What are Facebook’s priorities?
This is a critical question when gauging how much Facebook deserves users’ trust, or anyone else’s trust given the outsize role the company plays in communication, news, and other aspects of our lives. If you delete your Facebook account and your neighbors use information they receive on Facebook as an excuse not to vaccinate their kids, that could affect your life – especially if you’re caring for someone with a compromised or under-developed immune system. If you are in a part of the world susceptible to violence erupting after the spread of inflammatory information, the consequences can be equally or even more life-threatening.
That makes Facebook’s relationship with Cognizant, a publicly traded firm that Facebook contracts with for content moderation, so troubling. My issue isn’t with Cognizant in general. According to CBS News, it employs 280,000 people, and I’ll give the benefit of the doubt here that for the vast majority of them, they are thrilled to be earning their wages and supporting themselves and their families.
But by Facebook tapping Cognizant for content moderation, as described in depth in the latest Casey Newton story on the toll moderation takes on the moderators, Facebook indicates that this is not enough of a priority to run in-house.
What are greater priorities for Facebook? There are two ways to look at this. One is by gauging what Facebook has acquired – which clearly must have been core to Facebook’s plans at one point (at a minimum, it could have prevented a competitor from using such an acquisition to develop an offering that could threaten Facebook). Another is by looking at what Facebook has developed in-house.
According to Wikipedia, Facebook has acquired 80 companies. These include:
* Nextstop (travel recommendations)
* MailRank (email prioritization)
* Tagtile (customer loyalty app)
* Karma (social gifting)
* Face.com (facial recognition platform)
* Hot Studio (design agency)
* Oculus VR (virtual reality)
* Ascenta (high-altitude drones)
* Two Big Ears (spatial audio)
* Fayteq AG (augmented reality)
As for what Facebook has developed in-house, those contributions seem even more impressive. This Wired story describes what the company has done, mostly behind the scenes unless you closely follow such technological developments. Wired’s Klint Finley describes how Facebook is responsible for: developing database system Cassandra and opening up its code, contributing heavily to big data platform Hadoop, creating and open-sourcing popular artificial intelligence frameworks, releasing numerous original inventions through its now-independent Open Compute Project, and its open-source React application-building library that is used by Airbnb, Netflix, and Walmart.
All of this indicates that Facebook has the smarts, cash, and drive to build or buy pretty much anything it sets its corporate sights on. They may not always work; investments such as Oculus clearly haven’t delivered the returns a company like Facebook would hope for. Some ideas fell by the wayside, like social gifting (those were fun times, like the ringtone era, but for social media). Still, these acquisitions and innovations all got the requisite executive and board approval. Moving content moderation in-house did not.
There are two reasons for Facebook to keep monitoring at arm’s length:
1) Less accountability: Where is Facebook most vulnerable? When it comes to accusations that it is helping nefarious actors interfere in geopolitics, or it is broadcasting videos of violence, or it is spreading deadly misinformation like anti-vaccination lies that can literally kill people. How much better is it for Facebook to say, “Sorry, the company handling our monitoring made a mistake; we’ll institute some better protocols, and this will never happen again, until tomorrow.” These are Michael Scott apologies, as any fan of America’s “The Office” will recognize.
2) Less overhead: Beyond committing itself – with the requisite financial resources – to own every stage of content review and moderation, Facebook doesn’t have to treat the staff like its own employees. Presumably, there are some content moderators who do exceptionally well, holding up mentally and emotionally well and using that resilience to execute their jobs practically perfectly. Beyond wishful thinking, the law of averages alone would mean that such star hires exist. It’s a fairly safe assumption that they don’t then receive the same cushy rewards as similarly exceptional, off-the-charts full-time Facebook employees. I’ve heard how Facebook’s bonus structure works, and – this is just a guess until Casey Newton or others do a direct comparison of benefits – I’d wager pretty much anyone would opt for Facebook’s bonus plan.
I have more questions than answers; I don’t have Casey’s job, nor his brilliance to investigate and tell such stories. But I do wonder whether Facebook would be better off with more content moderators and fewer drones.
That’s what I’m grappling this week. I hope you’ve got some more upbeat news to share. What are you making of yourself?
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LEARN. TRY. SHARE.
MAKE SURE YOU’RE SITTING DOWN
Again, be sure to read Casey Newton’s latest investigative journalism, “Bodies in Seats,” unless it is just too much to handle (which is understandable, given the dark and sensitive subject matter).
HOW TO BUILD YOUR NETWORK
Heidi Cohen has a lot of thoughts about building your network – along with the how, it’s a who, what, where, when, why spread. https://heidicohen.com/build-your-network/
POKÉMON MAY LITERALLY BE ON YOUR BRAIN
Or at least in your brain. If you were a Pokémon die-hard as a kid, you might have a part of your visual cortex dedicated to recognizing the monsters.
NOW WITH UNICORNS!
First, there were 16 Types of Startup Marketers. Then 17. And now there are… 18! Beyond adding the Unicorn (with a brand new illustration), there are new guides to assess what kind of startup marketer you are, and an FAQ section based on questions I fielded when giving the related talk in Mexico. The Unicorn may be my new favorite because it’s the one I most frequently see requested in job descriptions. Also, because she’s part unicorn.