Growth At Any Cost: Top Facebook Executive Defended Data Collection In 2016 Memo — And Warned That Facebook Could Get People Killed
Facebook Vice President Andrew “Boz” Bosworth said that “questionable contact importing practices,” “subtle language that helps people stay searchable,” and other growth techniques are justified by the company’s connecting of people.
On June 18, 2016, one of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s most trusted lieutenants circulated an extraordinary memo weighing the costs of the company’s relentless quest for growth.
“We connect people. Period. That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in. The work we will likely have to do in China some day. All of it,” VP Andrew “Boz” Bosworth wrote.
“So we connect more people,” he wrote in another section of the memo. “That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs someone a life by exposing someone to bullies.
“Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.”
The explosive internal memo is titled “The Ugly,” and has not been previously circulated outside the Silicon Valley social media giant.
The Bosworth memo reveals the extent to which Facebook’s leadership understood the physical and social risks the platform’s products carried — even as the company downplayed those risks in public. It suggests that senior executives had deep qualms about conduct that they are now seeking to defend. And as the company reels amid a scandal over improper outside data collection on its users, the memo shows that one senior executive — one of Zuckerberg’s longest-serving deputies — prioritized all-encompassing growth over all else, a view that has led to questionable data collection and manipulative treatment of its users. You can read the full post below. Facebook was unable to provide comment at the time of publication.
Bosworth is one of a small inner circle at Facebook. He joined the company in January 2006 from Microsoft and over the years has been deeply involved in everything from News Feed and Groups to Facebook's anti-abuse systems and its virtual- and augmented-reality efforts.
Bosworth, one of the company’s most outspoken employees, has also recently emerged as an outspoken defender of Facebook through his Twitter account. He responded to this story there, tweeting: "I don't agree with the post today and I didn't agree with it when I wrote it. The purpose of this post, like many others I have written internally, was to bring to the surface issues I felt deserved more discussion with the broader company."
Bosworth is known inside the company for his bluntness, two former employees said.
"The memo is classic Boz because it speaks to the majority of Facebook employee views but it's also polarizing."
“He is definitely a guy who isn't very diplomatic — he'd blunder into internal debates and internal comms would tend to keep an eye on what he's doing and posting,” one former senior employee told BuzzFeed News. “The memo is classic Boz because it speaks to the majority of Facebook employee views but it's also polarizing. Tonally he doesn't mince words. This is clearly a post meant to rally the troops.”
The Bosworth memo, which stresses the extent to which Facebook was built on “growth tactics,” reads as a statement of corporate principles, including phrases like “what we do” and “what we believe” and speaking of “our work” and “our imperative.” In the memo, he argued that Facebook believes its mission of connecting people is so important that anything it does in support of it is "*de facto* good" — even if it allows some to do true, even catastrophic, harm to others.
“The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good. It is perhaps the only area where the metrics do tell the true story as far as we are concerned,” he wrote. “That isn’t something we are doing for ourselves. Or for our stock price (ha!). It is literally just what we do. We connect people. Period.”
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There is no record of Zuckerberg's response to the memo. However, a year later in August 2017, Bosworth was tapped to run the company's consumer hardware efforts. A former employee, who was unhappy about the lack of accountability at Facebook in light of the company’s role in recent global crises, surfaced the post earlier this month. It still remains live for current workers to read.
In a statement given to BuzzFeed News after publication of this story, Zuckerberg wrote:
Boz is a talented leader who says many provocative things. This was one that most people at Facebook including myself disagreed with strongly. We've never believed the ends justify the means.
We recognize that connecting people isn't enough by itself. We also need to work to bring people closer together. We changed our whole mission and company focus to reflect this last year.
Bosworth published the post to Facebook for employees’ eyes only a day after the shooting death of a Chicago man was captured on Facebook Live, the company’s livestreaming product. Earlier that year, Facebook had been dealt a significant blow when Indian regulators rejected the company’s free internet program; that spring, the company also faced significant backlash following reports that human curators sometimes demoted conservative news sources in the company’s trending news section.
“The natural state of the world is not connected,” Bosworth wrote. “It is not unified. It is fragmented by borders, languages, and increasingly by different products. The best products don’t win. The ones everyone use win.”
With more than 2 billion users, Facebook’s relentless quest for growth has led the company to grow its market capitalization to more than $450 billion. As it was in 2016, the social network is still shut out of China, possibly explaining Bosworth’s statement about “the work we will likely have to do” someday in the world’s most populous nation.
One former employee who spoke with BuzzFeed News noted that they remembered the post and the blowback it received from some workers at the time. “It was one of [Bosworth’s] least popular and most controversial posts,” the ex-employee said. “There are people that are probably still not in his fan club because of his view.”
"The best products don’t win. The ones everyone use win."
Bosworth is a polarizing figure inside the company, according to the former employee, who said the post was viewed as “Boz being Boz.”
A former senior executive, however, pushed back on that, acknowledging the debate within some circles, but describing the memo as “super popular internally."
“Right now there's a tremendous amount of soul-searching, internally,” they said. “Views like Boz's are being raised retroactively and debated now with more vigor. There was some debate then when he posted it but there were people who'd mostly just stay out of it. But now they feel different. I assume there's going to be intense debate over this and so many other strategic vision statements in the coming weeks as part of their reckoning.”
It didn’t take long after the memo’s publication for the worst of Bosworth’s statements to be realized. On June 30, 2016, an Israeli teen was stabbed to death by a terrorist who had boasted on Facebook of his plans to die as a martyr. In July, the company was sued by the parents of five people who had allegedly been killed by Hamas since June 2014.
For Bosworth, that may have just been part of “the ugly.”
“In almost all of our work, we have to answer hard questions about what we believe,” he wrote in his memo. “We have to justify the metrics and make sure they aren’t losing out on a bigger picture. But connecting people. That’s our imperative. Because that’s what we do. We connect people.”
June 18, 2016
We talk about the good and the bad of our work often. I want to talk about the ugly.
We connect people.
That can be good if they make it positive. Maybe someone finds love. Maybe it even saves the life of someone on the brink of suicide.
So we connect more people
That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.
And still we connect people.
The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good. It is perhaps the only area where the metrics do tell the true story as far as we are concerned.
That isn’t something we are doing for ourselves. Or for our stock price (ha!). It is literally just what we do. We connect people. Period.
That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in. The work we will likely have to do in China some day. All of it.
The natural state of the world is not connected. It is not unified. It is fragmented by borders, languages, and increasingly by different products. The best products don’t win. The ones everyone use win.
I know a lot of people don’t want to hear this. Most of us have the luxury of working in the warm glow of building products consumers love. But make no mistake, growth tactics are how we got here. If you joined the company because it is doing great work, that’s why we get to do that great work. We do have great products but we still wouldn’t be half our size without pushing the envelope on growth. Nothing makes Facebook as valuable as having your friends on it, and no product decisions have gotten as many friends on as the ones made in growth. Not photo tagging. Not news feed. Not messenger. Nothing.
In almost all of our work, we have to answer hard questions about what we believe. We have to justify the metrics and make sure they aren’t losing out on a bigger picture. But connecting people. That’s our imperative. Because that’s what we do. We connect people.
This story has been updated with comment from Mark Zuckerberg and Andrew “Boz” Bosworth.