Published on [Permalink]
Reading time: 3 minutes
Posted in:

There is no supervillain at Facebook, but Facebook is still terrible.

I am not generally one to defend Facebook, and I don’t intend to do it here, but this analysis seems right to me:

The issues, which become clear in all of this reporting, are not of a company that is nefariously run by evil geniuses toying with people's minds (as some would have you believe). Nor is it incompetent buffoons careening human society into a ditch under a billboard screaming "MOAR ENGAGEMENT! MOAR CLICKS!" It seems pretty clear that they are decently smart, and decently competent people... who have ended up in an impossible situation and don't recognize that they can't solve it all alone. Over and over again, this recognition seems to explain actions that might otherwise be incomprehensible. So many of the damning reports from the Facebook files could be evidence of evilness or incompetence -- or they could be evidence of a group of executives who are in way too deep, but believe that they really have a handle on things that they not only don't, but simply can't due to the nature of humanity itself.

As any long-time followers of this blog are aware, I am a firm believer in Hanlon’s Razor, the maxim that tells us we ought never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Facebook’s business model—to attract users so that it can harvest as much data as it can from them and sell it to advertisers—is evil and exploitative. Perhaps there is a case to be made that all of the malfeasance and incompetence that flows from and is deployed in support of that business model is also evil as a result—the fruit of the poisoned tree.

However, I think portrayals of Facebook, its leadership, and its management as moustache-twirling super villains are incorrect. With a very few exceptions, I think such portrayals are nearly always incorrect.

It is easier to imagine that the world around us is under the control and manipulation of some mastermind who has plotted everything out and is pulling all the strings. Maybe the world sucks—the economy is lopsided in favor of the rich, politics are slanted toward the powerful, everyone is fighting with everyone else—but if all that craziness is the result of some supervillain’s plan, it at least makes sense. This way of looking at the world also helps to make the problems seem more solveable; if there is a villain causing all the problems, you can solve the problems by defeating the villain.

It’s no wonder so many people think this way about the world. Aside from the fact that it helps make sense of a senseless world, it is hard to turn around without running into some piece of pop culture that weaves a whole bunch of disparate plotlines into some overarching story. And at their core, most of those stories have some genius supervillain whose secret masterplan has been in the works for years.

In the case of Facebook, I think they are in over their heads. I think they are a bunch of tech- and engineering-types who believe that if they can just look at the right data and twist the right knobs, they can fix all the problems. I think they have no idea what to do about any of the problems plaguing their platform, or even a sense of the depth of those problems.

Mostly, I think that the problems Facebook has are mostly not solveable at the scale at which they operate.

So, no—there is not a person or group of people at Facebook who has hatched some evil plan. It is hubris and foolishness and greed at work. That’s what Facebook and its leadership should be held accountable for.