Why I Went To Facebook
and why I wouldn't do that nowFebruary 12, 2021
While I was at Facebook, and even more since I left, many people have expressed some curiosity about why I ever worked at such an evil company. Few have asked directly. More often, they kind of dance around the edges of it. How could I, supposedly a decent person in their eyes, have made such a seemingly awful choice? Well, there are basically three parts to the answer.
The first two parts have to do with Facebook's long- and short-term history, and how people remember them. A funny quirk of how humans work is that, once we think we know something, we tend to think we always knew it. After all, it's obvious now and nobody thinks they're a fool, so not having known before would present a contradiction. We resolve that contradiction by letting ourselves believe that "at some level" (i.e. subconsciously) we suspected, then that we knew, then that we knew consciously. Similarly, when something seems obvious we convince ourselves that others know too. It's obvious that Facebook is bad, so everyone must have known all along, right? Bollocks. It would never have gotten so big if that were true. Many critics today used to think Facebook was harmless fun at one time, perhaps even socially positive, but they've replaced those beliefs - even in their own memories - with darker ones. It takes a conscious effort and a certain amount of mental discipline to truly cast one's mind back to a previous state of knowledge, and frankly most people aren't capable of it.
Personally, my own associations of Facebook were positive. Through Facebook I had reconnected with my father and his family after decades of separation. I had reconnected with long-lost friends as far back as my Michigan days (which ended in 1989), and stayed in touch with many more recent friends or colleagues. I had enjoyed many beautiful pictures, jokes, and games. I had even found products I liked. "Making the world more open and connected" seemed pretty real and positive. Now we're more aware of its dark side, but then my perceptions were different and so were most other people's. That's the long-term part of the answer.
For the short-term part of the answer, let's look at what the "state of Facebook" was when I joined in 2017.
- The Cambridge Analytica situation didn't hit the news until 2018.
- Other stories about Facebook's role in things like the plight of the Rohingya likewise weren't known (or at least not widely known) until 2018.
- Trump had only been president for a couple of months. Like everyone else I knew he was a loudmouth faker and a bit of a racist, but it took a couple more years for the true depth of his (and his followers') depravity to become evident.
- Relatedly, our collective awareness of coordinated disinformation campaigns, either domestic or foreign, was still pretty dim at that time.
- Facebook was still doing good things like extending internet access to those who lacked it, all the way out to semi-crazy projects like Aquila.
Facebook then looked much better than Facebook now. With perfect 20/20 hindsight we can see that many of the underlying facts were less positive, but I don't think it's at all reasonable to expect anyone in 2017 to have had a 2021 understanding of those issues.
The third part of the reason is that I'm not that good of a person. I saw technical work that would be interesting and challenging. I'd be able to take a project I'd already worked on for several years in new directions that I believed in more than Red Hat seemed to. It would be an antidote to my becoming one of those hated "architect astronauts" by forcing me to deal with operational issues directly. And the people I'd work with were really cool. My impression, then and now, is that most people at Facebook are good people - at least as good as those I knew at Red Hat and better than most of those I knew at EMC. The comparison to Red Hat might shock or offend people, because they have a reputation of being an open-source hippie heaven, but it's really not so. I wanted to leave because the politics were just as nasty as anywhere else (including even EMC) and had practically choked my own project to death. Most people there work for money and ego, just like anywhere else. They'd just as happily work at Oracle or Exxon or ICE, no matter how much they deny it. But I digress.
I suspected then, and firmly believe now, that there is a cadre of Not So Good people at Facebook. Certainly the top-level execs and investors. Many more in business, policy, and strategy positions. Mark Zuckerberg himself is a particularly interesting case. The first few times I saw him in internal Q&A sessions, or his posts to internal groups, I came away pretty impressed. He didn't seem robotic like the meme goes. He seemed quite sincere and authentic and well meaning. Really. However, over time, I realized that the things he (and other execs like Sandberg) said never translated into action and probably never would. Like many people, including me, they adapted to audience and circumstance. When they were in front of a room full of employees they might well have believed what they were saying. Then they got back to their offices, in front of different people and different incentives, and actually do something quite different.
I also think Mark Zuckerberg takes it one step further. Like Donald Trump, like Bill Clinton before him, like many politicians and con men and others throughout history, he has an instinct for getting people to trust him. We all have our own (mostly unconscious) ways of deciding whether to trust people. The way Mark speaks, the phrases he uses, his tone of voice, his body language, all evade those defenses. It's like the way a parasite or virus can evade some of our bodies' physical defenses. I say that not because the comparison is unflattering - though I'm sure others relish that aspect - but because I think it's actually accurate. He has really good camouflage. I don't actually think he's all that bad of a person, but this combination of persuasive ability plus "please whoever's in front of you" plus basic ambition leads to some bad outcomes.
But - going back to me not being a good person - that actually didn't affect my decision that much. That was still "those people over there" and not the people I'd be working with myself deep inside Facebook's infrastructure (away from all the feed prioritization and ads and fertile breeding grounds for privacy leaks). I was aware of it but, given what I knew at the time about the outcomes it had produced, it didn't seem like enough to outweigh the positives I've mentioned. Oh, and the money? Pffft. I mean yes, I won't deny that I was pretty excited when I got the offer. I definitely enjoyed that part while I was there, and even more now that it's part of how I can be sitting here writing this instead of working. Rationally it should have been a factor, but ... it just wasn't. They could have offered only a little more than I was making at Red Hat - hey, let's be real, there had to be some improvement - and I probably would have gone anyway. If they had dangled the same offer before me a year earlier, before I was quite so disenchanted with Red Hat and my role within it, I probably would have declined. Maybe nobody believes me because it would have made more of a difference to 99.999% of people including themselves, but none of you are me. I would have no qualms about admitting it was a major factor. It just wasn't.
OK, let's start wrapping up. I had some positive long-term associations with Facebook, I didn't yet know about many of the negatives that would become known over the next couple of years (like everyone else), and I'm selfish enough that I cared more about the technical work and the people who would be around me than about the company itself anyway. Does that make me a bad person? Does that make me a fool? Before you answer that, consider that we're talking about the Facebook of 2017 not 2021 and you almost certainly didn't know more about it than I did.
Finally: would I join Facebook today? Let's include "what everyone knows" about Facebook now, but not my own changed circumstances since then. What I now believe about the company's leadership, but not what I also know about the technology I'd be working on and other internal details of working there. Bit of a challenge TBH. I'd probably hesitate. Ask more probing questions. Make more of an effort to seek out other alternatives. That highly hypothetical me might still go there, but I'd put the odds at less than 50%. Maybe it would be close for a project I actually felt passionate about; more likely I'd find a project at least as exciting somewhere else but without the dark cloud hanging over it. Note that I'm saying this with no rancor toward the many truly good people I know who are still there. My intent is not to criticize, or to suggest that they should leave, or even to hint that such concerns were a major factor in my own departure. The simple fact is that the Facebook of 2021 is not as appealing as the Facebook of 2017 was. I still think it was the right or at least reasonable decision at the time even if it wouldn't be today, and I don't have all that much patience for rewriting history to make it seem otherwise.