Has Facebook got a friends problem?

Several of Facebook's ex-employees decided to speak out about it this year.

by Arun Kakar
Last Updated: 14 Dec 2017

‘You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies,’ reads the poster of the film The Social Network. Some of those ex-friends seem to be coming out the woodwork this year to haunt founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Sean Parker, Roger McNamee and most recently Chamath Palihapitiya, have all recently spoken out against the service.

Palihapitiya, former VP for user growth at the company, didn’t mince words when talking about his ex-employer this week, saying that Facebook was ‘ripping apart the fabric of how society works… eroding the core foundations of how people behave, by and between each other.’ He even went a step further than the accusations of Russian interference in buying ads, saying Facebook fostered an environment of no civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it's not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.’

It’s low blow - and made even more so by the fact it comes from an ex employee (a very senior one at that).

Palihapitiya mirrored similar comments from former chairman and Napster founder Sean Parker, who said that he no longer used social media. ‘I value my real-life interactions,’ Parker said. ‘I value the moment. I value presence. I value intimacy.’ Parker also alluded to the dopamine hit users get from receiving likes on the platform and said he didn’t really understand the consequences of what he was helping to create. ‘It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other,’ Parker added. ‘It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains.’

Meanwhile Roger McNamee, an early stage investor in Facebook, wrote in an USA Today op-ed comments about Facebook that were echoed later by Palihapitiya. ‘The thing that's so different about Facebook and Google is they have personal data on every adult and most young people,’ said McNamee. ‘They are going straight into the brain of 2 billion people, and we don't have evolutionary defenses for that.’

Making Facebook great again

Because this is Management - and not Psychology - Today, the question is not so much what effect social media has on our brains as what Zuckerberg’s doing about it.

In some industries, there are obvious unintended consequences that we expect them to clean up, sort out and take responsibility for. Think coal and smog/carbon dioxide.

But this case isn’t so black and white. Facebook doesn’t see its product as causing ‘pollution,’ but a genuine societal good, the ‘externalities’ of which it can remedy through research and action. Take its response to Palihapitiya’s (and by proxy McNamee’s and Parker’s) claims:

‘We take our role very seriously and we are working hard to improve. We've done a lot of work and research with outside experts and academics to understand the effects of our service on well-being, and we're using it to inform our product development. We are also making significant investments more in people, technology and processes, and - as Mark Zuckerberg said on the last earnings call — we are willing to reduce our profitability to make sure the right investments are made.’

The ‘role’ of Facebook  can be found on their homepage: to bring the world closer together through sharing, expressing and discovery. But precisely it’s how that happens that is the point of concern. The platform now wields massive power and, as Spiderman’s uncle keeps telling us, with great power must come great responsibility.  

When Facebook reached two billion users earlier this year, CPO Chris Cox said that ‘we’re getting to a size where it’s worth really taking a careful look at what are all the things that we can do to make social media the most positive force for good possible.’ The problem is that it just can’t convince people. A survey from The Verge in October found that Facebook was the least trusted of the big five tech companies (Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft) among Americans.

Facebook has to show commitment to counteracting these attitudes, which - as we have seen in the numerous cases plaguing Uber this year - show that a corrosive culture can lead to a embattled downward spiral. The key to stopping this is showing a commitment and recognition of what it got wrong and how it plans to change.

‘Because Facebook is such an agile organisation, it constantly engages users with new developments,’ says Simon Hayward, founder and CEO of talent specialists Cirrus. ‘For many users, this is what makes it addictive. Facebook has once again demonstrated agility by responding to Palihapitiya’s criticism swiftly. The company has referred to its core purpose and values and demonstrated a willingness to place purpose before profit*. Many observers will be watching to see if future developments do indeed help Facebook become a more "positive force".’

*Profit, incidentally, doesn’t seem to have been affected by any of this. Facebook’s Q3 net income was its best ever ($4.7bn against $2.6bn the year before) and Instagram tipped 800 million monthly users.

Image Credit: Alessio Jacona/ Flickr


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