The Solution to Too Much Facebook Isn’t More Facebook

The moment I first realized that everything had changed for Facebook was right after the 2016 US presidential election with one of the first of many Zuckerbergian mea culpas. Not that first post-election post, his horribly disingenuous dodge that improbably asserted that Facebook could not have influenced the election. This, despite a Facebook political advertising sales force, now numbering probably in the hundreds, that had spent the past year claiming the contrary to every candidate with a marketing budget. No, it was Zuck’s second post, more circumspect and clearly more scripted, that described a concrete series of steps to counteract the influence he’d previously declared nonexistent. There, buried in the reassuring lingo of corporate comms-speak (“easy reporting”, “disrupting fake news economics”), lay some hidden bombs, or perhaps for the company, land mines. Not only would Facebook deign to rely on outside third-party sources, a sort of Snopes.com-ification of Facebook. It would consult with newspapers (!) on how to fact-check content itself.

To anyone (like this former Facebook employee) steeped in the company’s usual MO, this was astonishing. For the past two decades of consumer internet life, the great media intermediators had hidden behind what I’ll call the Algorithmic Pass. This was the not-altogether-wrong assertion that their companies merely optimized around user demand—providing the needy user whatever they wanted, by whatever metric—and were completely agnostic to truth, aesthetics, or political virtue. To every public clamor or brouhaha (and there were many), the answer was always, “It’s just math,” and they’d point at the roomful of geeks, replete with Nerf guns and beanbag chairs, as proof.

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Antonio García Martínez (@antoniogm) was the first ads targeting product manager on the Facebook Ads team, and author of the memoir Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley. He wrote about the internet in Cuba in WIRED’s July issue.

More than a mere corporate cover-your-ass maneuver, the Algorithmic Pass heralded a monumental shift in how modern, media-saturated humans learned about the world. No longer would handpicked mandarins at recognized media establishments—the editors and curators of our literary and political world—anoint one or another piece of content with the always malleable imprimatur of “true” or even “good.” No. Whatever piece of content, however brilliant or vile, that received an escalating chain reaction of user engagement would receive instantaneous, worldwide distribution. Having “gone viral” became a greater trophy than appearing “above the fold” (now a ludicrous concept). Vox populi, vox culturae.

And then the 2016 election happened.

Suddenly we’re all rescinding Facebook’s Algorithmic Pass, hounding the uncharacteristically beleaguered company to take some responsibility for what appears on its blue-framed pages. What’s most ironic about the hubbub is this: people fear Facebook’s power, so they ask Facebook to take on even more power by taking a very direct hand in what appears there, rather than a very second-order mathematical one. As Facebook’s power grows and our trust erodes, we somehow overcompensate by rushing to entrust them with even more.

Contemplate this unsettling vision: Mark Zuckerberg, or more likely one of his deputies, sitting in the equivalent of the afternoon editorial meeting at The New York Times, where the day’s news—which stories will appear, and which won’t—are decided: this news source discarded as fake or spammy, this one included and effectively boosted in the newsfeed. As much as I grew to admire some of the company’s culture as an employee, I realize as much as anyone how they can (and do) descend into groupthink and biases of various flavors. Do we really want Zuck as global news editor versus a disinterested algorithm that merely optimizes toward some objective and picks the day’s news winners and losers? The editor is dead; long live the editor, only now with editor-in-chief Zuckerberg.

Oddly enough, it’s a job he and the company don’t want. “We’re a technology company, not a media company,” has been the constant refrain, along with invocations of the Algorithmic Pass, for engineering-centric companies like Facebook. MOVE FAST AND BREAK THINGS and DONE IS BETTER THAN PERFECT were the Facebook mantras (as immortalized on their many in-office posters), not ALL THE NEWS THAT’S FIT TO PRINT and DEMOCRACY DIES IN DARKNESS.

And it shows.

