Zuckerberg’s hearings portend end of ‘move fast, break things’ era


Mark Zuckerberg has a well-rehearsed strategy to fix Facebook’s flaws. The company launches products, people complain, and then it decides if there’s anything to change once the furore gets high enough.

This “move fast and break things up” strategy will come under intense scrutiny when Zuckerberg kicks off two days of congressional testimony on Tuesday. Lawmakers will grill the Facebook CEO on issues ranging from treasure troves of data sucked up by app developers and political consultant Cambridge Analytica to Russian operatives using the social network to spread misinformation and divisiveness during the 2016 US presidential election.

Beyond the political theater, a more epic reckoning is at hand: the way Facebook builds products will change forever.

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For years, the company quickly released features and then tracked user responses to decide whether or not to continue. The designs may not have been perfect, but speed was key – hence the company’s mantra. It worked. Facebook has attracted 2 billion users and has become an advertising colossus. But the approach also meant that leaders didn’t know what was going on all the time, so they were often reactive rather than proactive when things went wrong.

While the company’s motto was officially retired in 2014, the strategy remained deeply embedded in Facebook’s engineering ranks. Going forward, Zuckerberg will need to get more practical about setting limits on what its engineers do with user data — before launching products and even if users agree to hand over their information.

In prepared remarks released on Monday, the Facebook chief made it clear that the status quo is not an option. Facebook, Zuckerberg said, hasn’t given enough thought to its responsibility to users so far. “We have a responsibility not just to create tools, but to make sure those tools are used for good,” Zuckerberg wrote.

Facebook was designed to get people to use it more and share more frequently. The more activity there is, the more data Facebook collects and the more accurately advertisers can target their ads. Product development has been shaped by user activity and surveys more than by Zuckerberg himself, employees said.

Zuckerberg’s priority for Facebook “has always been growth and the best user experience,” said Don Graham, an early investor and former board member, in a Facebook post Monday, defending the CEO. .

The business has evolved so quickly that Zuckerberg hasn’t always had time to think about the potential negative consequences of product upgrades and changes. In fact, the company has sometimes waited for the public or the media to find trouble. In remarks prepared by Zuckerberg, he acknowledged that Facebook learned what it knew about the Cambridge Analytica data leak from the media.

Even the figure published by Facebook last week, indicating that the leak could have affected 87 million users, was only an estimate. When creating the Developer Tools, it didn’t include any way to track data once it left Facebook.

Zuckerberg is the antithesis of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who often bragged that Apple tells people what they want, not the other way around. On the other hand, the Facebook chief likes that many teams tinker with the social network at the same time, choosing the moves that make people spend more time on Facebook. Warnings, when they arrive, tend to come from public relations or political departments.

In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek last year, before Facebook understood the extent of Russian interference in elections or developer data leaks, Zuckerberg said he was building products with optimism.

“If you’re trying to tackle something complex, you’ll be blamed for not fully understanding the problem from the start, even though it really is impossible to fully understand a problem when you’re doing something new,” said Zuckerberg. . “It’s not like the question is, ‘was this thing good or not.’ It’s a building block and we have to build more building blocks.”

In other words, Facebook is an unfinished product, still being refined by public feedback. Zuckerberg is now paying for this position. Over the past two weeks, he and Lt. Sheryl Sandberg have undertaken a team-by-team review of all of Facebook’s products, asking engineers to consider how the company uses data and whether it’s necessary to collect information to improve the product or improve ad targeting.

“Slowly and patiently Mark, Sheryl and their team will make Facebook better,” Graham wrote on Monday. “Should they have acted sooner? Sure. Do they understand how angry many of their users are? I’d bet a lot the answer is yes. Watch what changes they make.”

© 2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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