When Andy Johns started his new job working on Facebook's User Growth team in 2008, the social network had about 100 million users, fewer than 5 percent of its current total. On one of his first days, Johns had lunch with his new boss, Chamath Palihapitiya, who was known for being "aggressive and unafraid of taking risk." Johns asked Palihapitiya about what sorts of growth he was supposed to be producing. Were there certain segments or regions in particular where Facebook was looking to add users?

Palihapitiya's response, per Johns: "It's fucking land grab time, so get all the fucking land you can get."

Writing about the encounter years later, Johns remarked, "In other words, don't ask such a stupid question next time. Get the entire planet on Facebook." If he was surprised at all by his boss's tone, Johns also knew it came directly from the top of the company. Palihapitiya was close to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and the Growth team had a say in every significant product and engineering and operational decision, largely thanks to the support of Zuckerberg and his recently-hired COO, Sheryl Sandberg. Zuckerberg has said baking in growth to everything was "the most important product feature we ended up building for Facebook." 

Fast forward a decade to 2018. Land grab time is over. Palihapitiya has become a venture capitalist and Facebook critic. And a very different tone presides at 1 Hacker Way. 

In a new interview with Vox's Ezra Klein, Zuckerberg acknowledges that Facebook, in its rush to connect the planet, has caused some problems. It has become a vector for false information, hate speech, and propaganda, and a driver of political partisanship in the U.S. and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, among many other things.

"When we started, we thought about how good it would be if people could connect, if everyone had a voice," Zuckerberg says. "Frankly, we didn't spend enough time investing in, or thinking through, some of the downside uses of the tools." 

Now that the downside has become unavoidable, Facebook is working on fixes, but it will take "a few years" to make real headway, says Zuckerberg. He predicts Facebook will be seen as "massively positive" for the world in five to 10 years. "I wish I could solve all these issues in three months or six months, but I just think the reality is that solving some of these questions is just going to take a longer period of time," he says.

The good news, Zuckerberg says, is he's still the one calling the shots as much as in 2008, which means the changes on the way will be meaningful ones, not cosmetic patches to satisfy investors or the press. "One of the things that I feel really lucky we have is this company structure where, at the end of the day, it's a controlled company," he says, referring, apparently, to his majority control of Facebook's super-voting shares. "We are not at the whims of short-term shareholders. We can really design these products and decisions with what is going to be in the best interest of the community over time."

One thing that's not in the interest of "the community" as Zuckerberg defines it is tinkering with Facebook's business model of monetizing the attention and data of its users via advertising. When Klein suggests the need to optimize Facebook's product for engagement is behind many of its harmful epiphenomena, Zuckerberg reacts sharply.

I find that argument, that if you're not paying that somehow we can't care about you, to be extremely glib and not at all aligned with the truth. The reality here is that if you want to build a service that helps connect everyone in the world, then there are a lot of people who can't afford to pay. And therefore, as with a lot of media, having an advertising-supported model is the only rational model that can support building this service to reach people.

....To the contrary, I think it's important that we don't all get Stockholm syndrome and let the companies that work hard to charge you more convince you that they actually care more about you. Because that sounds ridiculous to me.

There's a nifty little piece of sleight-of-hand in this answer. Did you spot it?

When Zuckerberg talks about the importance of connecting "everyone in the world," rich and poor alike, he conflates Facebook's mission with its goals. The mission demands patience, doing "what's in the best interest of the community over time," as Zuckerberg puts it.

Goals are more urgent. When Palihapitiya was exhorting his underlings, with the CEO's blessing, to "get all the land you can fucking get," that was about the goal of establishing a dominant position in the winner-takes-all social networking category. And it was the urgency of that goal, much more than the expansiveness of Facebook's mission, that drove the decision as early as 2005 to monetize Facebook via advertising versus subscriptions or anything else that might introduce more friction into the user-signup process. It's debatable whether advertising or subscriptions would've been "in the best interest of the community over time"; it's not remotely debatable which would have yielded faster user growth.

And it's because Facebook was the fastest growing internet service in history that Zuckerberg had the leverage to raise the capital he needed on terms that allowed him to retain control of the company more or less in perpetuity, allowing him to affect the philosophical taking-the-long-view posture he does now. Being "lucky" had nothing to do with it. It was a result of the exact same decisions and priorities that generated Facebook's current problems--the ones Zuckerberg is now promising he'll eventually solve.

Taking the path of least resistance to growth is Facebook's original sin. In insisting the way Facebook is now is the way it had to be to fulfill its mission, Zuckerberg keeps himself oblivious to the nature of that sin. The idea that Facebook can become a "massively positive" force a few years from now without doing anything resembling true soul-searching is--well, you might call it extremely glib and not at all aligned with the truth.

Published on: Apr 3, 2018