It’s the business model, folks. If we’re going to “fix” anything, we have to start there.
“We weren’t expecting any of this when we created Twitter over 12 years ago, and we acknowledge the real world negative consequences of what happened and we take the full responsibility to fix it.”
That’s the most important line from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s testimony yesterday – and in many ways it’s also the most frustrating. But I agree with Ben Thompson, who this morning points out (sub required) that Dorsey’s philosophy on how to “fix it” was strikingly different from that of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (or Google, which failed to send a C-level executive to the hearings). To quote Dorsey (emphasis mine): “Today we’re committing to the people and this committee to do that work and do it openly. We’re here to contribute to a healthy public square, not compete to have the only one. We know that’s the only way our business thrives and helps us all defend against these new threats.”
Ben points out that during yesterday’s hearings, Dorsey was willing to tie the problems of public discourse on Twitter directly to the company’s core business model, that of advertising. Sandberg? She ducked the issue and failed to make the link.
You may recall my piece back in January, Facebook Can’t Be Fixed. In it I argue that the only way to address Facebook’s failings as a public square would be to totally rethink its core advertising model, a golden goose which has driven the company’s stock on an six-year march to the stratosphere. From the post:
“[Facebook’s ad model is] the honeypot which drives the economics of spambots and fake news, it’s the at-scale algorithmic enabler which attracts information warriors from competing nation states, and it’s the reason the platform has become a dopamine-driven engagement trap where time is often not well spent.
To put it in Clintonese: It’s the advertising model, stupid.
We love to think our corporate heroes are somehow super human, capable of understanding what’s otherwise incomprehensible to mere mortals like the rest of us. But Facebook is simply too large an ecosystem for one person to fix.”
That one person, of course, is Mark Zuckerberg, but what I really meant was one company – Facebook. It’s heartening to see Sandberg acknowledge, as she did in her written testimony, the scope and the import of the challenges Facebook presents to our democracy (and to civil society around the world). But regardless of sops to “working closely with law enforcement and industry peers” and “everyone working together to stay ahead,” it’s clear Facebook’s approach to “fixing” itself remains one of going it alone. A robust, multi-stakeholder approach would quickly identify Facebook’s core business model as a major contributor to the problem, and that’s an existential threat.
Sandberg’s most chilling statement came at the end of of her prepared remarks, in which she defined Facebook as engaged in an “arms race” against actors who co-opt the company’s platforms. Facebook is ready, Sandberg implied, to accept the challenge of lead arms producer in this race: “We are determined to meet this challenge,” she concludes.
Well I’m sorry, I don’t want one private company in charge of protecting civil society. I prefer a more accountable social structure, thanks very much.
I’ve heard this language of “arms races” before, in far less consequential framework: Advertising fraud, in particular on Google’s search platforms. To combat this fraud, Google locked arms with a robust network of independent companies, researchers, and industry associations, eventually developing a solution that tamed the issue (it’s never going to go away entirely). That approach – an open and transparent process, subject to public checks and balances – is what is desperately needed now, and what Dorsey endorsed in his testimony. He’s right to do so. Unlike Google’s ad fraud issues of a decade ago, Facebook and Twitter’s problems extend to life or death, on-the-ground consequences – the rise of a dictator in the Philippines, genocide in Myanmar, hate crimes in Sri Lanka, and the loss of public trust (and possibly an entire presidential election) here in the United States. The list is terrifying, and it’s growing every week.
These are not problems one company, or even a heterogenous blue ribbon committee, can or should “fix.” Facebook does not bear full responsibility for these problems – anymore than Trump is fully responsible for the economic, social, and cultural shifts which swept him into office last year. But just as Trump has become the face of what’s broken in American discourse today, Facebook – and tech companies more broadly – have become the face of what’s broken in capitalism. Despite its optimistic, purpose driven, and ultimately naive founding principles, the technology industry has unleashed a mutated version of steroidal capitalism upon the world, failing along the way to first consider the potential damage its business models might wreak.
In an OpEd introducing the ideas in his new book “Farsighted”, author Steven Johnson details how good decisions are made, paying particular attention to how important it is to have diverse voices at the table capable of imagining many different potential scenarios for how a decision might play out. “Homogeneous groups — whether they are united by ethnic background, gender or some other commonality like politics — tend to come to decisions too quickly,” Johnson writes. “They settle early on a most-likely scenario and don’t question their assumptions, since everyone at the table seems to agree with the broad outline of the interpretation.”
Sounds like the entire tech industry over the past decade, no?
Johnson goes on to quote the economist and Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling: “One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.”
It’s clear that the consequences of Facebook’s platforms never occurred to Zuckerberg, Sandberg, Dorsey, or other leaders in the tech industry. But now that the damage is clear, they must be brave enough to consider new approaches.
To my mind, that will require objective study of tech’s business models, and an open mind toward changing them. It seems Jack Dorsey has realized that. Sheryl Sandberg and her colleagues at Facebook? Not so much.