The Truth About Facebook’s Fake Quest to Connect the World

For its fearsome size and confident leadership, Facebook seems strangely precarious. Maybe it’s my feeling that something that can grow so big so fast might disappear swiftly, too. Or the sense that the world is revving up to take on Facebook. A hearing last week by a grand committee representing nine governments was brimming with anger, as politicians lashed out at an apologetic Facebook underling unlucky enough to be sitting next to an empty chair behind a Mark Zuckerberg placard. One Canadian member of Parliament spoke for the room when he concluded that, “While we were playing on our phones and apps, our democratic institutions seem to have been upended by frat-boy billionaires from California.”

All solutions are on the table: fines, regulations, breaking up the company. And as serious as these inquiries may be, the real problem for Facebook is internal, not external. The mythology of Facebook as a well-meaning company doing good by connecting the world didn’t only pacify an unsuspecting public for a decade, it inspired a fiercely loyal workforce. How does a company bounce back after its deepest myths have been smashed?

More than other tech companies, Facebook has insisted that its commercial success benefits the world. There are examples of the wealth from a tech business being used by its founder to support a grand project like space exploration, as Tesla’s Elon Musk or Amazon’s Jeff Bezos do. Alphabet harnesses the money from the Google search engine to support expensive, speculative “moon shot” engineering projects with the potential to change the world. Facebook’s point is more direct: The business goals of Facebook are simply good for the world.

“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,” Andrew Bosworth, an outspoken Facebook executive, explained in a 2016 memo circulated within the company that only leaked out this year.

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“That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified,” the memo continued. “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.” Once the memo was published by BuzzFeed News, Bosworth backtracked and declared that his forceful words were merely meant to provoke disagreement and thus help the company come up with reasonable limits to rapid growth. Um, OK.

From the start, the case for connecting the world wasn’t based on morality, but survival. Peter Thiel was an early mentor and adviser to Facebook, and his central message, Zuckerberg recalled in a 2013 talk at Y Combinator’s Startup School, was to respect the network effect. Thiel had learned as a founder of PayPal that the best way to lure new users was to have the most users: That is, you need to be here because everyone else is.

At some point, however, Facebook began projecting this business strategy as a mythical question. I remember trying to grasp what Zuckerberg meant when he said that he believed that a social network added to your “social capacity.” He had elaborated on the idea in a Startup School talk the previous year. “There’s this famous Dunbar number,” he explained. “Humans have the capacity to maintain empathetic relationships with about 150 people, communities of about 150 people. I think Facebook extends that.” Facebook, he believed, would make us more empathetic. That’s quite a claim.

A belief in the inherent goodness of growth looks like the kind of thing you tell yourself and others as you devise stratagems to keep adding users to Facebook. This brings us to Thiel’s other big startup idea, which he outlined in his book Zero to One: “The best startups,” he wrote, “might be considered slightly less extreme kinds of cults.”

Indeed, with a revered leader and a mythic mission, Facebook followed Thiel’s path. Barely two years ago, the tech press was in awe of Facebook and its devoted workforce, what Inc. magazine called “Mark Zuckerberg’s Secret to Extremely Loyal Employees.” The crucial evidence of this loyal bond was a series of Friday meetings, in which Zuckerberg revealed corporate strategy and personal feelings, without worrying that an employee would leak to the press. As Recode reported last year, the strongest deterrent was shame. “People would be pissed if someone else leaked something,” one former employee told Recode. “You don’t betray the family.”

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