During an offbeat conversation at one of the family Christmas get-togethers, my nephew says, “Facebook is for your generation, it’s so blah”. Setting aside the point about him being 33 and me 48, it probably points to a bleak future for the behemoth called Facebook in spite of it’s size, scale and belligerent leadership. Yes, it is highly possible, Facebook will cease to exist in it’s current recognisable form in my 50s and my nephew’s 40s.
Conventional wisdom will point to things like the US Congress and indeed the governments of the world getting together and breaking it up. The hearings in November by a grand committee of 9 governments had the Canadian representative saying,“While we were playing on our phones and apps, our democratic institutions seem to have been upended by frat-boy billionaires from California.” Or be it the British Parliament using it’s executive (rarely used) authority to cease papers related to the Cambridge Analytica scandal; these occurrences will almost certainly pick up pace and ferocity the world over. It points to something that grew to be so big heading for a rather swift demise. In India, under constant assault and scrutiny from the I&B ministry and the preponderance of fake news leading to civil unrest, Facebook has had quick exits at the top in the shape of Kritiga Reddy and Umang Bedi and long periods with no takers for several top roles.
Facebook may break up but it will most likely implode from within rather than the actions the various governments will inevitably be taking.
In November, a former manager at Facebook published a goodbye letter detailing systemic problems at Facebook. Mark S Luckie, listed the personal sacrifices he had made for the company: “being cut off from family, friends, and my now former fiancé, compromising my health and my sense of security.” Luckie wrote he’d done all of this willingly because he believed in Facebook’s “ability to positively impact the world.” Until, that is, the blinders and eyeshades were removed and he realised Facebook wasn’t about giving a voice to the unheard at all but about cementing online the very same inequalities. While governments the world over consider breaking up the behemoth, levying mammoth fines, fine-tune laws, legislating controls, the break-up is most likely going to happen due to internal forces – people like Luckie. That myth that Facebook so often propagated that it is in this world to do good by connecting the world is on it’s last legs.
Recently Facebook employees expressed discontent on internal message boards, like Women@Facebook, over senior V-P Joel Kaplan’s loud, flashy support for Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh, even with allegations of sexual assault. Details of a Friday meeting meant to tamp down the anger, leaked to the press.
In a shocking response, Andrew Bosworth, a Facebook executive, wrote a particularly acidic memo about loyalty: “If you need to change teams, companies or careers to make sure your day-to-day life matches your passions, we will be sad to see you go, but we will understand.”
He later apologised when that too leaked.
This was not the first time Bosworth was in the news. In 2016, in an internal memo, he had written, “The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is de facto good, that’s why all the work we do in growth is justified.” However, this memo leaked much later, only this year when the Facebook ship’s airtight loyalty started developing holes.
Bosworth backtracked. He said his words were meant to provoke disagreement to help the company come up with reasonable limits to rapid growth. This was certainly a case of exhibiting a deep understanding of human psychology from one of Harvard’s most famous drop-outs!! This brings us to what Peter Theil, Zuckerberg’s guru, wrote in his book, Zero to One: “The best startups, might be considered slightly less extreme kinds of cults.”
For a good decade Facebook’s “ethical mission” held its employees into cult-like, airtight formation. But, if that faith in the over-arching goodness of Facebook’s mythical mission disintegrates, what’s left is an entity pursuing relentless and manic growth -if it’s perceived that it’s not at all about enabling human empathy to have 150 or more human relationships as professed, then the formations break and people start abandoning leaky ships.
(The writer is a management consultant)