Facebook Is Still Prioritizing Scale Over Safety

Facebook often uses its vast size as an excuse for its failures. Meanwhile, it’s ordering employees to make it bigger.

Facebook's growth at any cost mentality has birthed innumerable scandals over the past decade — election meddling, political discord, privacy invasion. Yet today, after repeated apologies and promises to do better, that mentality remains largely unchanged. BuzzFeed News has learned the company continues to evaluate and compensate product managers based mostly on their ability to grow its products, with little regard to the impact of those products on the world. In fact, for Facebook, the very word “impact” is often defined by internal growth rather than external consequences and it uses growth metrics as key criteria for evaluating performance and determining compensation changes.

This emphasis on growth, particularly as it’s tied to performance evaluation, encourages Facebook’s employees to focus on growth above all else, sources close to the company told BuzzFeed News.

“Working at Facebook made me aware of how you can reprogram humans,” one ex–product manager who recently left the company said. “It's hard to believe that you could get humans to override all of their values that they came in with. But with a system like this, you can. I found that a bit terrifying.”

“When you’re building something at this scale, solutions take a good amount of time.” 

The system this product manager described — a source of concern among others who have worked for the company — has two main components: Facebook’s data science team and its performance evaluation system. The company’s data science team has years of data at its disposal, which it uses to pinpoint how much a team should grow a product it’s working on. Facebook’s product teams use that information to set goals every six months as part of a “roadmap planning” process. The criterion is typically growth, though there are sometimes other goals as well, like reducing harmful behavior on its service.

Facebook calls its product managers’ ability to hit their metric “impact,” and impact can count for high percentages of product managers’ evaluations, though it varies by position and level. At the end of the evaluation process, each individual is assigned a rating by a manager — ranging from “doesn’t meet expectations” to “redefines expectations” — which is algorithmically tied to their compensation. Managers at Facebook aren’t given discretionary raise pools (raises are handed out evenly based on ratings) and there is no appeals process for evaluations, making a good rating paramount if you work at Facebook.

“Teams are definitely concerned about showing impact, because the best way to get more resources is to show impact and grow your metrics,” another product manager who recently left Facebook told BuzzFeed News. “I'd say I'm pro-metrics. But the whole thing is this: They're attached to performance in a way that makes it feel like they’re the end all, be all.”

Charles Obih, a Facebook employee who left this fall, said the system itself is imperfect and prone to manipulation. “Any system that can be gamed, will be gamed,” he said. “If you tell me my rating is attached to my pay and it's attached to my promotion, eventually people are going to start doing work strictly based upon getting good ratings.”

“Eventually people are going to start doing work strictly based upon getting good ratings.”

“Our performance evaluations focus on recognizing and rewarding both short and long-term work,” a Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “Product Managers can’t have an impact without being collaborative, meaning how they get their job done matters just as much. Facebook’s long term bets like virtual reality are proof of our focus on time horizons much longer than six months.”

The first ex–product manager said the team managing Facebook pages gamed the system to grow the amount of “monthly active businesses.” When business page administrators did something with Facebook’s tools within a month, they’d count as active. So the team would keep sending notifications — about anything — so that they’d sign back in, helping the team hit the metric, even if they knew it would annoy users.

In another case, a high-ranking Facebook official told the company’s employees that people were opening the app 12 times a day, a drop from the typical 14, and that this was extremely worrying. “When he said that I was like, 100% of the people who went from 14 to 12 are happy that they went from 14 to 12. Only Facebook is unhappy about that,” the former product manager said.

Monomaniacal pursuit of growth has fed years of scandal for Facebook. The company has grown its user base while allowing its News Feed to fill with outrage, sensationalism, and fake news. But the great irony here is that Facebook and its leadership have consistently blamed many of the platform's problems and its long-time-coming fixes for them on its vast size. Recall Mark Zuckerberg's remarks in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal: “When you’re building something at this scale, solutions take a good amount of time," he said. "I don’t think me or anyone else can come in and have these issues resolved in a quarter or half year." This has become Facebook's go-to defense for the harms it has caused. It's difficult to moderate disinformation at scale. It's not easy to solve for hate speech at scale. Vetting ads at scale is tough. Problem is, Facebook's id — its most basic, instinctual drive — is the drive for scale.

Problem is, Facebook's id — its most basic, instinctual drive — is the drive for scale.

Operating as a publicly traded company in the zero-sum game of social media, where losing people’s interest can mean a swift shareholder decline, Facebook views growth as necessary for survival. And though growth is a goal for companies throughout Silicon Valley, and the broader economy, Facebook has codified it into its culture in a way few others have. Its intense focus on growth can impede it from pausing to consider the ramifications of its work. These discussions do happen at Facebook, but they don’t occur at the same frequency as they do inside some of its competitors, like Google.

Facebook has tweaked this system recently. In January, Facebook said it would change its bonus system to factor in social progress. Last year, instead of emphasizing time spent and engagement as a core metric, it asked its teams to grow “meaningful social interactions,” or back-and-forth discussions between people using Facebook. While every Facebook insider BuzzFeed News spoke with viewed this as a step in the right direction, some still expressed concerns that the company was simply substituting one metric for another, and ultimately leaving the system in place.

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