Lacking an honest mission, Facebook is heading down a perilous path. Like other tech giants, its rapid success and its hubris have led to a stunning lack of self-awareness.
(Sept. 13, 2017) Much is written about mission statements. We read them. We study them. We teach them. But rarely do we witness such a public lesson in mission-failure than what we saw recently at Facebook.
You can be forgiven if you missed the announcement a while back, coming as it did at the same time as the very public demise of Uber’s Travis Kalanick, who was pushed out just the day before Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s statement. (Even a report on CNBC failed a couple weeks later to notice it.
But that’s a shame. Because Zuckerberg’s announcement was a fundamentally more intriguing and telling announcement from Silicon Valley than the awful shenanigans of Kalanick.
The fact is that too many of these new companies that spring up and prosper out here don’t appear to know what they are or why they exist. And though flawed and shortsighted (we’ll get to that in a moment), Facebook’s continued attempt at figuring out where it is going by denying what it has become continues to provide a most edifying lesson for the vaunted entrepreneurial class.
Silicon Valley is filled with companies superimposing a business model on top of a new technology and defining its creation via an idealistic mission. But the common “democratize” or “disrupt” confection is not a goal in itself. It is a means to an end — an idealized (as well as monetized) end — usually left for later.
Like Uber (though it’s at a different stage of maturity), Facebook has apparently overrun its headlights. Its early mission achieved, it finds itself in a place it apparently never saw coming.
“Unless a leader knows where he is going, any road will take him there,” Harvard Professor Theodore Levitt famously cautioned nearly 60 years ago.
And therein lies the danger, which for Facebook and many others, is twofold and real: not only does the lack of an honest mission leave your future direction unclear, it also opens the door for others to define you no matter what you might argue. In either case, it’s not a path you want to travel.
POWER TO THE PEOPLE
“Our mission is to make the world more open and connected.” This was Facebook’s well-known mission since at least 2012 when it had 900 million average monthly users and first sold stock to the public.
Now, with 2 billion folks a month perusing the site, and with government officials in various countries breathing down its neck, the company is being forced to grow up in a way that is not too dissimilar than any nouveau riche when they bemoan the fact that, now that they’re rich, why aren’t they happy?
“We’re getting to a size where it’s worth really taking a careful look at what are all the things that we can do to make social media the most positive force for good possible,” Facebook Chief Product Officer Chris Cox told TechCrunch in late June.
I’m not sure how 900 million users were not sufficient to start considering being a force for good, but better late than never. You would think a company with a market capitalization of well over $400 billion would be thinking ahead a bit more. Given its new mission statement, however, apparently not.
Indeed, it wasn’t until soon after last year’s presidential election, when the company found itself under fire for its “open and connected” dissemination of “fake” news, that, according to The New York Times, Facebook executives participated in an online conversation that “showed that the social network was internally questioning what its responsibilities might be.”
That was then followed by Zuckerberg’s extensive ruminations on the company, the world, and all that’s in-between, in his letter to the planet in February of this year. “Our next focus,” he wrote, “will be developing the social infrastructure for community — for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all.”
So here we have it — the company’s new mission:
“To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”
FIRST, DO GOODER FOR THE WORLD
Facebook began with the simplest of intentions. The company was founded upon an idea that people are interested in what their friends are doing. That approach depended on a basic self-selection of individuals that was left open to Facebook users. Create a personal page, let people knock on your door, and decide whom you let in. What could be wrong with that? What could be more powerful in giving “people the power to build community?”
But the company quickly became more. Although Facebook remains fundamentally a platform for people to communicate with one another, its dominance and its marketplace expansions have placed it in a different sphere. And (just like in real life) its success has propelled it headlong into a reality at odds with its ideality.
The original mission of Facebook firmly set the stage for this unavoidable conflict. That is, that an “open and connected” world was necessarily a good thing. Probably it is. But it is no more an axiomatic positive than is a mission that implies a “closed and restricted” world is good. Arguments, based on presuppositions about society and human relations, could be made on either side.
Indeed, that is precisely what Facebook discovered. A platform that allows the world to be completely “open and connected” — with no exceptions — is not necessarily an unmitigated good. So, exceptions and restrictions were needed.
Any person or company must be on guard against propagating evil dealings, hate speech, or incitement to violence, especially outside the US. And it goes without saying (or at least it should) that any endeavor must needs follow the Hippocratic approach: “First, do no harm.” (Or “Don’t be evil” if you’re Google, though even that has changed to “Do the right thing” in its code of conduct.)
But “developing the social infrastructure for community — for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all?” There is a fundamental difference between weeding your garden and pursuing a scheme to plant and nurture.
