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Facebook is pushing out its most creative skeptics

Why the company is worse off without the Instagram and WhatsApp founders

illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

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.

Ben Thompson says the post comes across as “dangerously oblivious to even the possibility that Facebook could be anything but a force for 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.

Democracy

Facebook policy head makes a surprising cameo at the Kavanaugh hearing

Joel Kaplan went to support his friend Brett Kavanaugh at today’s hearing. Matt Yglesias argues that as Facebook’s head of global policy, given the regulatory issues before the company, there is no such thing as supporting Kavanaugh in “a personal capacity.” What do you think?

Vietnam Convicts Second Person This Week for Anti-Government Facebook Posts

Melanie Ehrenkranz has news on an anti-democratic trend in Vietnam:

The conviction is reflective of Vietnam’s efforts to repress speech critical of the government. According to the ministry, Dong was guilty of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state,” according to Reuters, and that, according to police, his posts “hurt the prestige and leading role of the party and the state.”

Dong’s imprisonment comes just days after a similar sentence for Facebook posts. On Monday, 42-year-old Doan Khanh Vinh Quang, an activist, was sentenced to 27 months in jail for “abusing democratic and freedom rights,” police said, stating that he had admitted to posting and sharing posts on Facebook over the past few years that authorities said criticized the country’s Communist Party. And in May of this year, 56-year-old Vui Hieu Vo was sentenced to four and a half years in jail for Facebook posts that allegedly “distorted” the country’s political state of affairs.

Debunking 5 (More) Viral Rumors About Kavanaugh’s Accusers

On the day Christine Blasey Ford testified before Congress — with Facebook’s top lobbyist incidentally on hand to support Brett Kavanaugh — Kevin Roose rounds up more of the misinformation that has been spreading about her.

It’s Google’s Turn in Washington’s Glare

Daisuke Wakabayashi and Cecilia Kang preview Sundar Pichai’s meeting with lawmakers on Friday:

On Friday, Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, will meet with Representative Kevin McCarthy, of California, the Republican House majority leader and a vocal critic of Google, and more than two dozen Republicans to discuss complaints the company is trying to silence conservative voices.

“Google has a lot of questions to answer about reports of bias in its search results, violations of user privacy, anticompetitive behavior, and business dealings with repressive regimes like China,” Mr. McCarthy said in a statement.

Tech and ad giants sign up to Europe’s first weak bite at ‘fake news’

The European Union’s executive body released a code of principles for reducing the spread of disinformation. Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Mozilla have all signed on, Natasha Lomas reports. The code suggests that these companies do a lot of things that they’re already doing.

Elsewhere

Elon Musk sued by SEC for securities fraud

As of today, it is now possible that Elon Musk will be prevented from ever again running a public company because of a single tweet.

Bumble asks court to rule Tinder patents invalid

Ashley R. Carman has the latest on the Bumble-Tinder legal drama:

Bumble responded to Match Group’s lawsuit from earlier this year that involved the alleged infringement of certain Tinder patents. Bumble is now saying these Tinder patents are invalid and can’t be acted upon in court.

Snap Communications Head to Leave, Continuing String of Departures

Mary Ritti, one of Snap’s earliest hires, is following the heads of strategy and finance out the door. Mary was always cool to me. Cheers Mary!

Fans Scammed Out Of Millions Of Dollars By Fake Celebrity Accounts

This poor woman (named Mary!) sent $11,500 to a person she thought was Bruce Springsteen, who had reached out to her on Facebook using a fake account. It’s a little disturbing Facebook’s vaunted fake-account-detection software didn’t spring into action when a new Springsteen account popped up and started sending friend requests to random people:

“Fake Bruce” texted her a picture of his stash of gold, saying he needed money to ship it home from Dubai. He said it was a huge amount of gold, worth millions.

“My mind was just so, so like maybe brainwashed or something I said okay how much money,” Mary recalled.

