Apologies to Roy Lichtenstein
According to my Facebook data dump, Mark Zuckerberg knows my birthday, all 40 of my interests, my wedding anniversary, and that time in 2011 that I checked in at a castle in Scotland.
I’ve been a Facebook user since it became available to public universities in 2004 - almost fifteen years of my life and countless hours of effort have been put into status boxes, photo updates, and checkins. Fifteen years of thoughts, feelings, fears, and hopes, produced and shared at the hands of some dude in a gray hoodie on the other side of the country.
But, in spite of Mark owning a company that has for years now tried to understand how and what people do online, and in spite of our long-standing “In a Relationship” status, it’s clear that he still doesn’t understand anything about me.
If he did, he wouldn’t have written me this letter.
To be fair, it was a letter to all of Facebook’s 2.1 billion active users (or at least those who read print versions of major US papers.) In the letter, he addressed the Cambridge Analytica controversy and closed by thanking us for believing in the community and promising to do better.
For sure, Mark has appologized many times before. In 2006, he appologized for breaches of privacy in the News Feed. In 2010, for calling his users dumb fucks. In 2016, on Yom Kippur, he reflected that he was sorry for contributing to divisiveness in the country.
You would think that, having done a lot of these apologies, Mark would be great at them. But his latest has done nothing to reassure me that he’ll change any of his behavior. And, in fact, he hasn’t.
I suspect from what he’s said in the media outside of the apology, that even he still doesn’t completely grasp the enormity of this thing that he built, and now absolutely cannot control it, even if he wanted to.
Because the problem is, that Mark started out building something to connect people, but instead what he ended up creating was a toxic platform to manipulate human thought.
How can he possibly assure us that he’s going to cut that out?
I’ve given this some thought, and I’ve realized that if he really did understand me, the following is the open letter he would have writen, instead.
Dear User 752461218193242,
In the early days of Facebook, when I couldn’t sleep at night, I would create fun polls featuring my dog.
Now, when I can’t sleep and since my laywers won’t let me write anything, I look at log files. Have you ever really looked at a log file? It’s so relaxing. And I have so, so many of them. And, grepping through code meets a personal goal of mine, to touch a piece of my users’ data every day.
I noticed when I was looking at your logs, User 752461218193242, that you haven’t been active lately. It looks like you posted some stuff about being hopeful for the country around July 4, 2017. Then, you liked a children’s event taking place at a pick-your-own fruit farm in August, and then, you promptly disappeared from actively writing statues. You didn’t even put up an ‘I quit Facebook’ status for pity.
I mean, yeah, ok. From the data Facebook has automatically scraped from your blog since you linked to it once, it looks like you have concerns. You wrote in 2011 that Facebook stressed you out.
I’ve come to the realization that Facebook makes me anxious. For example, I decided that Thursday last week was a beautiful fall night to smoke hookah with my husband. As soon as I decided it, I thought. Oh, I should post a Facebook update. Or take a picture of the hookah and then upload it. Why did I want to let people know that I was smoking? Because I wanted them to think that I was cool, exotic, to be jealous, and to leave lots of comments on my Facebook page, which I would later refresh to check.
All of this was perfectly normal inside my head, but it sounds perfectly stupid if you’re actually talking about it. Are all of us really living our lives for Facebook updates? So we can get a few likes on a status?
In 2013, after the Snowden revelations, you wrote that you were anxious about the government collecting all of our Facebook activity. (Don’t worry, they don’t collect it anymore. We just have them log in to Hive directly.)
In 2017, you wrote what was, frankly, a really long post outlining what we collect, which was great, because even we have absolutely no idea or control over how much stuff we keep.
But, you were still on Facebook, dude. Even writing and researching that post couldn’t keep you off, because that’s where all your friends and your events were. Like cigarettes, we were working as designed.
And then, one day, in the summer, I saw in the logs that you were refreshing your Facebook feed in the middle of the night on Firefox mobile. I know you don’t use Messenger because we collect all your contacts, scan your pictures, maybe use your mic, whatever.
m.facebook.com is harder to navigate, anyway. Your loss. And then, I noticed that your browser crashed and wiped your login information. I haven’t seen you active on the site again. What gives?
