The Silence of the Never Facebookers

Even fed-up tech workers are paralyzed by Silicon Valley’s culture.

The Atlantic

Updated at 1:14 p.m. ET on June 10, 2020.

To commemorate the company’s initial public offering in 2011, LinkedIn gave some of its employees a lucite cube emblazoned with the stock ticker, LNKD, on one side and “Next Play” on the reverse. That phrase encapsulates the business philosophy of Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn’s CEO at the time.

Weiner has said he borrowed “next play” from the Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who incants the phrase to push his players past the distraction of their last success. Once Weiner adapted it as a business koan, he used next play obsessively: to announce Microsoft’s $26 billion acquisition of LinkedIn, to describe his resignation from the CEO role, to name his new venture-capital firm. During LinkedIn job interviews, candidates were commonly asked to name the job they wanted to have after the one they were applying for—scouting out their next, next play, even before the next one became current.

Nextplayism is Silicon Valley’s whole culture: What are you gonna do next? “I hear people ask it of each other two or three times a week,” Ian McCarthy, a vice president of product at Yahoo, told me. Progress is based not on the virtues of results, but on reaching a milestone. What comes before is relevant only insofar as it brings about what will have followed.

This ethos helps explain some of the context around recent worker unrest at Facebook, which erupted last week after the company refused to moderate President Donald Trump’s posts implying that protesters could be shot. Mark Zuckerberg’s inaction ignited a revolt by Facebook staff: Some employees staged a virtual walkout, others criticized the CEO in a staff meeting, and at least one engineer resigned in protest.

The social-media giant was once one of the most desirable gigs in the industry, but that might be changing. A quiet set of workers that McCarthy, who mentors many younger tech professionals, called “Never Facebookers” has emerged, people who tell him that they wouldn’t work for the company under any circumstances. For those already working at the company, which didn’t respond to a request for comment, another option is to abandon ship. But that move falls prey to the logical trap of the next play: that what follows is better than what came before, by virtue of its succession. (Weiner objects to my interpretation, saying that for him, a next play always requires “reflection, not just moving on.”)

The whole industry is implicated in this problem, including Google, Reddit, Uber, and others. Tech workers most able to protest their employers with resignation are those who have the least to lose—the ones who will find their next play easily, reinvesting conscientious objection in yet another tech company. The industry says it wants to improve the world, but its workers are so comfortable, and so entrenched, that they have a hard time finding a way out that doesn’t lead them right back in again.

It’s easier for tech workers to talk about taking a stand than to do so. For one, big technology companies such as Facebook and Google are viciously competitive about acquiring talent. They hire or poach the best people, sometimes just to prevent a competitor from having access to them instead. Some workers don’t want to rock the boat for fear they might get blacklisted, McCarthy said. And ironically, the brokenness at companies such as Facebook and Uber can also make their jobs enticing. Disruption is appealing, and the promise to move fast and break things (even priceless and irrecoverable ones, such as democracy) can be a recruiting tool.

Others already in a company’s employ may see an opportunity to fix some of its ills. One product manager at a large tech firm, who also advises many early-career professionals, spoke with me on the condition of anonymity because she fears reprisal from within the industry. She told me about her “activist” friends who refuse to leave jobs at Facebook, even if they disagree with the company’s practices. “They came to change the world,” she said, “and stayed to work within the system on issues they cared about.” The same drive that makes these workers care about the consequences of Facebook’s impact on democracy also makes them want to stick it out in an effort to improve the service.

Even so, Facebook seems to have crossed the line of tolerable abhorrence for some tech workers. Inside the business, nextplayism may offer the best, and maybe the only, way for them to show their distaste. “The vast majority of people I know at the director-and-up level, when they are leaving a company and looking for a new gig, they’re Never Facebookers,” McCarthy, who is also an occasional collaborator of mine, said, referring to senior-level roles. “They’re offended if you even offer to do introductions to someone at Facebook.”

But that is a privileged attitude. Much of the magical operation of online services is driven by rote laborers, such as moderators, AI-training wranglers, and gig workers. They aren’t counted as members of the industry, except perhaps as its casualties. Among skilled, white-collar tech workers, nearly three-quarters were not born in the U.S., according to some reports. For those on work visas, work choices are determined almost entirely by their immigration status: According to the tech workers I spoke with, they tend to choose larger companies for stability, hoping to turn work sponsorships into green cards. Even if some workers disapprove of what their company is doing, quitting a job can mean losing their immigration status and running the risk of getting deported. The product manager at the large tech firm also speculated that immigrant engineers might not understand or care about uniquely domestic social issues, such as the specific history of antiblack racism.