The Existential Void of the Pop-Up ‘Experience’

Amanda Hess explores the very-right-now phenomenon of pop-up experiences, such as the Color Factory and Museum of Ice Cream, that essentially serve as little more than Instagram backdrops:

The central disappointment of these spaces is not that they are so narcissistic, but rather that they seem to have such a low view of the people who visit them. Observing a work of art or climbing a mountain actually invites us to create meaning in our lives. But in these spaces, the idea of “interacting” with the world is made so slickly transactional that our role is hugely diminished. Stalking through the colorful hallways of New York’s “experiences,” I felt like a shell of a person. It was as if I was witnessing the total erosion of meaning itself. And when I posted a selfie from the Rosé Mansion saying as much, all of my friends liked it.

Twerendipity: Stories of Serendipity on Twitter

I enjoyed this Madison Malone Kirchner story about those cases when two Twitter users on opposite sides of a story tweet about it, then find each other, to the delight of all:

A woman in a Lyft is talking with her driver about struggling to explain what she wants to a hairdresser when she spots another woman on the street with the exact look she’s seeking. The driver, in a move akin to something your embarrassing mom or dad might have done to you in middle school, rolls down the window to let the woman on the street know that the woman in the car digs her look. The woman in the car tweets about this interaction. Meanwhile, the woman on the street also tweets about this interaction. She thanks “the lady in the Hyundai Sonata” for making her day.

That might have been the end of the story of the embarrassed woman and the complimented woman — Stephanie and Denice, respectively — if not for Twitter’s ability to make the world very, very tiny. Which is how a user following Stephanie happened to see her tweet and also Denice’s tweet. And then somebody following that person screenshotted them both, tweeting them together as a delightful story of Twerendipity.

Launches

Oculus Quest put us in an ‘arena-scale’ Wild West shootout, and it was great

Just about everything Oculus showed off at Connect this week got good initial reviews from my colleagues, including this wild multiplayer game that took place in a specially constructed, 4,000-square-foot arena.

Takes

Facebook’s reputation as a good place for founders is suddenly under attack

Kurt Wagner wonders whether #Krexit will make future founders less likely to sell to Facebook. (So does Josh Constine.) I think they’ll continue selling to Facebook so long as it’s the best option for them and their employees. Given how often selling the company is a last resort, and how few options they typically have at that point, I wouldn’t be too worried if I were Facebook.

Billionaire LA Times owner: ’Fake news’ and how it spreads a cancer

Patrick Soon-Shiong comes out against social media:

Soon-Shiong, a former surgeon, told “Squawk Alley” that fake news is the “cancer of our time and social media is a form of metastasis of news. We need to change that.”

He said people cannot differentiate from “fake news,” “real news” or “opinion news” on Facebook.

So, You Want to Do Something About Russian Election Interference?

WWW.JUSTSECURITY.ORGShare

I included this link in yesterday’s newsletter but forgot to tell you why: it was co-authored by Alex MacGillivray, better known as Amac, who served as Twitter’s chief counsel during its maximum free speech days. He and coauthor Joshua Geltzer argue that the United States should a NATO-like approach to the fight against election meddling:

An effective government-to-government response in this case would establish an international norm against Moscow’s behavior, build a coalition in support of that norm (perhaps initially through its articulation by an entity like the G-7), and ensure that countries in that coalition were prepared to act swiftly and decisively each and every time Russia or other actors violated the norm. While some have questioned whether what Russia did in 2016 is really distinguishable from past American interventions in foreign elections, we think there is a difference between promoting democracy and assaulting it. More to the point, we think that it’s surely possible to articulate at least a threshold norm to which the U.S. and other governments should subscribe going forward.

At a fundamental level, governments should not attempt to influence foreign elections through disinformation, whether by spreading false information (i.e., “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Trump”) or spreading true information under false attribution (i.e., no identity theft or manufacturing). That would, at a minimum, reject the types of interference that the U.S. experienced in 2016 and that other democracies have been experiencing with their elections as well. At this perilous moment for democracies worldwide, it’s imperative to make clear, quickly, that Moscow’s democracy-wrecking behavior must cease and to ensure that countries agree ahead of time on what the “red line” should be, so that they can respond swiftly, forcefully, and concertedly when violations occur.

And finally ...

Urban Outfitters is selling a $59 ‘influencer Halloween costume’

When you reduce down the concept of an influencer to its purest essence, what is it? According to this Halloween costume, it’s … a pair of leggings and a sports bra. It costs $59.

Happy Halloween!

Talk to me

Send me questions, comments, tips, and alternative influencer costumes: casey@theverge.com.