From the 2016 memo: “Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools … And still we connect people.”
Facebook’s bad month is getting even worse — now because of an internal memo by one of the company’s top executives that suggests, among other things, that Facebook’s mission to connect people is more important than user safety.
The memo, which was published by BuzzFeed, is from Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, one of Facebook’s longest-tenured execs and one of CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s closest colleagues. The memo, from 2016, is titled “The Ugly,” and highlights that Facebook’s work doesn’t always have positive outcomes.
Here’s a key part of the memo:
We connect people.
That can be good if they make it positive. Maybe someone finds love. Maybe it even saves the life of someone on the brink of suicide.
So we connect more people
That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.
And still we connect people.
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. It is perhaps the only area where the metrics do tell the true story as far as we are concerned.
Shortly after BuzzFeed’s story went live Bosworth tweeted to say he doesn’t agree with the post, and that it was intended to create “debate about hard topics.”
“The purpose of this post, like many others I have written internally, was to bring to the surface issues I felt deserved more discussion with the broader company,” he wrote.
“why did you write a post you don’t agree with?” It was intended to be provocative. This was one of the most unpopular things I’ve ever written internally and the ensuing debate helped shape our tools for the better.
— Boz (@boztank) March 29, 2018
Zuckerberg quickly issued a statement via a company spokesperson also condemning the memo, and saying Facebook specifically made changes in 2017 to better reflect its mission.
“Boz is a talented leader who says many provocative things,” Zuckerberg’s statement reads. “This was one that most people at Facebook including myself disagreed with strongly. We’ve never believed the ends justify the means. We recognize that connecting people isn’t enough by itself. We also need to work to bring people closer together. We changed our whole mission and company focus to reflect this last year.”
Whether or not Boz believed what he wrote, the memo matters because it highlights what people outside of Silicon Valley often fear about Silicon Valley: That big tech companies don’t actually care about the people who use their services, only that those people serve as data points that help tech companies grow.
Bosworth, after Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, has become Facebook’s most visible executive, often active on Twitter, responding to critics and news stories about the company’s latest controversies.
Facebook, in particular, has earned a reputation over the years as a place that prioritizes business over all else — the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal is a primary example. A lot of people don’t actually believe that Facebook feels bad that user data fell into the wrong hands. They just believe that Facebook feels bad it got caught.
A memo like this will only fuel that disconnect. Was Boz simply trying to point out that there are negative side effects to building the internet, which is essentially what Facebook has become to large portions of the world? Perhaps. It’s important that executives understand the impact that tech companies can have on the world, and the memo shows that Boz and Facebook are, at the very least, aware of the potential consequences of their work.
But it also puts Facebook — and the rest of Silicon Valley — back into a box it has been trying to get out of for years. It’s hard to win user trust if people don’t feel like they matter.