Facebook’s Very Own Mr. Kurtz

Facebook has been getting knocked around the ring pretty badly for some time now. Actually, it’s easy to forget, in the midst of a steady stream of controversies, just how long this sort of thing has been going on.

The very latest trouble for Zuckerberg and company came with the leak of an internal post written by Vice President Andrew Bosworth. Bosworth’s post was published in June 2016. Shortly after the post was leaked this past Thursday, Bosworth deleted it and distanced himself from what he had then written.

You can read the whole post at Buzzfeed, where the story was broken.

The post was titled “The Ugly,” and it put forward what I can only describe as a growth-at-all-cost philosophy for the company grounded in an ideology of connection.

After acknowledging that Facebook may be used alternatively to save the life of someone on the brink of suicide or to coordinate a terrorist attack, Bosworth writes, “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.”

“That isn’t something we are doing for ourselves,” he adds. “Or for our stock price (ha!). It is literally just what we do. We connect people. Period.” It is for this reason, he goes on to explain, that Facebook’s questionable practices and its “pushing the envelope on growth” are justified.

This sentiment— “It is literally just what we do …. Period”—pronounced with such unblinking zeal and untroubled by doubt or conscience, amounts to an assertion of religious or ideological dogma. There is no rationale. There is no weighing of consequences. There is no higher purpose. Their’s not to reason why, their’s but to do and die.

In the aftermath of the leak, Bosworth published a new post in which he claimed the 2016 post “was definitely designed to provoke a response. It served effectively as a call for people across the company to get involved in the debate about how we conduct ourselves amid the ever changing mores of the online community.”

That valuable internal debate was now, in his view, effectively shut down because of the leak, and, Bosworth added, “I won’t be the one to bring it back for fear it will be misunderstood by a broader population that doesn’t have full context on who we are and how we work.”

Do note the condescending gesture: the hoi polloi, uninitiated into the company and its mission, will simply not understand.

In an earlier tweet, Bosworth claimed he did not agree with that post today and did not even agree with what it claimed when it was written; it was intended as a provocation. Which raises the question of whether what Bosworth thinks the “broader population” is incapable of comprehending is simply the idea that something might be said hyperbolically so as to generate discussion. It makes more sense, it seems to me, to take his fear of being misunderstood to refer back to the contents of the post itself, which was never merely a provocation.

For his part, Mark Zuckerberg has said the post was something “that most people at Facebook including myself disagreed with strongly.” “We recognize that connecting people isn’t enough by itself,” Zuckerberg explained. “We also need to work to bring people closer together. We changed our whole mission and company focus to reflect this last year.” Like much of what Zuckerberg utters, of course, this borders on the meaningless. Zuckerberg is skilled in talking without saying anything.

Reaction among Facebook employees appears to be somewhat mixed, but mostly defensive of the company and desirous of both more stringent hiring practices and more punitive action against leakers.

Some outside the company have also spoken in measured defense of Bosworth’s post. Reporting on the leak in The Verge, Casey Newton concluded,

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 that caused so many of Facebook’s current problems.

At The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf approvingly cites Newton’s conclusion. Making some unfortunate and facile analogies to the advent of the printing press and radio, Friedersdorf generally takes Bosworth’s post as evidence that the company is having serious internal debates about its role in society, including the possible harm it may be causing.*

Its seems that we have two options here. On the one hand, we can take Bosworth’s most recent claims about the intent of his post at face value or we can take the post itself at face value.

Bosworth’s defense is not altogether implausible. Provocation is a well-worn strategy for promoting serious thought and debate. Moreover, the post as we now encounter it has been torn from its original context and we are encountering it in a wider social context of not un-deserved hostility toward the company. In short, it would be fair to acknowledge that we are more or less primed to read the post in the least favorable light.

As I’ve already suggested, however, there appear to be good reasons to take the post itself at face value. Of course, it is impossible to say conclusively what someone was thinking or intending when they did this or that. Ordinarily, what we have to go on is a person’s character as it is revealed to us by the confluence and divergence of their words and actions over time. Or, to put it in an older, more elegant idiom, by their fruit you shall know them.

In this case, what we have to work with is the company’s own record and, based on that record, I’m more inclined to take Bosworth’s post at something close to face value. It may have been put more pointedly than it would have been by others in the company, but, based on what we do know about Facebook’s practices, the post seems to be a fair representation of at least one powerful ideological current running through the company, one that may be justly summed up as “growth at all cost for the sake of connecting people.”

There is nothing particularly shocking about the revelation that a company is pursuing a growth-at-all-costs strategy. What is more disturbing is the rationale, which transmutes the practice into an ideology. It is one thing to pursue growth-at-all-costs because you want to maximize profits; it is another to do so because you believe that you are serving some higher, benevolent purpose.

At this point I’ll note one sense in which I would be inclined to believe Bosworth’s claim that he did not believe what he himself wrote. Not in the sense that he was innocently offering up a provocation toward deeper thought, but in the sense that he himself did not really believe the business about connecting people but was happy to have his employees motivated by that belief. Frankly, I’m not sure which would be worse.

Regarding the idea that connecting people is an ultimate good for the sake of which all else is done, it is impossible to know the degree to which Bosworth or anybody else at Facebook actually believes it, but it is worth noting that it is not without precedent in the the history of communication technology.

As Carolyn Marvin has documented in When Old Technologies Were New, the telegraph and the telephone were often promoted as tools of communication that would bring about cross-cultural harmony and peace merely by connecting people together. “The more any medium triumphed over distance, time, and embodied presence,” Marvin noted, “the more exciting it was, and the more it seemed to tread the path of the future.”

“And as always,” Marvin continued, “new media were thought to hail the dawning of complete cross-cultural understanding, since contact with other cultures would reveal people like those at home. Only physical barriers between cultures were acknowledged. When these were overcome, appreciation and friendliness would reign.”

Of course, such hopes never materialized. In part, this was because those who believed as much never imagined that the world they were connecting was neither like them or eager to become like them. “Assumptions like this,” Marvin observed, “required their authors to position themselves at the moral center of the universe, and they did. They were convinced that it belonged to them on the strength of their technological achievements.”

Some things never change. The myth of connection, then as now, fails on just this point: “The capacity to reach out to the Other seemed rarely to involve any obligation to behave as a guest in the Other’s domain, to learn or appreciate the Other’s customs, to speak his language, to share his victories and disappointments, or to change as a result of any encounter with him.” The true believers in the myth of connection never seem to understand just how impoverished and superficial the ideal of connection actually is.

But this may all be beside the point for someone who has bought into the mission: “It is literally just what we do. We connect people. Period.”

Bosworth, as he comes across in this post, resembles nothing more than Facebook’s very own Mr. Kurtz, a talented, charismatic man in whom an idea, comprehensible only to the true disciple, has taken hold with morally blinding intensity.


* Even on a generous reading, I’m not sure that the Newton/Friedersdorf defense holds up. I cannot know if robust debate was the point of the post or not, but the post itself does not show anything like what Newton and Friedersdorf claim. There is no reckoning whatsoever implied in anything that Bosworth wrote. There is no invitation to consider the implications of the company’s actions. There is only an overzealous coach delivering a locker room harangue to stiffen the will of his players.

 


 

 

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