We Allowed This to Happen. We’re Sorry. We Need Your Help.


What Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg should say next.

Iconic companies can fail (Wired cover at left, 1997, while I was managing editor, and this month at right). And iconic companies can recover. It all depends on leadership.

As I write this, I am certain of one thing: A tense and cortisol-fueled war room has convened inside Facebook headquarters, with communications, policy, and operational executives madly preparing a script soon to be read by the company’s beleaguered CEO. At some point during the scrum, some of the execs had to leave to host a company-wide all hands, but to those in the room, that was a distraction. The all hands had to happen because the natives were restless (more on that in my next piece). But at present, Facebook is in chaos, and the leadership team has no idea what the company response should truly be. So there was no way the two faces of the company — Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg — were going to be at the all hands meeting. Not a chance.

By the time I’ve finished writing this column, and certainly by the morning, we’ll finally hear from Zuckerberg on the “category five hurricane” that has hit the company over the weekend. But given the national news has already led with the story, I doubt it. More likely it’ll happen Wednesday. If it doesn’t, well, that’s another column.

This is a hurricane largely of the company’s own making. The culture inside Facebook isn’t built to admit this fact, but if one thing is certain from the Cambridge Analytica story, it is this: It’s time for something fundamental to change inside One Hacker Way. Facebook is truly broken. Zuck must now make good on his promise to fix it. Platitudes, protestations and promises won’t do. A plan of action must be delivered. And those actions are being urgently debated inside that war room right now.

So what might Zuck say to calm the waters? Start with this: Admit fault. This is perhaps the hardest thing for the young company to do, but it’s imperative. The company not only created the platform and potential for Cambridge to thrive, but also allowed Russian hacking of a US presidential election. And those are simply two extraordinary examples of countless other potential bad actions enabled by a platform unaware, intentionally or not, of its own power. So step one, admit your role in all of this.

Step two, apologize. This seems pretty obvious, but again, it goes against the God complex the Valley has created around its most famous and fabulously wealthy founders. You screwed up, people got hurt, and the truth is, more will likely be hurt before it’s all said and done. So apologize for those facts, and do it with integrity. Mean it.

Third, and again, utterly counter to traditional Valley hero narratives, ask for outside help. Welcome it. Facebook should view outside help as necessary to restore the trust of all its customers — not just those of us obsessed with sharing selfies and birthday wishes, but also advertisers and regulators. Beyond “cooperating” with any and all government requests, Facebook would do well to admit it simply doesn’t have the answers to the problems it has created, and ask its community — users, advertisers, partners, regulators, colleagues in industry — to rally around the larger issues driven by this narrative. Then lead the conversation, in earnest, around what solutions might be.

That leads me to the fourth action I’d love to hear from Zuckerberg when he speaks in the morning (and again, if he doesn’t, well, that’s another column). And that’s to own the larger narrative. The truth is simply this: Facebook’s core business model, based as it is on total control of an individual’s data without true agency for that samesaid individual, is wrong. The larger narrative requires that Facebook pivot, not to video (this made me laugh out loud), but to a new approach to data ownership, where the onus, and the value, of data ownership is laid at the feet of the consumer. Facebook’s role in such a system is enabler, not gatekeeper. Value adder, not dictator. That’s a massive shift, one that is worth a very long piece, which I’ll write next. But for now, I’ll sign off, and wish those deeply stressed executives in Facebook’s war room much needed introspection, humility, and courage. They’ll need all of that and more in the coming days.

Update: This morning (Weds March 21) Facebook announced Mark would speak soon, he posted a response early this afternoon, and will be interviewed on CNN this evening at 9 ET. My first read on the response is that it’s earnest, but not close to the mea culpa I suggested above.


Leave a Reply