Sexism at Facebook Is What Made It Facebook

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With another early female Facebook employee refuting Facebook's sexist culture, The Atlantic Wire spoke with Boy Kings author Katherine Losse, who gave us a little clarification on her interpretation of life at Facebook as it related to women. Following the publication of her book The Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network, Losse's disturbing anecdotes gave the impression of a lady-unfriendly culture at Facebook. Now, another early female employee, Charlotte Willner, who joined the company two years after Losse, says that's not quite accurate. "Was there a rampant culture of sexism at Facebook in 2007? No. Were there sexist people working at Facebook in 2007? Yes," writes Willner on a Quora thread cited by Business Insider's Matt Lynley.

Though Willner goes on to attack Losse's position, calling what she saw as sexism "simple inattention, misunderstanding, or non-discriminating douchebaggery," Losse doesn't entirely disagree with Willner. "It's not like every single day was about sexism in the workplace," she told us over the phone. But, as Losse explains to us, she included such anecdotes not to reveal rampant discrimination at the social network, but to show what type of product gets made by the type of people who tell female coworkers "I want to put my teeth in your ass."

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"The workplace is described in order to illuminate how the product developed and what the Facebook product implicitly values in its architecture: ranking content, popularity over particularity, an algorithmic approach to our social lives," Losse continued as a direct response to Willner over email. In other words, these guys who told Losse to her face she was hot, the ones who propositioned women for threesomes, and the same boys who commissioned office graffiti art featuring a busty woman, also were the ones responsible for engineering our digital social lives. Those ideals informed the product we spend 700 minutes a month using. "It's a question of how a product ended up looking," Losse continues. "You get a product that involves a lot of ranking, that's how it understands interactions."

The Awl's Mike Barthel makes this same point in his discussion of the endangeared proto-social network, The WELL:

The internet is just a tool, and it is up to us what we do with it. But tools are not neutral ... The values of a tool are not only determined by the people using it. They are also embedded in the tool's design, and shape the way it is used. In the case of the internet, this control is embedded in its basic functions (TCP/IP, domain names) as well as later developments in web and app design. The development of the internet and of web culture, in other words, partially determines how it is used.

In The WELL's case, the hippie values led to the Internet as we know it today: an open forum that tracks us across sites, demanding our privacy in the name of open access. In Facebook's case, the values of its programmers, including but not limited to sexism, crafted an Internet social scene obsessed with ranking and judging people based on the way they look. According to stats presented by The Social Skinny, Every sixty seconds 136,000 photos are uploaded. And as Social Fresh notes, as of a little over a year ago, users had the highest engagement rate with photos, then videos. The sexism at Facebook, or at the very least, the constant objectification and ranking of coworkers, helped shape our behaviors on the network. These men ranked and ogled offline, so we rank and ogle online.

As for the question of sexism at Facebook, from Losse's anecdotes, sexist moments we would not appreciate during our workday certainly happened. Of course, the company now has C.O.O. Sheryl Sandberg (pictured), who helped clean up some of that early inappropriate behavior. Unlike Willner, however, we don't think ignorance or "misunderstanding," make these isolated incidents any less sexist or more tolerable. As for Losse's perspective, she told The Atlantic Wire she doesn't like to answer the sexism charge in a binary fashion. "That isn't the question I'm asking," she said. Rather, Losse has bigger issues -- for men and women -- on her mind, namely, "What does it feel like to live in the world as we live in it now, where technology essentially rules and defines so many of our social interactions, and how did this state of affairs develop so quickly?"

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.