What can I do to get you back on the platform, 752461218193242? How can I continue to monetize you? We’ve been through so much together, from the first time you posted on your wall
to when you got married,
to when you bought your house,
to that time you, for some reason, felt the need to check in at the BLO OUT Blow Dry Bar. We miss you meaninglessly adding “The Sopranos” to your favorite shows, your rants about open internet, your refusal to post baby photos so we can scoop them up in DeepFace.
Look, 752461218193242, do you think all of this has been easy for me?
I started out building systems that were interesting to me, and maybe useful to other people. Coming off my high of building Zucknet, a BASIC chat network not unlike AOL Instant Messenger, that worked in my dad’s dental office, I built a music player, and, then, as a college student at Harvard, an app that rated people based on hotness.. I was scolded by the administration. I already had a bunch of quick wins.
From the day I started Thefacebook,
I thought I could do whatever I want.
Zuck: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard
Zuck: Just ask
Zuck: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS
[Redacted Friend’s Name]: What? How’d you manage that one?
Zuck: People just submitted it.
Zuck: I don’t know why.
Zuck: They “trust me”
Zuck: Dumb fucks.
Did I think through to the reprecussions? No, because no one could. (By the way, I totally absolve all responsibilty for that quote, and I can’t believe someone would log my chat history without asking. Rude.) I didn’t really have a plan.
In fact, when the Harvard Crimson interviewed me in 2004, I didn’t even know if I wanted to do ads.
Zuckerberg currently pays for the server space—which he said costs about $85 per month—out of pocket, but even that may change as thefacebook.com evolves.
“It might be nice in the future to get some ads going to offset the cost of the servers,” he said.
I loved that college kids wrote that they were addicted to it.
I’d stumbled upon the idea of ambient humanity, of everyone buzzing in and out around this one site like some kind of bee hive on steroids, and I definitely wasn’t going to give that up once investors came calling.
Look, 752461218193242, the people loved my product, and I needed to it grow. I quit Harvard and moved to Palo Alto, where I focused on doing keg stands, fielding interviews, and recruiting people to come work for Thefacebook.
In 2005, Thefacebook, opened to all colleges by now, and backed by Napster’s Sean Parker, rebranded to the more grown-up Facebook.
Things were moving fast. Companies came calling. Yahoo tried to make a purchase that fell apart, and I realized that I couldn’t continue to do kegstands. I was now a serious business dude, and my business was connection.
The striking thing about the real Zuckerberg, in video and in print, is the relative banality of his ideas concerning the “Why” of Facebook. He uses the word “connect” as believers use the word “Jesus,” as if it were sacred in and of itself: “So the idea is really that, um, the site helps everyone connect with people and share information with the people they want to stay connected with….” Connection is the goal. The quality of that connection, the quality of the information that passes through it, the quality of the relationship that connection permits—none of this is important.
We were moving fast, breaking things, pissing people off, and collecting data. To feed the growth monster, Thefacebook began to sell ads.
The earliest ads that Colleran remembers placing on Facebook were from PartyPoker.com, Cutco knives, a smattering of summer camps and, perhaps most notably, Apple. As it so happens, Colleran says he worked with Path founder Dave Morin, who at the time was on the college marketing team at Apple before getting hired to Facebook. Rather than simply throw up a banner ad, Apple invested in sponsored groups, a novel feature that let brands pay to drive traffic to their group pages on the social network. The Apple deal helped generate hundreds of thousands of dollars per month for Facebook, according to Kirkpatrick, and demonstrated the potential of moving beyond a simple banner ad.
I thought in 2005 that I hated ads, but really what it turned out I hated was not having money.
And, look, did you mind the ads? By that point, you were already fully hooked. Facebook became the medium that conferred reality of experience, an extension of the real world, a status symbol, a third place where the ambient hum of the internet reflected back into how we felt about real life.
Also, I was making a lot of money. A. Lot. Of. Money.
Look, 752461218193242, the money was good, but now we were competing with Foursquare, with Twitter, and most importantly with users. When we were small, it was easy. Whatever I said was the word. Word. But now, we had to do annoying things like explaining why we were tracking people across the web.
I’m not going to say I’ve gotten good at apologies, but I’ve gotten good at apologies. The way I see it, it’s kind of like pushing bad code. You push bad code, it breaks the build, you do a new pull request, refactor, and overwrite it. No harm done.
