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Facebook confronts its billionaire defector

December 12 · Issue #45 · View online
The Interface
When you’re a fast-growing, world-beating tech giant, it can be easy to dismiss your critics as cranks. They will whinge about your unchecked power and your dire influence on society. They will ascribe to you terrible motives, and they will doubt you even when you tell the truth. They will have barely a fraction of your power and yet you will find them maddening anyway, for reasons you have trouble articulating. And yet for the most part you will avoid responding to individual critics. You realize there is no benefit to you in punching down, no matter how satisfying it may seem at the time.
But when the critic is a former high-ranking executive, a different calculus applies. Particularly if a critic has said, for example, that he has “tremendous guilt” for making the company becoming what it is today, and that “we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” Those were the words of Chamath Palihapitiya, who once led Facebook’s growth efforts and now runs the ambitious venture-capital company Social Capital. The Verge wrote about Palihapitiya’s remarks yesterday, and they’ve been the best-read thing on the site now for two days.
Today came Facebook’s response
“Chamath has not been at Facebook for over six years,” a company spokesperson said. “When Chamath was at Facebook we were focused on building new social media experiences and growing Facebook around the world. Facebook was a very different company back then and as we have grown we have realized how our responsibilities have grown too. We take our role very seriously and we are working hard to improve. We’ve done a lot of work and research with outside experts and academics to understand the effects of our service on well-being, and we’re using it to inform our product development. We are also making significant investments more in people, technology, and processes, and — as Mark Zuckerberg said on the last earnings call — we are willing to reduce our profitability to make sure the right investments are made.”
Facebook PR is usually quite direct. This statement felt curiously elliptical. The amount of time Palihapitiya has been away from Facebook would not seem to have a direct bearing on his observation that “the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works.” Saying that Facebook now realizes its "responsibilities have grown” is avoid the central charge that its effect on the world has been corrosive.
Of course, it’s not clear that Palihapitiya actually believes that. Later in the same talk, he said Facebook “overwhelmingly does good in the world.” His comments are hard to reconcile — and I say that even after watching his appearance on CNBC this morning, where he said that that his comments applied to all of social media without accounting for the fact that Facebook is the dominant player.
Here he is on CNBC:
We know for a fact that what all of these systems do, every single one, is it exploits our own natural tendencies as human beings to get and want feedback. That feedback, chemically speaking, is the release of dopamine in your brain. And they exist everywhere … They get you to react. I think that if you get too sensitized and you need it over and over and over again, then you become detached to the world in which you live. And you live in front of your screen. 
This is the logical endpoint of a system that optimizes for time spent on site — a key metric at Facebook for years. Palihapitiya may be in peacemaker mode now — “I owe those guys everything,” he said of his former Facebook colleagues — but he has described the system he built accurately.
And so even as he tiptoes back from his criticisms, Palihapitiya has become another high-profile Facebook defector to join Sean Parker and Justin Rosenstein in public criticism. That has got to sting: plenty of high-profile people leave Apple, and Google, and Amazon, and Microsoft, and I can’t remember a single instance where they have felt compelled to apologize for what they built there. 

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