Even among American citizens, some tech workers are in the business simply to make money, gain power, and solve problems—even if they create just as many new ones in the process. These “equity engineers,” as I’ll call them by one of their goals, cashing out, might have studied computer science in order to solve problems, or to live a good life. It would be a caricature to say that these archetypes don’t care at all for politics, but their radicalism tends to be an inward-facing one, lured by technolibertarian fetishes such as blockchain. For this group, technology is politics, and seeing the two at odds becomes incoherent.

That leaves only a small group in a clear position to speak up. Many of these folks represent the top of the workers’ food chain (though the venture partners still cast long shadows overhead). Probably white, probably engineers, and probably American-passport holders, they have plenty of other options both in and out of the Valley.

Take Timothy Aveni, the 22-year-old Facebook engineer who quit the company last week in disgust after Zuckerberg’s failure to act in response to Trump’s posts. Aveni, according to a post on his LinkedIn page, graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2019 with a 4.0 GPA in computer science (a program in which I teach), and worked for two summers as a Facebook intern before taking a full-time job at the company. He’s young, white, and American. In an email, Aveni acknowledged that he is privileged, well compensated, and burdened by few personal obligations or commitments. Leaving his job wasn’t an easy choice, but he is keenly aware that it  wasn’t as hard as it might have been for someone else.

That’s even more true for Alexis Ohanian, the Reddit co-founder who resigned from the company’s board last week because of its history as a hub for racism and conspiracy theories. Ohanian has committed future Reddit-stock gains to advancing black rights and urged the company to fill his board seat with a black member (which it did). These are noble gestures, but they are also relatively painless choices for Ohanian, who didn’t respond to a request for comment. He is married to Serena Williams, and the couple’s net worth reportedly approaches $300 million.

Ohanian doesn’t need a next play at all, and Aveni will likely, and easily, parlay a Facebook resignation on principle into one.

Others are more reticent about their distaste for the industry, even if they won’t admit it outright. Ian McCarthy introduced me to some of the younger folks he construed as Never Facebookers, but none of them responded to my invitation to talk. LinkedIn’s spokesperson wouldn’t even talk to me about the lucite cube. It’s all part of the culture: There’s real fear about retaliation in Silicon Valley, which is still a small town despite its global conquest. Nobody wants to piss off the wrong founders, or venture capitalists, or even the upwardly mobile equity engineers who might later open doors for them.

Nextplayism dies hard. All workers worry about their future, but the ambitious people drawn to tech are almost pathologically reticent about foreclosing future opportunities they don’t even know about yet. And besides, what are you doing next? tends to have only a few valid answers in the Valley: starting your own company, for example, or running a large engineering or product team, or becoming a chief something officer.

The tech workers who long for political righteousness are mired in a fundamental trap. They conflate their identity with their workplace to an extreme, partly because they’ve been enculturated to believe that technological innovation brings about social benefit rather than hindering it. If they had a less grandiose view of Silicon Valley, social and political action might take place away from work, during the off-hours. But then again, off-hours don’t exist; technology has erased boundaries between work and life for the Palo Alto set even more than it has for those of us who use their products.

Some tech workers don’t care about the social ills they design, or don’t notice them. But others, and far more than have made their voices public recently, are unhappy about the situation. The product manager said that many of her reformer friends who stuck it out at Facebook wound up disillusioned, feeling that they were just bandaging a gushing wound. Quitting the industry entirely is also difficult; once inside, many find it hard to imagine leaving again. A malaise has descended over the Valley, a mournful sorrow over the old promise to “make the world a better place” and the sad reality that has unfolded instead. Unless enough workers can overcome that silent angst, real progress won’t be possible.

For now, it will come in fits and starts at best—the odd resignation or public rejoinder remaining exceptional. The draw of Silicon Valley is still too strong, and there is as much fear of losing it as of retaining its present form, no matter how destructive it might be. Best to leave your options open, keep your head down, and ship your product. “It’s easy to say ‘I’d never work at Facebook’ now, and then flip later,” the product manager says of the Never Facebookers who, despite their hatred, fear speaking of it. After all, you never know what your next play might be.