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Facebook pushes out the troublemakers

Yesterday I wrote about how differently Brian Acton and David Marcus saw the WhatsApp acquisition, an
September 27 · Issue #215 · View online
The Interface
Yesterday I wrote about how differently Brian Acton and David Marcus saw the WhatsApp acquisition, and what it meant for Facebook’s future. Several others picked up on a different part of Marcus’ memo, though, and It’s worth noting as well.
The section that caught so much attention is the very end:
As a former lifelong entrepreneur and founder, there’s no other large company I’d work at, and no other leader I’d work for. I want to work on hard problems that positively impact the lives of billions of people around the world. And Facebook is truly the only company that’s singularly about people. Not about selling devices. Not about delivering goods with less friction. Not about entertaining you. Not about helping you find information. Just about people. It makes it hard sometimes because people don’t always behave in predictable ways (algorithms do), but it’s so worth it. Because connecting people is a noble mission, and the bad is far outweighed by the good.
Any world view that, no matter its motivations, leaves no room for doubt is problematic. To imbue such a world view with missionary fervor and an “ends justify the means” mentality is fraught. Elevating that world view to the executive ranks of a company with the power and reach of Facebook is downright dangerous.
Matt Levine is similarly disturbed by Marcus’ zeal. The Silicon Valley embrace of mission-driven companies can lead to darker places than a good old-fashioned devotion to maximizing returns for shareholders, he writes. (May I again just say: Matt Levine deserves a Pulitzer prize for commentary this year.) “Shareholder value is nobody’s idea of an inspiring mission,” he writes. “That’s what’s good about it!”
If Facebook’s goal is to maximize revenue by selling targeted ads to clothing companies, and you find out that it has features that enable genocide, then you shut down those features because the ads just aren’t worth it. If Facebook is about the “noble mission” of “connecting people,” then the tradeoffs are murkier. If “Facebook is truly the only company that’s singularly about people,” then … what even … how do you measure how about-people it is being? If you’re the singular company whose focus is people, then whatever you do is sort of necessarily good; your end is so vague and noble that it can justify any means. And for all that Facebook’s meddling with Instagram and WhatsApp seems to be driven by straightforward ad-revenue-maximization considerations, it’s worth saying that Facebook isn’t really answerable to shareholders and that its explicit ideology rejects shareholder value as a goal. “Facebook was not originally created to be a company,” Mark Zuckerberg wrote when it went public. “It was built to accomplish a social mission.” Okay!
Viewed in this light, the departures this year of Brian Acton, Jan Koum, Kevin Systrom, and Mike Krieger start to look a little different. On one hand, yes, they are simply founders who eventually left the big company that acquired them. At the same time, they’re best known externally for ways they resisted Facebook’s ambitions. For the WhatsApp founders, it was a focus on end-to-end encryption and a strong belief in non-advertising-based business models. For the Instagram founders, it was about preserving the app’s independence in the face of growing demands to deface it with Facebook notifications and other corporate graffiti.
Mark Zuckerberg always had the legal authority to operate his company as he wished. But for the past half-decade or so, he’s had a big handful of cantankerous, self-righteous product leaders nudging him off course so they could experiment with new designs and business models. During a time when Facebook experienced shockingly little executive turnout at the top, those perspectives were crucial.
And now they’re gone. Kara Swisher makes this point in her latest op-ed in The New York Times:
Mr. Systrom and Mr. Krieger were dubbed by some at Facebook as not “team players.” Inside the freakishly cohesive culture of the company, they were considered an irritant.
That’s a shame, since that’s exactly what Facebook needs. Which is to say, people willing to challenge the groupthink that for too long included a stubborn resistance to admitting and addressing the company’s flaws.
The company would say that in a workplace of 30,000 people, there is already plenty of robust disagreement. (I published one such set of disagreements earlier this year, based on employees’ internal posts about a controversial memo.) And the company is hiring for a variety of top positions, including head of communications and policy and chief marketing officer, that could introduce some new, positive friction into the mix.
Ultimately, though, Zuckerberg is now surrounded by people who see Facebook just as Marcus does: as an unqualified force for good. It might benefit the rest of us if he were forced to deal more regularly with people who weren’t so sure.

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And finally ...
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