Oh fine, let’s talk about some ancient Facebook history.
Once upon a time there was an atrocious company called Six4Three
. It made an app called Pikinis
that found photos of your Facebook friends in their swimsuits and organized them all in one place. It was basically the living embodiment of contemporary fears over misuses of Facebook’s developer platform, and few mourned it when Facebook shut down the company’s API access during the big third-party developer purges of 2014 and 2015.
The memory of Pikinis might have faded away, but the company’s founder, Ted Kramer, decided to sue Facebook
in 2015, alleging that its behavior had been anticompetitive. Four years later, the lawsuit endures, and it might be one of the stranger cases in the history of Silicon Valley. The app at the heart of it looks less sympathetic with each passing year — but the lawsuit’s chief contention, that Facebook has used its stranglehold on personal information to harm competition, is now very much in vogue.
Even still, we probably wouldn’t be hearing much about the case had it not produced thousands of pages of legal discovery that speak to executives’ mindset about competition throughout the first half of the last decade. British Parliament, which is conducting its own inquiries into various matters surrounding Facebook, famously pressured Kramer to hand over the discovery documents
while he was visiting England last year, and made public 250 pages last December
Taken together, they show how Zuckerberg, along with his board and management team, found ways to tap Facebook users’ data — including information about friends, relationships and photos — as leverage over the companies it partnered with. In some cases, Facebook would reward partners by giving them preferential access to certain types of user data while denying the same access to rival companies.
All the while, Facebook planned to publicly frame these moves as a way to protect user privacy, the documents show.
On one hand, we already know the broad outlines of what these documents describe. Facebook once granted very broad permissions to developers, which helped to promote the company’s interests and spur its growth; it horse-traded with some of those developers when it suited its needs
, and it ratcheted developer permissions down over time as the company achieved a dominant position and scrutiny over its data practices increased.
On the other, there’s a boldness in some of the newly revealed documents that I found striking.
There is, for example, the matter of the switcharoo. Here’s Katie Paul and Mark Hosenball in Reuters
Some executives at the world’s biggest social network appeared to refer to the strategy of promoting a privacy-focused explanation for the change as the “Switcharoo Plan,” internal emails included in sealed California court filings show.
The Switcharoo Plan turned out to be an idea whereby Facebook executives would deprecate various APIs that its developer partners depended on for fear that those developers would one day compete with Facebook directly, while publicly announcing that the changes were intended to promote privacy. Reuters again:
As thousands of developers lost access to user data, the executives decided to announce the changes publicly. They elected to link what they referred to as the “‘bad stuff’ of PS12N” to an unrelated update of the Facebook login system which gave people greater control over their privacy.
The “narrative” for the announcement “will focus on quality and the user experience which will potentially provide a good umbrella to fold in some of the API deprecations,” one executive wrote in an email.
Another invited colleagues in a February 2014 email to review the “Switcharoo Plan,” calling it “a good compromise” that will enable them “to tell a story that makes sense.”
Oh, I’d say the story makes sense, all right. Competition: scary. How to fix it: Switcharoo Plan.
The gift of these newly leaked documents is to shed even more light on Facebook’s full-fledged dread of competition. Mark Zuckerberg is one of the most paranoid leaders in Silicon Valley history, and I almost mean that as a compliment. (I suspect he might take it as one; he’s an Andy Grove guy
Anyway, the documents are full of things that Zuckerberg is paranoid about.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Tinder and other people recommendation apps since about 10% of people in many countries are using a Tinder now. People recommendations seem like something that should be right up our alley, but it’s currently something we’re not very good at. Tinder’s growth is especially alarming to me because their product is built completely on Facebook data, and it’s much better than anything we’ve built for recommendations using the same corpus.
“Those companies are trying to build social networks and replace us,” Mr. Zuckerberg said of a trio of Chinese and Korean messaging apps that he had decided should be blocked from advertising on the social network in a January 2013 email thread that included more than a dozen senior executives including Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer.
In the same thread, Javier Olivan, the company’s head of growth, said chat-app firms were dangerous because they could “morph into Facebook,” then pointed to a recent announcement from WhatsApp that it had processed 18 billion messages in a day on Dec. 31, 2012.
The same story details the concerns of one executive paranoid about the growth of WhatsApp, which Facebook would ultimately spend $19 billion to acquire.
All of this gets at the single biggest difference between how the world sees Facebook and how Facebook sees Facebook. To outsiders, it’s a monolith that steamrolls entire industries and nation-states as it pursues its business goals. To insiders, it’s a premature baby stuck forever in intensive care, never more than a few bad breaks away from oblivion. This is a document leak that reads like a hospital chart.
Even hardcore anti-Facebook partisans would understand the company better, I think, if they spent some time looking at it through that frame. So many of the qualities people resent most about Facebook — its speed of development, its shameless copying of rivals, its ruthless treatment of partners — are all born out of mortal fear. (Greed, too! But fear reigns supreme.) If you ever find yourself confused by something Facebook does, try changing your perspective — see whether it can’t be explained by paranoia.
Call it a Switcharoo Plan.