals and try to be a “good faith partner” with them as we all moved forward together. Instead they made 300 decisions a day that made it clear they didn’t want any give or take with publishers. They would dictate the terms and everybody would be happy with what they got, and that’s it, because they held the upper hand at that time. If you tried to game out what would happen with such a relationship, it was inevitable that that relationship would sour and a great many proud, important and not-important entities would get very steamed about being pushed around by Facebook all the time.

What ended up happening was that Facebook made a series of decisions that were a direct result of their blitheness towards data and privacy issues and their lack of a good relationship with those publishers made it impossible for them to make any smaller adjustments to the system in a way that made any sense. As a result they ended up nuking the entire “posting on Facebook for profit” model, and the entire publishing and online advertising model is in tatters because the only possible venue for online advertisements/virality that can yield actual profits has decided that nothing can be done for gain on Facebook for a while. I’m saying all this to express the idea that playing nice with the publishers was in THEIR best interest all along, even if they spectacularly failed to recognize this. They went the other way and now the relationship might be irreparable. Facebook has made squeaky little “we’re sorry, whatevs” noises in the past and I can’t actually tell if the current contrition is in any way real or just a holding tactic to get through this scandal. If past performance is any guide, I’m forced to conclude that it’s bullshit.

In any case, what remains is that there’s a lot of advertising cash out there waiting to be thrown at the internet and a lot of entities who would love to receive it. Facebook has temporarily absented itself from being the broker for those transactions. This is where the current “leave Facebook” movement has the potential to do real harm to Facebook, because it trades on Facebook’s being the only game in town and the primary venue for Boomers and GenXers and some millennials to interact. But Facebook rather feels like an advertising venue first and foremost these days, which is new; that was simply not true 2 years ago. The acridity of the 2016 political year left a lot of my liberal friends (most of them women) with extremely little desire to spend time on Facebook, and not all of that is Facebook’s fault. They’re all at Instagram, which is nicer, more tolerant, and more respectful. But while the shrinking of the Facebook audience can hurt the site, the likelihood of publishers building a separate set of institutions to deal with this shit would also be very harmful to Facebook. The publishers rightly feel very burned, and it’s not yet clear whether a reasonable second option is even viable. But an aging audience that is not hip and that is not being truly replenished by the hip could spell bad news for Facebook, as are the calculations of prideful publishers who detested being under the thumb of someone who is as callow as Zuckerberg often appears to be.

I think this is entirely a mess of its own making, and I might be in a minority but I think it was entirely predictable. I was saying as far back as 2014 that Facebook had absolutely terrible BO and that it really made no sense to treat all of these publishers as slaves, in the long run.

Anyway. Rather than sleaze and “we should totally do it” I see idealism and incredible arrogance and incredible entitlement, that’s what is driving this.

One final point, this issue of Facebook’s capriciousness about the businesses it partners with is definitely something I’ve seen directly. We’ve never gotten in deep with Facebook. So we haven’t been damaged or even much affected. But Facebook has a terrible reputation on this front that is earned and is very different from Google, Amazon, even Apple. Of course, Facebook is a private company. It can do whatever it wants as long as it abides by whatever enforceable contracts it enters into. But it has negative effects down the road even for Facebook. And I think it’s part of the same destructive culture.