The publication of a June 2016 memo describing the consequences of Facebook’s growth-at-all-costs triggered an emotional conversation at the company today. An internal post reacting to the memo found employees angry and heartbroken that their teammates were sharing internal company discussions with the media. Many called on the company to step up its war on leakers and hire employees with more “integrity.”
On Thursday evening, BuzzFeed published a memo from Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, a vice president at Facebook who currently leads its hardware efforts. In the memo, Bosworth says that the company’s core function is to connect people, despite consequences that he repeatedly called “ugly.” “That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices,” he wrote. “All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in. The work we will likely have to do in China some day. All of it.”
Bosworth distanced himself from the memo, saying in a Twitter post that he hadn’t agreed with those words even when he wrote them. He was trying to galvanize a discussion around the company’s growth strategy, he said. CEO Mark Zuckerberg told BuzzFeed that he had not agreed with the sentiments in the post at the time, and that growth should not be a means to an end in itself. “We recognize that connecting people isn’t enough by itself. We also need to work to bring people closer together,” Zuckerberg said.
After publishing the memo, Bosworth deleted his original post. “While I won’t go quite as far as to call it a straw man, that post was definitely designed to provoke a response,” Bosworth wrote in a memo obtained by The Verge. “It served effectively as a call for people across the company to get involved in the debate about how we conduct ourselves amid the ever changing mores of the online community. The post was of no particular consequence in and of itself, it was the comments that were impressive. A conversation over the course of years that was alive and well even going into this week.
“That conversation is now gone,” Bosworth continued. “And I won’t be the one to bring it back for fear it will be misunderstood by a broader population that doesn’t have full context on who we are and how we work.”
Facebook and Bosworth declined to comment.
Nearly 3,000 employees had reacted to Bosworth’s memo when The Verge viewed it, responding with a mixture of likes, “sad,” and and “angry” reactions. Many employees rallied to Bosworth’s side, praising him for sharing his feelings about sensitive company matters using blunt language.
Others criticized Bosworth for deleting the post, saying it fueled a narrative about the company that it had something to hide. “Deleting things usually looks bad in retrospect,” one wrote. “Please don’t feed the fire by giving these individuals more fuel (eg, Facebook execs deleting internal communications”). If we are no longer open and transparent, and instead lock-down and delete, then our culture is also destroyed — but by our own hand.”
Dozens of employees criticized the unknown leakers at the company. “Leakers, please resign instead of sabotaging the company,” one wrote in a comment under Bosworth’s post. Wrote another: “How fucking terrible that some irresponsible jerk decided he or she had some god complex that jeopardizes our inner culture and something that makes Facebook great?”
Several employees suggested Facebook attempt to screen employees for a high degree of “integrity” during the hiring process. “Although we all subconsciously look for signal on integrity in interviews, should we consider whether this needs to be formalized in the interview process?” one wrote.
Wrote another: “This is so disappointing, wonder if there is a way to hire for integrity. We are probably focusing on the intelligence part and getting smart people here who lack a moral compass and loyalty.”
Other employees said it would be difficult to detect leakers before they acted.
“I don’t think we’ve seen a huge internally leaked data breach, but I’ve always thought our ‘open but punitive’ stance was particularly vulnerable to suicide bombers,” one employee wrote “We would be foolish to think that we could adequately screen against them in a hiring process at our scale. … We have our representative share of sick people, drug addicts, wife beaters, and suicide bombers. Some of this cannot be mitigated by training. To me, this makes it just a matter of time.”
That employee followed up to say: “OMG, I just ran back to my ‘puter from a half-eaten lunch with food in my mouth. APOLOGIES to our brothers in sisters in the Austin Office for my insensitive choice of metaphors/words. I’m sorry.”
Another theory floated by multiple employees is that Facebook has been targeted by spies or state-level actors hoping to embarrass the company. “Keep in mind that leakers could be intentionally placed bad actors, not just employees making a one-off bad decision,” one wrote. “Thinking adversarially, if I wanted info from Facebook, the easiest path would be to get people hired into low-level employee or contract roles.” Another wrote: “Imagine that some percentage of leakers are spies for governments. A call to morals or problems of performance would be irrelevant in this case, because dissolution is the intent of those actors. If that’s our threat — and maybe it is, given the current political situation? — then is it even possible to build a system that defaults to open, but that is able to resist these bad actors (or do we need to redesign the system?)
Several employees shared concerns that the leaks had removed some of Facebook’s luster. The company is routinely cited as among the best places to work in America.
“If this leak #$%^ continues, we will become like every other company where people are hesitant to discuss broad-reaching, forward-looking ideas and thoughts, that only the very average ideas and thoughts get discussed and executed,” one employee wrote.” Making them average companies.”
Another employee responded: “Will become? Seems like we are there.”
The leaks also became cause for discussion about the company’s internal sharing tools. Facebook runs on its enterprise product, Facebook for Work. One employee wondered whether the critics of leakers had ignored incentives for sharing created by the product itself. It’s a nuanced thought worth sharing in full:
“It’s interesting to note that this discussion is about leaks pushing us to be more cognizant of our sharing decisions. The result is that we are incentivized toward stricter audience management and awareness of how our past internal posts may look when re-surfaced today. We blame a few ill-intentioned employees for this change.
“The non-employee Facebook user base is also experiencing a similar shift: the move toward ephemeral and direct sharing results from realizing that social media posts that were shared broadly and are searchable forever can become a huge liability today.
A key difference between the outside discussion and the internal discussion is that the outside blames the Facebook product for nudging people to make those broad sharing decisions years ago, whereas internally the focus is entirely on employees.”
Another employee made a similar plea for empathy. “Can we channel our outrage over the mishandling of our information into an empathy for our users’ situation? Can the deletion of a post help us better understand #deletefacebook? How we encourage ourselves to remain open while acknowledging a world that doesn’t always respect the audience and intention fo that information might just be the key to it all. Maybe we should be dogfooding that?”
For his part, Bosworth promised employees he would continue sharing candid thoughts about Facebook, but said he would likely post less. “When posting comes with the risk that I’ll have to blow up my schedule and defend myself to the national press,” he wrote, “you can imagine it is an inhibitor.”
Here is Bosworth’s full memo to the company today.
I’m feeling a little heartbroken tonight.
I had multiple reporters reach out today with different stories containing leaks of internal information.
In response to one of the leaks I have chosen to delete a post I made a couple of years ago about our mission to connect people and the ways we grow. While I won’t go quite as far as to call it a straw man, that post was definitely designed to provoke a response. It served effectively as a call for people across the company to get involved in the debate about how we conduct ourselves amid the ever changing mores of the online community. The post was of no particular consequence in and of itself, it was the comments that were impressive. A conversation over the course of years that was alive and well even going into this week.
That conversation is now gone. And I won’t be the one to bring it back for fear it will be misunderstood by a broader population that doesn’t have full context on who we are and how we work.
This is the very real cost of leaks. We had a sensitive topic that we could engage on openly and explore even bad ideas, even if just to eliminate them. If we have to live in fear that even our bad ideas will be exposed then we won’t explore them or understand them as such, we won’t clearly label them as such, we run a much greater risk of stumbling on them later. Conversations go underground or don’t happen at all. And not only are we worse off for it, so are the people who use our products.
Casey Newton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or message him on Twitter @CaseyNewton for his Signal. Sign up for The Interface, The Verge’s daily newsletter about social media and democracy, at this link.