Facebook is worth half a trillion dollars, but even when you're on top, an insult can really sting.
On the heels of a surprisingly personal and revealing exchange with a prominent former executive, the executive has softened some of his criticisms, while Facebook made what is perhaps its fullest acknowledgment to date of the negative consequences of its massive global platform.
Facebook found itself scrambling again this week after the executive, Chamath Palihapitiya. said he felt "tremendous guilt," about the products he built because they were addictive and were "ripping apart" society. Palihapitiya, a prominent and usually outspoken venture capitalist whose career was launched by his fortune and reputation as Facebook's head of growth, made the comments at a Stanford University summit a month ago. The comments went viral when they were published on a technology website, The Verge.
Palihapitiya's statements struck a nerve with Facebook, which originally responded with what some saw a personal attack. Executives then published a long blog post on Friday morning devoted to addressing longstanding questions about the harms of social media and describing the company's extensive investments into researching the impact of the platform on the well-being of its 2 billion monthly users.
The executives referenced those criticisms while broadly acknowledging the negative impact of social media use - one of the few times the company has done so. At the same time, the executives made the case that the social network has good effects and that it cares about more than just likes, shares, and clicks.
"Like everything in life, there are good ways to engage with something, and there are less good," said David Ginsberg, Facebook's director of research and a co-author of the post, in an interview. "What's we've learned is that when you're actively engaging with people you're close to, having meaningful social interactions, that can actually lift your well-being, but if you're just passively and endlessly scrolling on your news feed, and not engaging, that is not associated with higher well-being."
In a tumultuous year in which Facebook has faced scrutiny for its role in Russian meddling in the U.S. election, Palihapitiya is the latest executive to voice second thoughts about whether the products he built are good for the world. The company's former president Sean Parker also recently said the product was engineered to exploit human psychology by providing "a little dopamine hit every once in awhile." A former early investor and the company's former privacy chief have also publicly expressed regrets.
"The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we've created are destroying how society works," said Palihapitiya, speaking of Facebook and other social media companies, during the Stanford talk. "No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it's not an American problem - this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem."
Facebook has struggled to address these criticisms. First, the company shot back at Palihapitiya in strikingly personal terms, releasing a statement pointing out that he had not worked at Facebook for over six years.
The jab also included an admission: "Facebook was a very different company back then," it read. "As we have grown we have realized how our responsibilities have grown too."
The intensity of the back and forth shows the particular weight Silicon Valley companies, and particularly Facebook, place on loyalty and a shared sense of mission.
Facebook is flush with cash, but fears it could lose the hearts and minds of its workers, and the favor of lawmakers and the public. Like many Facebook users, the company wants to be liked. In the blog post Friday, entitled "Is social media bad for us?," Facebook described extensive efforts to design products and features that promote its users well-being.
Facebook also cited academic researchers - some external, and some working in partnership with the company - who found that people who passively and compulsively consume large amounts of information, such as scrolling through a Facebook news feed and liking more posts than the average person, report worse mental health than average.
More intimate types of online interaction can lead to improved well-being, the company said. The company cited a study it conducted with Robert Kraut, a Carnegie Mellon University researcher, who found that "people who sent or received more messages, comments, and Timeline posts reported improvements in social support, depression, and loneliness."
Interacting with close friends correlates with higher well-being because the online interaction deepens real relationships, Ginsberg said. Other types of online interactions that are more performative and invite comparison can be harmful, he wrote.
Kraut, who has worked with Facebook and is currently contracted as a part-time researcher, says there have been over 100 studies looking at the psychological effects of social media, including Facebook. The balance of that research, according to recent literature reviews, have found that people who use social media more are in slightly worse psychological state than people who use it less, Kraut said. More research was needed because there are challenges with sussing out causation in these types of studies, he said. For example, if a person is already depressed, they might use social media to self-medicate, in some cases.
Kraut said he works with Facebook because the data is tremendously valuable for social insight, and because Facebook is reluctant to provide data to outsiders unless the research is conducted jointly, in part for privacy reasons.
The blog post, "is partly a scientific attempt to address the issues and partly a PR attempt to assuage what the problems might be, he sad. "They are sharing one-side of a scientific debate."
Facebook, and its sister products, Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram, encourage both healthy and unhealthy behaviors, Kraut said. Ginsberg also said in the post that the company had taken steps to encourage the healthier types. The company has said it is working to demote clickbait and false news, and is willing to do so even if it comes at the expense of time spent on Facebook. It has also changed the news feed so that people see posts from close friends first. Features have been added recently that enable users to "Take a Break" from seeing posts from exes and others they don't want to see.
Facebook's own social science research has a fraught history. Several years ago, the company was chasisted for an experiment it conducted in which Facebook scientists attempted to manipulate people's emotions by tweaking the content in people's Facebook's feeds. The company says it no longer conducts such experiments, and that currently it engages in observational studies and then tweaks it systems to improve people's well-being.
In an interview, Roger McNamee, an early investor who has become a vocal critic of the company, said that Facebook has not made a broader shift. He pointed out that even the research Facebook highlighted seems to suggest that even basic use of the product can have a bad effect on people. "The very basis of the business model is addiction," he said. "Everything is tuned to higher engagement, and the problem with Facebook's whole position is that the algorithm exists to maximize attention, and the best way to maximize attention is to make people angry and afraid. It seems to me that they have a lot of work to do."
McNamee said he was disappointed that Palihapitiya, who is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and is known for offending people by speaking his mind, would soften his remarks.
Behind the scenes, in a back and forth that played out during the week, executives told Palihapitiya they were disappointed by his statements and encouraged him to learn more about the company's recent efforts, according to two people familiar with the discussions.
In a remorseful Facebook post, Palihapitiya said he did not intend to unleash a tide of anger. "My comments were meant to start an important conversation, not to criticize one company - particularly one I love," he said.