In Defense of the 'Ugly' Facebook Memo

An executive’s deliberately provocative post offers an encouraging sign that the company is grappling with the forces it has unleashed.

Dado Ruvic / Reuters

On Thursday, BuzzFeed published a controversial internal Facebook memo titled “The Ugly.” It features Facebook Vice President Andrew Bosworth’s 2016 reflections on the company’s aggressive efforts to connect people—and their fraught implications.

So far, Facebook is standing by its VP, who said this about his intentions on Twitter: “I don’t agree with the post today and I didn’t agree with it even when I wrote it. 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.”

That seems consistent with the intentionally provocative way that the memo was phrased.

Bosworth wrote:

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.

He adds, “That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in. The work we will likely have to do in China some day. All of it.”

Many insiders will view this as a PR disaster. After all, it’s inspiring headlines like this:

A prominent leader in the company admits that its growth team used “questionable” tactics to increase the number of users, and expresses the belief that the platform’s work is justified even if it leads to a suicide or even a terrorist attack.

What’s more, he reasons that the incentives of their industry itself inescapably push Facebook and its competitors to aggressively “push the envelope” on user growth:

The natural state of the world is not connected. It is not unified. It is fragmented by borders, languages, and increasingly by different products. The best products don’t win. The ones everyone use win. I know a lot of people don’t want to hear this. Most of us have the luxury of working in the warm glow of building products consumers love. But make no mistake, growth tactics are how we got here. If you joined the company because it is doing great work, that’s why we get to do that great work.

We do have great products but we still wouldn’t be half our size without pushing the envelope on growth. Nothing makes Facebook as valuable as having your friends on it, and no product decisions have gotten as many friends on as the ones made in growth. Not photo tagging. Not news feed. Not messenger. Nothing. In almost all of our work, we have to answer hard questions about what we believe. We have to justify the metrics and make sure they aren’t losing out on a bigger picture. But connecting people. That’s our imperative. Because that’s what we do. We connect people.

If there are Facebook users who’ve never pondered the matters raised in this memo, its contents should cause them to take a dimmer view of the company than before. Facebook deserves criticism for its dubious growth tactics. And the incentives of its industry will lead to future abuses, absent consumer backlash or regulation.

Still, I think Facebook insiders and outside critics alike should be celebrating Andrew Bosworth, and that everyone with longstanding concerns about the matters that he addressed ought to feel marginally better about Facebook than before.

New technologies are inescapably fraught. The invention of the printing press helped to touch off decades of brutal sectarian war among Christians. Early innovators of flight were appalled when their inventions were used to drop bombs on civilians. Radio broadcasts were integral to Nazi success in taking over pre-World War II Europe. The Drudge Report needlessly raises the blood pressure of aging Boomers daily.

It would be terrifying if Facebook’s leadership was so ensconced in naive bromides about the goodness of connecting people as to be blind to its obvious dark sides. And it would be much to their discredit if they understood all that could go wrong and their potential complicity in it, but allowed employees of the company to evade grappling with tough questions by avoiding circulating their doubts internally.

A bracing memo that forced employees to grapple with the reality of Facebook’s growth strategy, its business model, and their implications was beneficial. Writing it so provocatively as to guarantee introspective debate made it more beneficial. I suspect the United States would benefit mightily if a senior leader at every major corporation attempted to lay bare the most powerful incentives shaping their enterprise and the most damaging possible consequences of their behavior—and that reactions like that of The Drudge Report disincentivizes such introspection.

Much better is the writeup by Casey Newman at The Verge:

It’s ugly to read, but it also stands in stark counterpoint to a popular strain of Facebook criticism which holds that the company’s “move fast and break things” ethos is driven by an executive team that acts without considering its effect on the broader world. For better and for worse, the Bosworth memo shows the company reckoning with its unintended consequences and the ethics of its behavior—even before the 2016 election …

Hopefully that reckoning will continue.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told BuzzFeed: “Boz is a talented leader who says many provocative things. 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.”

It is reassuring to see the memo’s author described as a talented leader even now, though disappointing if understandable that Zuckerberg reverts to naive Facebook booster mode, as if its success in bringing people closer together would erase the platform’s downsides. The problems that new communication technologies pose to societies that encounter them are more complicated than that.

For instance, Martin Luther’s theses might have led to less warring had printing press owners tried harder to “bring people closer together.” But new communications technologies can bring majority groups closer together in a manner that harms minority groups. Nazi Germany’s propaganda succeeded in building more internal support for its regime than the Weimar Republic had enjoyed. But radio brought its ethnic majority closer together precisely by rallying them against German Jews and occupants of neighboring countries.

And global platforms like Facebook have varied effects in different societies. How will tweaks to the platform designed to “bring people together” in the U.S. play out in nations presently riven by internal strife or ethnic tensions, such as Haiti, or the Balkans, or Rwanda, or Poland, or Lebanon?

The only realistic answer is unpredictably.

There is no better alternative but for Facebook to do its best to do no harm. The social-media genie can’t be put back in the bottle any more than can any previous means of mass communication, even if the company were to pull the plug on its platform.

Still, the fact is that Facebook could be used somewhere to help facilitate something as serious as a genocide, even if its leaders are working earnestly to bring people together.

That risk is Mark Zuckerberg’s ongoing, inescapable burden.

Insofar as he understands the risk of fundamentally changing the way that billions of people in scores of different countries communicate, he is likelier to take all prudent, available precautions against worst-case scenarios. So while Bosworth may be distancing himself from his own memo, I hope he writes a lot more like it. Pondering “the ugly” isn’t sufficient to avoid doing harm. But it is necessary.