Around 2015, as Facebook’s Trending Topics product dithered in embarrassing irrelevance (a shameless rip of Twitter’s Trending feature, it appears on the right-hand side during most Facebook sessions), the company stooped to hiring humans—HUMANS!—to fix its deficient software product. Within 18 months or so, all had been fired and the human effort shuttered, but not before, in an absolute and unusual violation of Facebook’s typically ironclad OPSEC, some of them spilled the beans about how horrible working at Facebook had been, with some even suggesting they’d been pushed to bias the news. A half-trillion-dollar company armed with some of the best technical minds in the world couldn’t manage a dozen or so wet-behind-the-ears journalism grads, something the Sacramento Bee manages annually without much ado. That’s how good Facebook is at being a media company.

But if there’s anything I grew to respect while working at Facebook, it was the company’s unnatural ability to pivot in a completely new direction and iterate rapidly toward excellence there, no matter how originally foreign the territory. With the feds breathing down their neck (Facebook is testifying before Congress this week) and Zuckerberg issuing public apologies during the Jewish Day of Atonement, the company has been shaken like nothing I’ve ever seen as employee or outside observer. If the world wants Facebook as editor, they’ll sure get it, for better or worse.

What’s that mean in practice? From the company’s hints, it will involve the aforementioned third-party fact-checking services, a sort of Snopes-ification of the Facebook experience. Based on both that and user input, content will first be conspicuously flagged as false and then effectively disappeared from newsfeed distribution, as porn or other terms-of-service-violating content is now. In addition, based on its short-lived experiments in human editing around Trending Topics, Facebook will almost certainly draw up a list of acceptable news outlets of passable truthiness, boosting their distribution at the expense of second-tier (or no-tier) content producers.

There’ll be some clear downsides though.

The death-by-algorithm of the media gatekeepers meant that many new voices rose to the fore that would never have jumped through the arbitrary hoops of conventional publication. XKCD, The Oatmeal, Stratechery, Slate Star Codex, Ribbonfarm, Wait But Why—all those weird but clever bloggers or cartoonists who joked, scribbled, or illustrated their way to online fame, viral post after viral post—the new crop of those will find it very hard to hustle themselves an audience. The lone, nonconforming online genius may just be muted along with that Russian political ad farm. Your byline isn’t on Slate or The Washington Post? Too bad, lone content creator.

Which brings us to the other ironic thing about all of this: In order to preserve our political democracy, which elevates the most popular among us (though perhaps not the finest) to power, we’ll seemingly abandon a total democracy of thought, which does the same for ideas. You can judge a people by how much freedom they can tolerate without destroying themselves. It seems the power for anyone to go viral and attain a global audience, through articulate reasoning or just clickbait-y libel, was a just bit too much freedom for us to bear.

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Facebook Job Postings Reveal Hiring at Oculus, Instagram, WhatsApp and More

The company is staffing with an eye on the future.

A new analysis of job postings at Facebook may cast a light on the social network’s next act, with hiring at Oculus, Instagram, WhatsApp and other products revealing how the company possibly plans to develop its diverse portfolio. The research, conducted by CB Insights, organized more than 2,000 open Facebook jobs into various categories, showing that the area with most opportunity for applicants was in the company’s product teams, though software engineers and legal, finance, and administrative personnel are also in demand with the Menlo Park, Calif.-company.

CB Insight’s report revealed Facebook is “rapidly increasing headcount to strengthen its specialized product and product innovation teams,” with Oculus alone boasting 9% of the total jobs open at the company. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, as virtual reality technology has huge potential, from connecting people to remote places to helping companies train new employees. Facebook also recently revealed a new Oculus VR headset that doesn’t need to be connected to a smartphone or PC. The new Oculus Rift headset will be available for sale next year.

But Oculus isn’t alone in its hiring blitz. The online job website Indeed currently lists nearly 1,500 Facebook jobs—in locations as far-flung as Austin, Chicago, New York City, and Seattle—including openings for a research manager position at WhatsApp, a product researcher at Instagram, and a customer service lead at Building 8, the company’s consumer hardware division.

The move to bulk up these ancillary products could be a defense against the potential weakening of Facebook’s main stock and trade, the social network itself. In light of the political fallout surrounding the Russian interference in the 2016 election, which Facebook appears to have unwittingly played a role in, the website (and many other online advertising companies) could be subject to increased regulations, a development that would certainly soften the company’s bottom line.

