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The Problem With Silicon Valley’s Internal Memo Culture

The leaks coming out of Facebook underscore a deeper problem with tech giants

Facebook/Ringer illustration

On Thursday, an internal memo written by Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth — also known as Boz — circulated after BuzzFeed obtained a copy. The memo stated, among other things, that Facebook’s mission is to connect people — at any cost. He wrote it in 2016, and according to Bosworth, did not intend for it to be taken literally. That disclaimer did little to satisfy people outside the company, who read it in the wake of Facebook’s recent Cambridge Analytica scandal.

“Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still we connect people,” Bosworth wrote. He also mentioned that this mission justified things like “questionable contact importing practices” and “language that helps people stay searchable by friends.”

Bosworth has defended the internal post by saying he doesn’t agree with it now nor did he then. It was meant to be provocative and to spur a conversation. The idea that a disingenuous post could be valuable is inherent to the fundamentals of Facebook: post, no matter what. But as users learn again and again, it’s a dangerous tactic. Facebook has grown in recent years based on the premise that expression is good, and it’s even better if it’s public. Yet the latest scandal embroiling Facebook is an internal post that went too public, forcing the company to backpedal.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg disavowed it (and said he did so when it was originally published), saying that “the ends justify the means” is not Facebook’s guiding principle. But Friday morning, internal memos from other staffers found their way to publication. Employees commented on the internal post; some rallied to Bosworth’s defense, and others criticized his original post — or just criticized his decision to delete it. But many went for the leakers.

“Leakers, please resign instead of sabotaging the company.”

“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?”

“Keep in mind that leakers could be intentionally placed bad actors, not just employees making a one-off bad decision.”

“If this leak #$%^ continues, we will become like every other company where people are hesitant to discuss broad-reaching, forward-thinking ideas and thoughts, that only the very average ideas and thoughts get discussed and executed.”

These responses fail to grasp that leaks are not the problem, but they do suggest that some people at Facebook are questioning its direction. In fact, leaking his post is spurring the kind of debate and discussion Bosworth was originally seeking. But the real issue with the surfacing of internal memos is that it indicates the company culture needs to be disrupted from the outside; they’re unable to push through internally.

Facebook is not the only company in Silicon Valley to face fallout from an internal memo leak recently, though its volume of memos (which are essentially Facebook posts with a limited audience, and thus easy to post) is unique. Last summer, Google went through a similar fiasco when engineer James Damore’s 10-page anti-diversity manifesto surfaced. It was called “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” and argued, among other things, that the wage gap exists because of psychological inequalities between genders. It was originally posted to an internal Google+ page, but became public in August 2017. Google is still reeling from the fallout of the document; Damore was fired, and he is suing the company.

Meanwhile, just this week, an internal memo at Snapchat revealed that the company will issue another round of layoffs, and that came on the heels of another internal memo in January that threatened leakers with jail time.

The giant, famous tech companies are increasingly embracing a hybrid of technocratic and libertarian ideals inside their headquarters. Free speech is protected at all costs; anything that would impede growth is maligned. This ideology perpetuates a self-serving corporate culture and supports their stated missions to consumers — whether it’s broadcasting murders live or enabling sex offenders or exposing young children to horrific content. The trade-off is that we have more tools to create and connect and express ourselves — even if that expression is explicitly bad.

One phrase from Bosworth’s memo rings especially true: “In almost all of our work, we have to answer hard questions about what we believe.” What Facebook and internet platforms have always believed and communicated to users is “post more, share more, say more, and do it publicly on our networks.” They, in turn, internally fostered that idea — and now it’s come back to haunt them. It’s a realization that users had first; uploading everything all the time could have consequences, from getting fired to alienating family members to being targeted by ads. Now Silicon Valley is experiencing something of a reckoning, and it has to address those “hard questions.” Everyone is eagerly awaiting the answers.