When Mark Zuckerberg isn’t responding to the latest scandal engulfing his company, he’s actually trying to fix Facebook: He’s trying to redirect its obsession with growth—in users and in the time they spend on Facebook—to focus on whether those users have good experiences on the platform. The problem is that he’d prefer the world not know exactly how obsessed with these metrics his company was. And the world is not cooperating.
Facebook’s growth obsession dates back roughly a decade, to the creation of a team of hundreds of people to scientifically study and manage growth. Over time, growth targets played a big role in how much employees got paid.
The latest graphic evidence of how deeply this philosophy was embedded in Facebook’s DNA arrived late Thursday as BuzzFeed got its hands on a 2016 memo from Facebook VP Andrew Bosworth written a day after the shooting death of a Chicago man was captured on Facebook Live. Bosworth titled it “The Ugly,” and he was not exaggerating.
“We talk about the good and the bad of our work often. I want to talk about the ugly,” he begins. “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. That isn’t something we are doing for ourselves. Or for our stock price (ha!). It is literally just what we do. We connect people. Period.
“That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified,” he said. “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. 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.”
On Thursday Bosworth issued a statement on Twitter saying that he doesn’t believe those comments today. He said that he didn’t even believe them when he wrote the memo, but sent it to be provocative. “Having a debate around topics like these is a critical part of our process. To do that effectively we have to be able to consider even bad ideas.” When he was asked on Twitter why he would ever send a memo he didn’t agree with, he responded, “This was one of the most unpopular things I’ve ever written internally, and the ensuing debate helped shape our tools for the better.”
The ensuing criticism prompted Zuckerberg to issue a statement saying “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.”
Yet anyone who knows people at Facebook understands that for years many employees and executives did largely think this way. Zuckerberg and Facebook have always worn their ambition on their sleeves. About a decade ago, when few had heard of the company, he and his troops would end their weekly Friday all hands meetings with a one word exhortation: “Domination.”
And while Zuckerberg stopped using the word as Facebook grew, that determination showed itself in dozens of other ways. For years, Facebook’s default settings encouraged users, sometimes unknowingly, to share more information with others than they might have preferred. Zuckerberg opened Facebook to application developers and gave them access to enormous amounts of user data until he closed most of those access points in 2015. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, he said Facebook would close even more of them.
Most importantly, he pushed Facebook to start thinking about user growth not just as something that came from good marketing but as something that could be scientifically studied and controlled, like a wall of dials in an engine room.
About 10 years ago Facebook created a team of engineers, product managers and quants whose sole job was to identify all the things that convinced users to spend time on Facebook and tell their friends about it. Facebook was proud of this, and soon its systematic approach to growth was copied throughout Silicon Valley. It helped popularize the term “growth hacking” to describe steps marketers could take to supercharge their campaigns to reach more users.
As user growth at Facebook exploded first past 1 billion users and then past 2 billion users, the Growth Team, as it was called, grew to be hundreds strong. It became widely known as one of the most powerful units inside the company.
“They’re like a SWAT team inside the company,” said one former executive last December. “They can descend on any product team that might not be generating enough user engagement, and say ‘Let’s do this and that to get your numbers higher.’ Everyone knows that you don’t resist them” because their leaders—originally Naomi Gleit and now Javier Olivan—are close to Zuckerberg. There was also little incentive to resist: Until recently, metrics such as user growth and time spent on the network were critical determinants of many employees’ evaluations and bonuses.
Anyone in business will tell you that changing a company’s mission is one of the hardest things a leader, especially a founder, can do. You have to jettison the tested and familiar approaches that got you there and employ new untested ones. Zuckerberg is now learning exactly why it is so difficult.
Facing the Past
This article was syndicated from wired.com