I’m freshly out of “facebook jail” about a thirty minutes ago. I haven’t been able to post, like, or comment on Facebook for three days. What heinous crime did I commit? Well, according to Facebook, I violated their community standards, specifically I engaged in “hate speech.”
I would imagine that most of you would be surprised. I don’t really participate in politics or political discussions, either in real life, or online. Why? I have always believed that a true key to a peaceful life and a polite society is to not discuss politics or religion. These are highly divisive topics. Likely over ninety percent of human conflicts have hinged on these topics, and by extension most of the death and destruction throughout human history. I have political and religious beliefs, but none of you know what they are because I keep them to myself. The world would be a better place if most folks lived this way. Sure, I vote, but nothing I see on Facebook is going to change how I vote, and I’m not so foolish as to believe I can influence how anyone else votes. So I don’t even participate in online political discussion.
So what did I do on Facebook that landed me in “hate speech” jail?
As some of you know, I worked at Facebook from 2010 until 2015. I helped build, and for a while managed Facebook’s very first self-built datacenter in Prineville, Oregon. Along the way I helped select and train the staff hired to build several subsequent datacenters, namely Forest City, NC, Lulea, Sweden, and Altoona, Iowa. I’ve remained friends with several of these folks, including a Swede named Daniel. Daniel and his family came to Oregon in early 2013, and we discovered that we shared some passions, namely datacenters, mechanical things, ice hockey, and skiing. I make silly comments on his posts now and then, including three days ago when he posted a photo of his lawn, covered in Canada geese:
If you look closely you can see that I commented “Damn Canadians!”
After I posted that, I clicked on some other thing in my newsfeed (a video from the NHL) and it was interrupted a few seconds in by a pop-up box that said that I had violated FB’s community standards around “hate speech”… I took a screen shot of that, bounced back to Daniel’s goose pic and posted that as a comment figuring it would be even funnier than my original comment. It worked.
I then went on to scroll through my newsfeed of hockey stuff, car stuff, and friends’ posts. Within less than a minute however I was barraged by the automated Facebook AI Thought Police, who wanted to inform me of my (few, if any) rights and that I was going to be put in FB Jail for my clear crime against humanity. I dismissed the dialog box barrage as best I could and switched from my smartphone to my laptop as I know from experience that FB’s mobile UI is a suboptimal place for serious business (such as making jokes about birds.) I tried to appeal, but was only met with vague errors:
I really enjoyed my time working at Facebook (except the last 100 days, which were terrible, but a story for another time) and one of the things I appreciated about it was the level of focus evident at every level of the company. It was only 1500 people when I joined in 2010, and FB had just passed the 500 million active users mark. The impact of 1500 dedicated people building infrastructure to support half a billion users was an astounding thing to consider. I often described working at FB as the ultimate embodiment of Adam Smith’s concept of the division of labor: by hiring people for very specific skills and leveraging those skills as much as possible, a very few could create and maintain systems used by hundreds of millions, if not billions of people.
Less than a year after I joined, Facebook was faced with a true existential threat: Google, a company over 10X our size, was launching their own social network, “Google+”. I happened to be in Palo Alto at FB HQ the week it was revealed and our CEO, Mark Zuckerberg called an all-hands meeting. He described how the company had faced these challenges in the past, when the nascent social network business was a cluttered field, and the efforts that were successful in growing FB to meet those challenges each time. But Google was another thing entirely. They had 10X the staff, and rumor had it that they had more engineers dedicated to G+ than FB had people. Google’s infrastructure was well over 10X ours at the time as well. They had a global fleet of datacenters with likely more than a million servers, perhaps more than two million. Facebook had two leased wholesale datacenter groups in the Bay Area and Northern Virginia, and two self-built datacenter campuses, one that had just come online a couple of months before (and still being built), and another under construction and likely not to go live for many months. Server count was still well under an eighth of Google’s. Clearly Google had a huge leg up in terms of ability, and all FB had on our side was momentum.
Zuck outlined the plan for how we were going to counter that threat, finished with a story from Roman history, and a final exhortation: “Please guys: Don’t fuck this up!”
We, as a company, didn’t fuck that up, as Google+ sits now in the dustbin of history, but I’m telling you Facebook is fucking things up today. Not big things, but small ones that erode user trust. Such as using an algorithm to detect and take action on “hate speech” that fails to understand context, such as a funny comment about birds. But even more so when the user-prompted process to correct the error also utterly fails.
Oddly, I have avenues available to me that the vast majority of FB users can’t imagine. I used to work there and know plenty of people who still do. I reached out to several to try and sort this out, but ultimately none of them could spring me from FB Jail. So I had to wait until my sentence was up.
The one thing everyone who is still working there tells me is: “It isn’t like it was… it is much worse.” The company is now tens of thousands of employees. It is cursed by a complete lack of existential threats, and huge revenues. Why is this situation a curse? It deprives them of any real need to care. It deprives them of that focus that made it initially successful. Facebook will never truly address their real problems until they either start losing lots of money, or something comes along that truly poses them a threat to their existence. Meanwhile, they’re just stumbling, unfocused, from mistake to mistake without any corrective measure being taken, because their mistakes don’t hurt them. They only hurt their users.
Zuck, you are fucking up.