But don’t expect regulatory changes to occur without a fight. As CB Insights points out, Facebook is staffing accordingly—Indeed is currently advertising more than 40 jobs on Facebook’s public policy team.

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Famed Architect’s Lawsuit Against Google Just Got Much More Serious

Eli Attia alleges he wasn’t the only one mistreated by the search giant.

A long-running lawsuit filed against Google by a prominent architect has just gotten much broader.

Last week, the Superior Court of California granted a motion adding racketeering charges to the civil case being pursued against Google by Eli Attia, an expert in high-rise construction. Attia claims Google stole his idea for an innovative building design method – and now he wants to prove that it does the same thing frequently.

Attia’s suit was originally filed in 2014, four years after he began discussions with Google (prior to its reorganization as Alphabet) about developing software based on a set of concepts he called Engineered Architecture. Attia has said Engineered Architecture, broadly described as a modular approach to building, would revolutionize the design and construction of large buildings. Attia developed the concepts based on insights gleaned from his high-profile architecture career, and has called them his life’s work.

Google executives including Google X cofounder Astro Teller came to share his enthusiasm, and championed developing software based on Engineered Architecture as one of the company’s “moonshots.” But Attia claims the company later used his ideas without fulfilling an agreement to pay to license them.

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Attia’s suit names not just Google, but individual executives including founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. It also names Flux Factory, the unit Attia’s suit alleges was spun off specifically to capitalize on his ideas.

Speaking to the San Jose Mercury News, Attia’s lawyer claims Google told Attia his project had been cancelled, “when in fact they were going full blast on it.” Flux Factory is now known as Flux, and touts itself as “the first company launched by Google X.”

Attia’s suit will now also seek to prove that his case is representative of a much broader pattern of behavior by Alphabet. According to court documents, the motion to add racketeering charges hinged on six similar incidents. Those incidents aren’t specified in the latest court proceedings, but Alphabet has faced a similar trade-secrets battle this summer over X’s Project Loon, which has already led to Loon being stripped of some patents.

The idea of racketeering charges entering the picture will surprise many who associate them with violent organized criminals. But under RICO statutes, civil racketeering suits can be brought by private litigants against organizations and individuals alleged to have engaged in ongoing misdeeds. The broader use of racketeering charges has slowly gained ground since the introduction of RICO laws in the 1960s, with some famous instances including suits against Major League Baseball and even the Los Angeles Police Department.

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Ford Rethinks the F-150, Toyota Gets a New Lidar, London Battles with Uber and More Car News This Week

More than a century after the dawn of the automobile age, cars are a young person’s game again. Sure, the grey-haired bigwigs have started to catch on to the big trends—electricity, automation, connectedness—but if this week’s news is any indication, it’s the youth leading the charge. From the 22-year-old laser genius to the self-driving pioneer who fell from grace to the college kids rethinking America’s favorite ride, the kids have had a wild seven days. Let’s get you caught up.

Headlines

Stories you might have missed from WIRED this week

  • If you’ve followed the world of self-driving cars in the past decade chances are you’ve heard of Anthony Levandowski. He’s had a wild ride in recent years, building a self-driving motorcycle, helping launch Google’s autonomy project, and now, getting caught in the center of a barnstormer of a lawsuit between Google and Uber. With that trial just a few weeks away Mark Harris at WIRED’s sister publication Backchannel wrote a captivating profile of Levandowski—including his foundation of a religious organization dedicated to artificially intelligent robots.

  • Looking for a life that hasn’t been derailed by a vicious lawsuit and the specter of criminal charges? I spent some time with Austin Russell, the 22-year-old founder and CEO of Luminar. After dropping out of Stanford at 17, Russell spent five years rebuilding the lidar laser sensors widely considered critical for fully driverless, and just sold a bunch of the things to Toyota.

  • Ford is worried about the vitality of its sacred cash cow, the F-150, Jack reports. To stay relevant, it has turned to a crew of students to rethink its next generation of pickups for an age of autonomy and electricity. The design competition will run until December, and we’ll have more to report when we see what the kids think of the future.

  • Meanwhile, Ford’s established (i.e., professional) designers are learning new tricks, Eric Adams tells us. The automaker has started using Microsoft Hololens augmented reality goggles to make car creation faster, easier, and way cooler.

