Following the election there’s been a lot of criticism about the destructive secondary effects of Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm. This is a fair criticism, and one that’s rooted in a more general question of the value of disruption. The internet and, most recently, Facebook, have laid to waste the old media industry, moving things forward because it seemed better, people used it, and there was money to be made. Nobody could have guessed the ultimate impact it would have had on this election, and here we are learning the consequences of this disruption day by day.
The tech world is getting a lot of criticism for wanting to disrupt things without a plan and without empathy for those left behind, and I’d like to add to the discussion with a couple points that might build empathy for their side of the argument, and highlight that the problems are in the system as much as the company itself. Systemic factors make ruthless disruption inevitable.
1. In tech, it’s easy to assume that more disruption is always better
More tech = better appears to be self-evident. Medicine, democratization of information and education, and increased productivity are all examples, and indeed is almost always the case. The power-entrenched media gatekeepers of the past no longer get to determine if we for controversial events like the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. It’s easy to take as gospel that since disruption is often a good thing, it always will be a good thing, especially on a long enough timeline. I generally hold this opinion as well.
2. ‘Progress’ is inevitable, and if you don’t do it someone else will
Building a tech unicorn and continuing to scale through IPO and beyond is an insanely competitive undertaking. You’re competing against some of the smartest, most driven people in the world in a potentially crowded space where only the most brutally effective execution will win. This doesn’t leave much room to think about the implications of your technology, and even if you do, you won’t realistically have room to make concessions for the greater good if it comes at a cost of efficiency.
For example, Uber and Lyft are in tight competition to own a $100B+ pie. If Uber decided to do the ‘ethical’ thing and guarantee their drivers will make as much as they used to make as cab drivers, they would lose substantial ground to Lyft; the stronger their desire to sacrifice efficiency for ethics, the more vulnerable they are to falling behind someone else who isn’t making the same tradeoff. So it’s self-selecting: success comes to those who are most efficient given a certain set of market forces.
The entrepreneur’s mindset of ‘move fast and break things’ is applied to society itself, at an increasing rate.
Then, think of Facebook. It’s easy to say that they shouldn’t post fake news stories and shouldn’t blindly use engagement as an optimization metric, but as a public company their choices are constrained by a hard requirement to make as much money as they can. Choosing to post more politically balanced but less-clickable content is a decision that would cost them billions. Also, the prospect that Facebook would start to have a point of view in editorializing their content is extremely scary. They have an unprecedented power of influence over our society, and adding any one group’s bias to such a large machine could have terrible implications down the line. So their position is easy to understand, and I think one of the least bad approaches they could take.
At the same time, an educated and informed citizenry is a necessity in a functioning democracy, and their ability to provide us with digital crack should be offset by an imperative to help make society better. Maybe they should incorporate education, or empathy, or breadth of perspective into their metrics. I know I find these things fulfilling as well as addictive and engaging. Or, perhaps they should remove their worship of engagement and just give us more of a balanced view of our newsfeeds.
Asking Facebook to fix this is like asking a marathon runner to help an old lady cross the street in the middle of a race. If it was a helping-old-ladies-cross-the-street competition they’d be amazing at it, but when priorities aren’t aligned we can’t reasonably expect them to do the ‘right’ thing. So the only thing we can do is change the rules of the game: create a competing service that is better for its users (unlikely), increase government regulation (nearly impossible), or decide with our attention and ad clicks that want something else, and wait for them to adapt. Or, of course, change the fundamentally amoral system of making companies value profits above all else. All tough problems.
What facebook should do:
- Actually investigate what the effects of a more balanced and informative newsfeed might be, in terms of engagement and user behavior. There’s a chance this could lead to higher engagement (I believe it would in my case at least) as well, and worst case it would address concern that they aren’t doing anything about the problem.
- Add a switch to have the ‘intelligent’ or the unfiltered newsfeed, as a user prefers.
- People just stop using Facebook until the quality and breadth of content improves. I’m seeing increasing numbers of my people in my circles doing this already.
These are some tough problems, but I think there’s a lot to be said for their approach of trying to be as hands off and unbiased as possible until it’s clear they absolutely need to do something. They wield enormous power of influence over our future, and it’s best to be wary of the many outcomes that would be much worse than fake news and filter bubbles.
Taking a step back, it’s tempting to start a discussion about what might be the right way to disrupt. When rolling out autonomous trucks, maybe Uber should start with one city, experiment with rehabilitating drivers, and only move on to others when they’ve confirmed they won’t drive hundreds of thousands of people into poverty. This would be expected and reasonable in a well-functioning society, but is impossible for the reasons listed above.
The entrepreneur’s mindset of ‘move fast and break things’ is applied to society itself, at an increasing rate. This normally works out, and is awesome, but when it doesn’t work the burden of fixing should still fall on he/she who breaks it. Let’s hope the fate of Elizabeth Holmes, who arguably embodied that mindset more than anyone, doesn’t someday become the fate of our society as a whole.