Ask any daily newspaperman about the difference between providing a platform to print information and one that seeks to influence. The Muncie, Indiana, newspaper once had a quote from Abraham Lincoln as its motto: “Let the people know the facts and the country will be saved.” It did not say “Let the people know some of the facts based on our algorithms and we can help the country be good.” That is dangerous territory to enter to be sure.
TECHNICALLY, NOT A MEDIA COMPANY
The question is, if fully considered: Does the new statement from Facebook truly reflect the company’s mission?
It’s nice they want to help us build community. But does anyone think they don’t intend to “help us” along? With more algorithms. More manipulation. Or, by definition, more control of our conversations for purposes of social engineering.
Is this the mission that Facebook truly pursues?
“We are a tech company, not a media company,” Zuckerberg has doggedly maintained. And for good reason. It is vital for Facebook to remain under the protection of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which frees it from many potential penalties faced by media companies.
“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider,” the law says.
But Facebook’s new mission not only complicates things, it is likely to lead others to redefine it regardless what it might argue. Ever since its controversial launch of its News Feed in 2006, it has been proceeding down an increasingly dangerous path. And the company’s recent introduction of its Watch video service is further evidence of its true business model — a model that flies in the face of its stated mission, no matter what it claims to the contrary.
In essence, the company, which once appealed directly to its users as customers, is no longer transacting with them. The transaction now is between Facebook and advertisers. This was to be expected, of course, as the company seeks to monetize its position. But by increasingly managing and controlling the relationship between provider and customer, as well as paying people to create content, it is following a path similar to the one that continues to plague Uber as that ride-sharing company increasingly and vainly argues it is merely an app interface introducing independent drivers to riders.
Yes, Facebook has been singed by political fire for spreading false news and hateful speech. But it’s a fool’s battle to attempt to stymie people’s addle-brained gossip and crack-potted conspiracy theories. Back-fence talk has been happening ever since fences were created. Conspiracy theories and hate go back even further. Hiring 3,000 humans — or even 30,000 — to hit a delete key with the aid of some algorithms meant to ferret out objectionable talk will help — but it will eventually fail.
These days, information is shared, not transacted. Readers are no longer customers; they are consumers. In social media, given Facebook’s dominance, the consumer is no longer asked to select the source of information it is willing to pay for. They go to a location. They visit a site. And without transacting a thing, they receive information.
In essence, despite some alternatives, Facebook has created nothing less than the equivalent of a one-newspaper nation as two-thirds of US adults use Facebook and two-thirds of them are reading its news. Indeed, the majority of those say it’s the only news they read. Imagine the only newspaper in town printing nothing but Letters to the Editor and stories (selected solely based on readers’ interests) that come only from news wires. It prints what it does, it claims, to promote a sense of cohesion within the community. Can you imagine anyone not regarding that as a media company?
The law that protects Facebook and other internet services was written two decades ago to help “promote the continued development of the Internet” and “to encourage the development of technologies which maximize user control over what information is received.”
Yet, few would argue that government support dating to 1996 is needed today. In fact, now it’s the newspaper publishers who are going to Capitol Hill for help. Nor could one argue that Facebook’s new mission will “maximize user control over what information is received” Indeed, quite the contrary.
TRY NOT TO BE SHITTY
Yes, it is admirable that Facebook wants to improve the world and make us all more neighborly. It’s important to inject a bit of corporate heart and soul and idealism into any mission — if it’s believable. But to adopt a mission to bring the world peace or to alleviate the world’s hunger is neither actionable nor helpful on its face.
And as Peter Drucker cautions, an effective mission statement “is a call to action rather than pious intention. It tells the people in the company what their values are, and what effectiveness means for the company and for their own work.” For that, a realistic perspicacity must exist. It is not enough to have idealism.
Consider the mission of WeWork: “to create a world where people work to make a life, not just a living.” Or Pinterest: “to help people discover the things they love, and inspire them to go do those things in their daily lives.” Or Lyft:”to connect people through transportation and bring communities together.” Even “We’re trying not to be shitty,” the “sort of” mission statement for Vice’s cable channel as described by its founder Shane Smith.
Each of these is pointed, self-evident in value, and — most important — is something the company can pursue without running counter to what the company is. (And at least Lyft’s mission to “bring communities together,” sounding inordinately similar to the new Facebook statement, can be understood literally.)
A MISSION TO CHOOSE A MISSION
But while laudable on the surface, Facebook’s new mission does little to provide much beneficial direction. It discloses not only a suspected arrogance about its abilities, but even an implicit cynicism about people’s ability to create a good world without technological assistance.
