Businesspeople are in business for the money, won directly through profits and indirectly through the forces of market speculation. And yet, for more than a decade now, the technology industry has persuaded the public, and the street, that the efforts of firms such as Facebook and Google are conducted first for reasons of social benefit. To “change the world,” as their leaders intone, even as it becomes clear that some of the changes in question are often detrimental rather than beneficial. Perhaps it was inevitable that these optimistic, tech-industry entreaties of the aughts—make the world more open and connected, don’t be evil, and so on—would be revealed as mere Pollyannaism, naive but ultimately righteous in their ambition.
Facebook’s own public defenses lean in, as it were, to that interpretation. Mark Zuckerberg opened his testimony before Congress earlier this year by insisting that “Facebook is an idealistic and optimistic company.” More recently, as the company has reeled from report after report suggesting that it knew more, and earlier, about how its platform was being used for election meddling, its executives repeated over and over again that it had been “too slow” to respond to Russian election interference and other techniques of manipulation on the platform.
That’s a smart parry, because it implicitly reinforces the righteousness of the company and its mission. It’s not okay to have been slow, the messaging suggests, but it’s understandable given the company’s ambitious, global optimism. “Connecting people” is difficult work, so cut us some slack, the company seems to be saying.
In this context, Sandberg has an impossible task. She was hired to be “the adult in the room,” that much is true. But that epithet has been interpreted too literally and without guile. It was never really meant to involve deepening the sophistication with which Facebook understands “community” or “connecting people.” Her job was to make the company profitable, and she did. [Continue reading…]