  • Across the pond, London is fighting back against the youthful revolutionaries, refusing to extend Uber’s license to operate on its streets. A legal battle looms, but whatever the outcome, Aarian says, London makes clear that old fogeys can erect their own barricades.

Across the other pond, Gogoro is expanding its service to Japan. This isn’t just about some cool electric scooters. I break down how the company thinks it can change way more than transportation.

Pivot of the Week

Aston Martin

Old-timer Aston Martin has had a good couple of years, pumping out fresh offerings like the DB11 and Vanquish Volante S. This week, it introduced a different kind of vehicle. A submarine. It’s called Project Neptune, and it will be a certainly swanky, limited production submersible that definitely won’t be used by fleeing rich people when the FBI swarms their yachts.

Required Reading

News from elsewhere on the internet

  • More than two years after showing off the world’s first self-driving semi, Daimler has announced plans to test platooning tech on US roads, Reuters reports. Instead of one truck driving itself, platooning involves a fleet of vehicles driving very closely together with the help of automatic and connected controls, to cut wind resistance and save on fuel. Down the road, you could even leave just the one human in the lead vehicle, to add salary savings to the pile.

  • If the autonomous vehicle industry is a party, Lyft is that dude who somehow gets along with everybody. Uber’s arch-rival has already set up partnerships with General Motors, Waymo, Land Rover, and startups Nutonomy and Drive.ai. Now, per The New York Times, Ford is among the folks working to deploy robocars via Lyft’s ridehailing network.

  • A minor mystery in the auto world is why Toyota, after making the world’s first popular hybrid (the Prius), didn’t capitalize on its technological lead to surge into fully electric cars. Another riddle: Why Mazda is still tinkering with things like archaic, famously dirty rotary engine, and insists it can wring diesel-like power from gasoline engines. Whatever the answers, the Japanese automakers have now joined forces to catch up with the electric current. The Verge reports Toyota and Mazda, along with supplier Denso, have formed a new venture called EV Common Architecture Spirit Co Ltd., to develop battery-powered rides.

  • Wanna know the real reason automakers are ramping up their electric efforts? It’s because regulators around the world—prodded by revelations of Volkswagen’s dirty diesels and the Paris climate accord—are making plans to ban sales of gasoline- and diesel-powered cars. China, the world’s largest market, is leading that charge. This week, it ratcheted up its demands that automakers selling vehicles in the country produce electrics. “China has triggered the worldwide electric car festival,” one analyst told The Wall Street Journal.

In the Rearview

Essential stories from WIRED’s canon.

Interested in Anthony Levandowski’s glory days? Douglas McCray’s 2004 reporting from the first Darpa Grand Challenge introduces the engineer when he was just a Berkeley grad student with the wild idea of building a motorcycle that could drive itself across the desert.

Tech

Uber, reviving old tactic, is backed by more than 500,000 in London row

SAN FRANCISCO/LONDON (Reuters) – Half a million people have signed an online petition in under 24 hours backing Uber’s bid to stay on the roads of London, showing the company is turning to its tried-and-tested tactic of asking customers for help when it locks horns with regulators.

London’s transport authorities stunned the powerful U.S. start-up on Friday when they deemed Uber unfit to run a taxi service for safety reasons and stripped it of its license from Sept. 30, although it can operate while it appeals.

The regulator cited failures to report serious criminal offences, conduct sufficient background checks on drivers and other safety issues, threatening the U.S. firm’s presence in one of the world’s wealthiest cities.

Uber immediately urged users in London to sign a petition that said the city authorities had “caved in to a small number of people who want to restrict consumer choice”.

By 1400 GMT on Saturday, nearly 540,000 people had signed although it was not clear how many of them were in London.

Uber counted 3.5 million active users in London in the past three months. Even if many tourists are probably included in the total, the figure represents a potential political force of commuters who face long journeys between their home and offices and who use Uber as a cheaper alternative to other taxi firms.

Turning to users for help is one of the first steps in Uber’s playbook. In Jakarta, Budapest, Toronto and Portland it asked riders to sign petitions and built online tools to contact lawmakers to show their support.