It also can’t help, at times, to appear at odds with itself.
“We are an open platform for all ideas,” a company executive wrote on Facebook’s blog in June, just before explaining how and why the company deletes nearly 10,000 posts a day.
“People need safe spaces to share things that are private to them,” Facebook’s product manager for groups, Alex Deve, told a writer for The New York Timesrecently. That doesn’t sound much like an endorsement for total openness and connectedness, or even bringing the world closer together.
Perhaps, it should look back and rediscover its reason for being in the first place. After all, as one employee told NPR, “We started out of a college dorm. I mean, c’mon, we’re Facebook. We never wanted to deal with this s**t.”
So, what does it do? The company might trust its customers once again and rather than algorithm what (and whom) they see, it should return to that fundamental trust. Let its users self-select on their own. If we have too many friends posting too many videos of their cats, let us decide to defriend or unfollow them. If we have a friend who posts once a year, let us see the post at the top of our page and allow it to remain there.
Left to their own devices (literally), people would naturally “algorithm” themselves — with equal, if not more efficacious, results. After all, algorithms are simply decision-making instructions, and as Daniel Kahneman notes in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, in a study of multiple regression, sophisticated algorithms are not nearly as clever as their developers often believe.
I am not opposed to algorithms, nor to Facebook using them. But the company must recognize that the more it infiltrates our choices, the more decisions it makes on our behalf, the more nebulous its mission threatens to become. Indeed, it is to enter and roam in a minefield that has no exit.
The only way to safeguard itself, then, is that it must come to grips with what it is, or rather, what it wills itself to be. If it has forsaken its definition as a mere platform, it must do a better job at discerning its true nature and with it, its mission.
One thing is certain: Facebook is not a simple “interactive computer service” with a goal to “maximize user control over what information is received.”
So, perhaps, it’s an entertainment company. After all, it’s beginning to fund video projects and video publishers to create TV shows for the site. No one would argue the owners of cinemas (the old-fashioned site we used to visit to view content) were media companies. They were in the entertainment business. Maybe that is Facebook also — an entertainment company.
Or, perhaps, Facebook should accept a mission as the world’s dominant distribution channel, in which case, it might focus its algorithms — and its business — solely on selecting customer segments for its revenue-generating advertisers.
Maybe it should stick with being a dull technology company — a passive platform on which participants are left to create “unalgorithmed” content, allowing us to see whatever is posted (that’s not legally prohibited) and let us use the algorithms that God placed in our brains.
Or, if it is willing to be totally open and connected (to reality), then it might even concede that its true mission is simple: It is to make money for its shareholders by enticing people to display and view things — thoughts, pictures, videos, information, etc. — from anyplace in the world (except China, of course). That is something, to its credit, the company is doing quite well. And that, more than anything, I would argue, is the path it is pursuing.
Regardless, it seems clear that Zuckerberg would at least be better off accepting that his idealism is best concentrated in his Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, where it belongs, than in his publicly traded company. Besides, the CZI mission, “Advancing human potential and promoting equal opportunity,” is at least clearer and more appropriate to that organization’s nature.
But of course, a stated mission merely to entertain, to sell, to passively host — or to make money for shareholders — lacks a social commitment of beneficence that today’s ethos demands. Instead of “do no harm,” the often-false idealism that is glossed over much of Silicon Valley (this generation’s new intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets) requires a “do good” approach.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It takes idealism, arrogance, and energy to create a business. But Facebook needs to admit its reality. It is not a platform for good. It is a business. And as a business, it might also do good. But its mission is more (or perhaps less, depending on your view). It is to entertain. To divert. To provide a platform for connections. To try to do no harm. And also, yes, to make money for its shareholders.
IS THE ATTACHÉ CASE READY?
So, what precisely should Facebook’s stated mission be?
Not being invited into its closed-door meetings, I don’t know. The company’s success has placed it in an almost impossible position. But I do know the company needs one. And it needs a better one. And for that, it needs to do a much better job thinking through and declaring a mission that goes beyond stating something that feels good while attempting to sidestep the minefields of media definition. It needs a mission that is real.
Without it, the company will lack a complete and sincere understanding of what it is and even where it is going.
My guess is that Zuckerberg is much smarter than this. It’s likely he finds himself confined either by his own success or an idealism running headlong into reality. But he needs to do better. If not, to borrow Levitt’s conclusion, he “might as well pack his attaché case and go fishing.”
I don’t think he’ll do that, nor do I think he should. But if the company continues in this direction, he might want to start considering a new motto for Facebook’s homepage. “All the Posts that are Fit to Post” has a nice ring to it.