Yeah, we kept breaching privacy, And yeah, I had a pretty terrible interview with Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg at D8 in 2010.
But, like, it was fine, because we’d learned from our mistakes and moved on to make different ones. As time went on, 752461218193242, I became more and more legit. My 2009 challenge was to wear a tie every day..
I was supporting the needs of almost 1 billion users across the entire world. I visited Moscow, a trip that I now wish had never taken, seeing as to how I don’t ever want to have any relationship with anything Russian ever again. I shook hands with Obama. I married Priscilla.
Facebook was growing up, too. My company, initially started with a simple PHP site, was now an engineering powerhouse, creating tools like Hive, to store and analyze the growing amount of data generated by users of the platform.
A data science team, started in 2010, started analyzing things like user happiness and, funny enough, election turnouts.
It may be true that we crossed the line in collecting data about people, but I swear to you, 752461218193242, that I still have no idea what you as a human are interested in or what your motivations are. That’s why we continue to serve you ads for wedding dresses when you have a three-year-old.
In 2014, it got real. I turned 30. I bought a company that wasn’t making any money, for
$1 billion and have been trying to figure out what to do with it ever since. And, most importantly, having siphoned off the world’s privacy, I needed my own. I purchased four houses surrounding my house, only because five weren’t available. I started renovating my original house. My neighbors were constantly complaining that they couldn’t park on the street, but to them I say, I haven’t even started to tear down those four houses to build my drone fighting ring.
But, the problem with being awesome is that now, everyone wants a piece of you. And you want to do more and more stuff. You want to buy companies for $2 billion, then $22 billion. You want to connect the entire world to the internet. Sometimes, you want to create a billion-dollar charity for your first-born.
How are you supposed to fuel all this growth? State-sponsored dinners with the Chinese don’t pay for themselves. By this point, our advertising model had shifted from a rinky dinky single server, to building big data tools hand over fist to get that advertising money.
You wrote that you felt trapped. I kind of did, too. I was trapped by growth. We had to grow or die.
Our 10-K even said it.
If we fail to retain existing users or add new users, or if our users decrease their level of engagement with our products, our revenue, financial results, and business may be significantly harmed.
More data scientists. More data engineering. More sketchy experiments to figure out how to better target to users. MOAR DATA.
Growth at any cost, even if, say, maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated by our tools (not my words, by the way, Boz’s. He’s a really controversial guy. I don’t stand with what he says. I did promote him last year, but I totally disagree. )
I’d started out Thefacebook just for kicks and giggles, but now I was stuck. I had to continue making the peons - I mean users - happy. At the same time, I had to make the advertisers happy.
I started out playing the machine, but the machine played me. Just like Facebook was now manipulating how people saw their world, capturing what they thought, shielding them from reality, running Facebook had put me in a filter bubble of my own, away from the norms of business and human behavior.
I mean, yeah, I took a tour of the United States where I tried to seem like a normal person, not a billionaire who face scans his parents as part of a side project.
Cut me some slack. I’ve never had to work as a direct report to anyone my entire career, and I’ve been running a company under massive public scrutiny for the past decade. I also spent a year taking walks in the woods with people. How normal do you expect me to be?
But like, yeah, 752461218193242. I’m sorry that you left Facebook. I really, really need you. We need to keep our numbers up. We need to keep growing, to keep eating the world, or we’re going to implode.
I get that you felt trapped and violated. Look, I can hardly leave my own house without suing the neighbors (don’t forget, totally unfair, haven’t even built that drone ring yet.)
But, really, the bad news for you is that leaving Facebook was not enough, because it’s still all around you.. Everything that I’ve created has impacted how the internet works today, from advertising, to clickbait, to the reaction buttons. I saw an article on some local newspaper site last week where they offered people to vote on smiley reactions to a story about a murder case.
Honestly, I wish I could leave, too. This whole thing is way too stressful. I have two kids. I have my house, my other four empty houses, my plots of land in Hawaii, and the plans for that drone fighting rink. I just want to tinker around, and write some code, maybe add some new, totally non-invasive face scanning features to Jarvis, see more of the country. Maybe think about my presidential campaign.
But, this thing is all around me now, completely out of my control. And 752461218193242, I have to tell you, I have no clue what to do next, and there is not a single predictive algorithm in my company that can help me.