in design

On working (in design) at Facebook

A set of thoughts rattling around my head.

Some facts, as of this writing:

  • ~360,000 deaths from Covid-19 in the USA
  • Botched rollout of Covid-19 vaccine in the USA
  • A stupid coup, including white supremacists storming DC
  • 74,000,000+ people voting for an incompetent and corrupt president

These facts have a common source—the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States.

That Trump was elected, ignored the science of the vaccine, flouted the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, and that over 74,000,000 people voted for him is evidence of a bizarrely polarized information environment in the US. On one pole are respectable (though not flawless) journalistic efforts such as The New York Times, CNN, nightly news programs, etc. On one pole are the grifters and wingnuts of OANN, Newsmax, Infowars, anti-vaxxers, etc.

The role of social media, and Facebook in particular

Prior to social media, wingnut press existed, but it’s reach was blunted due to the barriers of publishing and transmission. With social media, wingnuts found their platform grow, as their inciting, fiery rhetoric triggers engagement from readers, cause it to spread.

It is reasonable to state that Trump would not be president if it weren’t for social media. And that the Covid-is-a-hoax, anti-mask, anti-vax, rigged election sentiment would not be nearly as prevalent if it weren’t for the petri dish that is Facebook.

So, while Facebook isn’t the cause of the shitshow we’ve seen in America and much of the world the past 4 years, it’s most certain a contributor, a contributor that has seen it’s own fortunes grow as greater chaos was sowed.

The business of Facebook

I appreciated the analysis shared in this tweet thread:

Where he gets at the heart of the business model:

And the reality of working there:

And it’s for reasons like those that this following tweet got such traction:

On designers working at Facebook

Since the start of the pandemic, I know of 9 or 10 (I’m losing count) design leaders who have joined Facebook. And I understand it—in an uncertain hiring market, they were offering good-paying (great-paying, actually) jobs, and they have interesting problems to tackle and (as I just laid out) enormous impact.

[I should also note that about 2 years ago, after I had been laid off, I interviewed for a role at Facebook. It wasn’t a fit, and, honestly, I do wonder how I’d feel now if I had taken a job offer there.]

And I am sure that many, if not most, of those designers joined Facebook thinking that either a) I’m working on something that isn’t the core product, so I’m not part of the problem or b) I’m joining to help them ‘get better.’

My concern being, specifically with designers at Facebook, they serve as the glowing light to the business model that was outlined above.

Designers make the experience of using Facebook so delightful, palatable, enjoyable, that they actually make things worse, given how corrosive that core business model is.

Designers may be like the “good intention” attorneys working in Trump’s Department of Justice

Another unfortunate, but probable, path for designers at Facebook is explained in this Op-ed piece by a DoJ lawyer who started under Obama, and continued under Trump: I’m Haunted by What I Did as a Lawyer in the Trump Justice Department.

She knew that Trump was awful, but stayed at the Department because she felt she could do more by “pushing back from within.” She initially justified her decision because she felt she could make Trump less destructive by narrowing his administration’s potentially heinous actions (think: Muslim ban).

But what the result of her work in narrowing Trump’s executive orders was to make them more palatable to the courts. If she wasn’t there, the clown car running the place wouldn’t be able to get any traction. But by being an “adult in the room,” she abetted Trump’s harm.

I fear this is the fate of many designers at Facebook. They may ameliorate egregiousness, but in doing making company’s behavior palatable, they enable it to continue it’s toxic practices.

The strangeness of Facebook’s behavior, who essentially leave their employees out to dry

Throughout all the bad press that Facebook has gotten, specifically around how it handles misinformation and political advertising, I’ve been shocked that they’ve made no credible PR effort to challenge these assertions, that they haven’t shared their research, findings, whatever that, you know, actually, while there are some unfortunately consequences to how we approach things, there are also all these benefits.

Oh, and I haven’t even talked about research that shows mental health benefits of not using Facebook.

And Facebook’s big PR efforts are bizarre things like using “small business” as a rhetorical shield to take potshots at Apple for taking their users’ privacy seriously.

And when Facebook people speak publicly, well, I wrote this tweet recently:

This ham-handed corporate behavior results in their employees (at least my many friends who work there), from eliding that detail from their social media profiles and pretty much never talking publicly about their work there. Working for Facebook now has the cache of working in Big Oil or Big Tobacco.

Mark Zuckerberg is a cloistered person with too much power

One final thought. Mark Zuckerberg, who went from upper-middle class suburbs to Harvard to having ever had only one real job, is far too cloistered, isolated, and unworldly a person to wield the kind of influence at this disposal. I mean, such influence should never be concentrated in any individual, but particularly one with such limited experience and understanding of how the world, and people, work, behave, live, etc.

Why am I writing this?

Because I can’t stop thinking about it, and want it out of my head. The stupid coup that has (currently) resulted in armed domestic terrorists roaming the streets of DC and infiltrating the Capital building was definitely a trigger (Facebook has a history of harboring hate groups). I recognize I’ve pretty much eliminated any chance I’ll work there (either as an employee or consultant). I would love to hear from my friends who work there, what credible information they have ‘inside’ that they’re efforts are not heinous (as Stephen Diehl lays out), but have many positive aspects (though I recognize my friends have no obligation to me, at all). And I’d like to better understand why those benefits are not shared publicly.

Addendum after originally posting this

I posted this at around 4pm Pacific. At 7pm, I saw this tweet, which only further calls into question what it’s like to work at Facebook:

An additional thought is, while this post is all about Facebook, it should serve as an object lesson for anyone thinking about the company and the industry they work for. Erika’s anglerfish wasn’t specific to Facebook, or even social media—it’s about how well-meaning employees find themselves weaponized to serve socially harmful business models (I know that a particular bugaboo of hers are the food delivery services that are making it harder for restaurants to survive by taking so much money in each transaction.)