Understanding Facebook’s Face-plant Via Their Amended Mission Statement

Mark Zuckerberg finally apologized yesterday. After five long days of silence, he posted on Facebook (naturally,) then spoke with the New York Times, and lastly went on CNN to speak publicly for the first time since we found out how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook user data to interfere in government elections.

You can read all about the details of what happened anywhere else online, but I want you to focus on Facebook’s recently updated mission statement. As a reminder, a “mission statement” is supposed to explain the reason(s) “why” an entity exists. When properly crafted, it lives behind every engagement both inside and outside of a company. When the public’s trust has been violated like this, it’s a particularly good time to revisit how the company sees themselves in the world.

More or less from the start of “The Facebook” in a dorm room, their mission had been to give the world the power to share – to make the world more open and connected. With 2018 hindsight, you should see the flaw in this logic. In order to make us more open and connected, we would have to be OK with being subjected to some 1984-ish nightmare scenarios. The company has been doing a lot of work to improve that realization internally, but not always in the most transparent way, as we now know.  Still, we should pause – do you remember your big ideas in college? Yeah, Zuckerberg’s (as they should be) are being scrutinized at a slightly higher level. Could he have seen this scenario coming? Probably not. And to think he was only born in 1984.

In 2017 they updated the mission to say that Facebook wants to give people the power to build communities and bring the world closer together. You can see the improvement in how they made sure to frame the company as a platform for people to build communities on top of (giving some feeling of control), versus the original more open ended statement about enabling “sharing.” It may help to think of this as the difference between your neighbor knocking and asking to borrow your sugar versus just coming in to take it in the name of “sharing.”

I won’t ask you to feel (or not feel) sorry for a billionaire in the hot seat, but I will ask you to think about the billions in corporate profits that Facebook has generated. Remember, his big idea in college, unlike yours, had economic value. His big idea, like so many others, also had unintended consequences. The New York Times got to the heart of it all with this question (paraphrased): “do you feel like the basic economic model…works?”

Zuckerberg’s answer acknowledged that to give everybody access to Facebook, it requires the platform to be free or cheap, and the ad model facilitates this objective. Remember, with Facebook, the products are not the goods and services that you see advertised (like in a store), YOU dear consumer are the product that Facebook sells to the advertisers. That’s the economics of how the billions get made and they facilitate “free access.” He went on to acknowledge that the model itself is what makes the company vulnerable. In other words, being free to the user but paid for by the advertisers can lead to potential abuses. It’s good to hear him acknowledge that.

It’s not a new concept, but it’s worth stating frankly: there really is no free lunch. Once you understand that nothing is free and everything has some “cost” – you have to see the world differently. You can’t see things in absolutes anymore, because everything involves a tradeoff.

So in the face of the news, his apology, and our own awareness of the tradeoffs, we all have some big questions to ask about the economic model and its viability. I believe that if this economic model is to make sense, it really does start with the mission statement. That might mean a higher bar needs to be set within Facebook or with regulators. That also might mean that the opportunity to connect at a low cost to build new networks on top of this platform is less valuable than what bad actors can potentially do with the data. It could go either way.

So at this point, I am comfortable admitting that I don’t think we know the answer.

However, I do think we’re ready to ask these fundamental questions of Facebook and the rest of our social tech companies: can your mission serve shareholders and society at the same time? If so, how?

Those are big questions in need of big answers. We’re ready to listen.

PS.

I don’t always do this, but maybe I should more often (let me know). Here are some of the recent pieces that influenced my thinking on this topic:

For a good listen on what went down in the interview, listen to “The Daily” podcast from Thursday, March 22, 2018 by the New York Times.

For a good definition of why we all need a mission, listen to Dan Crenshaw on “Jocko Podcast 118.”

For a good discussion about the required morality of mission, listen to the a16z podcast “On Morals and Meaning in Products, Business, and Life” with Arthur Brooks.

For a good critical look at the Facebook situation see James Allworth’s blog post “What the F*** Was Facebook Thinking?”

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