Regulators have at least partly relented in Portland, Toronto and Jakarta, but Budapest remains a work in progress.

Uber now faces a showdown with London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan, who this month said he wouldn’t let his teenage daughters use cabs like Uber on their own over fears for their safety.

Khan, a leading figure in Britain’s opposition Labour Party, said on Saturday he had sympathy with Uber drivers and customers.

“But their anger really should be directed at Uber,” Khan said in a statement. “They have let down their drivers and customers by failing, in the view of TfL, to act as a fit and proper operator.”

But he also suggested that Uber might eventually be allowed to continue operating in London.

“I want to be absolutely clear that there is a place in London for all private hire companies that play by the rules,” Khan said. “I suspect it will take some time before this situation with Uber fully plays out.”

As mayor, Khan is chairman of Transport for London, the regulator which stripped Uber of its license.

London’s decision is the first major challenge for new Uber Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi, who took over from co-founder and ex-CEO Travis Kalanick. He was forced out after internal and external investigations into sexual harassment complaints, the thwarting of government inquiries and potential bribery.

NEW REGIME?

So far, Khosrowshahi has adopted a softer tone to the crisis in London than his predecessor did in similar situations.

“Dear London: we (are) far from perfect” Khosrowshahi tweeted on Friday. But he noted that 40,000 drivers and millions of riders were dependent on the service. “Please work with us to make things right.”

A taxi drives past the London Eye in central London, Britain September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Khosrowshahi appeared to be following earlier game plans, said Bradley Tusk, an Uber investor who advised on policy in New York City for the company.

“A lot of people rely on it, so there’s going to be a lot of fertile ground to mobilise,” Tusk said. “If real people are angry, it’s a lot harder for regulators.”

But while Uber has been ready to make campaigns personal in the past, Khosrowshahi may take a more moderate tone.

In New York City, Austin, Texas and Washington, D.C., Uber hired political ad agencies and consultants and blasted political leaders for supporting measures that could eliminate jobs and worsen traffic.

During a stand-off in New York City in 2015, Uber named a mock feature on its app after the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, and used it to warn that a regulatory proposal he backed could increase waits for rides.

Kalanick issued tweets criticizing opponents, including an all-capitalized message saying “WATCH THIS!” which linked to a video that suggested the mayor was obstructing social progress.

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“They have a lot more scrutiny on them now,” said Reed Galen, a political consultant who worked with Uber on a campaign in Austin. “Going with the old idea of punching the local leader in the nose, that strategy doesn’t work when you’ve had the issues Uber has had.”

Khosrowshahi’s statements on Friday were an “absolutely different take”, Galen said.

In an internal email seen by Reuters, Khosrowshahi said there was a “high cost” to having a bad reputation. He described it as “critical” that employees “act with integrity in everything we do, and learn how to be a better partner to every city we operate in”.

WAITING GAME

For a company known for the speed of its growth, Uber has shown patience when needed. It has long treated tussles with government as inevitable challenges, but ones it sees as temporary setbacks.

Uber has suspended its services for months in some markets, including Alaska and Texas. But it’s been able to return within a year or two in most cases by working out new rules or turning to higher authorities such as courts and state governments.

The efforts have a cost. Uber and rival Lyft Inc together spent more than $ 10 million on a failed ballot-box campaign in Austin and millions more on lobbying elsewhere in Texas.

Uber continues to engage in a cat-and-mouse game with city officials in many of the 600 plus cities in which it operates.

It suspended services in July in Finland but plans to re-enter Helsinki next year after a law was passed de-regulating taxi services.

Whether Uber continues such tactics is unclear. But Tusk said Uber was probably already in touch with members of Britain’s parliament.

In a sign of early political opposition to London’s move, Greg Hands, the minister for London in the Conservative government, hit out at what he called a “blanket ban” on Uber.

“At the flick of a pen Sadiq Khan is threatening to put 40,000 people out of work and leave 3.5 million users of Uber stranded,” Hands tweeted late on Friday.

“Once again the actions of Labour leave ordinary working people (to) pay the price for it.”

Additional reporting by Eric Auchard in Frankfurt; Editing by Peter Henderson and Andrew Bolton

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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