Two things struck me there. The first was the sheer level of construction at the company’s sprawling campus, where new buildings are going up as fast as Facebook’s contractors can construct them, such is company’s rate of growth.
Its use extends beyond just Facebook, but the phrase was employed with such frequency on my trip to the company’s Menlo Park base that it stuck with me. At the time, I dismissed it as a sign that its employees were more drilled than most.
But the recent Cambridge Analytica crisis put the whole thing in a different light. Last week, an internal memo written two years ago by one of Facebook’s top executives was leaked to the website Buzzfeed.
Titled “The Ugly”, its central point was that Facebook’s breakneck growth and the social network’s work of connecting people online, was a good thing in itself, regardless of any ugly consequences, such as an increase in online abuse or terrorists using the network to communicate.]
The executive in question, Andrew Bosworth, wrote that “all the work we do in growth is justified,” and ended on the note: “That’s what we do. We connect people.” Bosworth rowed back on the memo after it was leaked, saying he did not agree with it at the time and that it was written to provoke debate, not express an opinion.
Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, also weighed in to say he personally disagreed with it. Nonetheless, for Facebook’s critics it appeared to crystallise the “growth at all costs” mentality the firm has often employed, regardless of the downsides.
The episode reminded me of all the missionaries I met at Facebook because “connecting people” – the subject of that controversial memo that appeared to expose the dark side of Facebook – is precisely what its mantra has been. Until recently, Facebook defined its mission as “making the world more open and connected”.
Last year, amid growing suggestions this may not necessarily be a good thing, Zuckerberg changed it to the vague “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”. It’s not clear this amounts to a different thing, not that it matters:
Facebook’s employees have for so long been told to pursue the mission that it is baked into the DNA. Letting people find each other online and share things is indeed the main reason the company exists and its structure and culture have been built around it.
Tech companies typically have a core competency: Apple’s is making gadgets, Google’s is information. Facebook’s is communication.
The difference with Facebook is that while it clearly has its benefits, there has been plenty of evidence recently that bringing the world closer is not always a good thing. It allowed Russian propaganda to impose itself on elections thousands of miles away.
And, as the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal has shown, it created a centralised hub of personal information, with few protections to stop malicious actors accessing it.
The latest controversy has pushed Mark Zuckerberg into an apology tour of sorts. Last week he and Facebook’s second in command Sheryl Sandberg admitted that it had been slow to spot the downsides of limitless connectivity, and just as slow to react.
Last Wednesday, Facebook dramatically limited the data that could be collected from users’ profiles. On Friday night it announced that political adverts and pages with large followings would need to have their identity verified.
Zuckerberg’s promise to “fix Facebook”, which he made at the start of the year, suggests that his priority now is not so much more connection as the opposite: he wants to put up the barriers that will stop the wrong types of communication.
If history is any guide, there is little evidence that Zuckerberg has much chance of succeeding.
While the current crisis around Facebook is unprecedented, it is far from the first: it has had no shortage of scraps over user privacy and inappropriate material in the last few years.
Facebook has had the opportunity to address them head on, but has typically reacted with tinkering: rather than initiate an overhaul to prevent further abuse, it has papered over the existing cracks, addresses crises in a way that prevents repeat abuses, but not future ones.
The scandals keep coming, not because the way to fix Facebook – putting up walls that would limit the worst aspects of human behaviour – is anathema to what its has always done.
As long as the company continued to prioritise connections – which it has done since day one – there will be ways to abuse them. Fixing Facebook would mean changing its identity, and Zuckerberg seems unwilling to do that.