We Do Not Know What We’re Building

Some thoughts on the recent news.

Facebook and Twitter are learning what we’ve known for awhile: their products are beyond their control.

White supremacists are using Twitter to harass people and Russia are using both to interfere with democracy. What can (and should) both companies do in light of this stark reality? They don’t know. The people have some ideas, but those ideas are often too expensive or self-immolating to implement (such as: Facebook and Twitter should shut down for the public good).

It is fallacious for either company to claim they have never gotten into censorship. They both have on individual occasions, but they don’t know what it would look like as a blanket policy. Neither company wants to have to parse what is acceptable and unacceptable unpopular speech.  And no one is happy with their sporadic decisions, which have sometimes followed no logical reasoning.

Perhaps we people were never supposed to be able to communicate with such speed and transparency. The fact that any one individual can willingly and maliciously spread false information that reaches millions of people without any true repercussions is the biggest threat from these sites.

That the public is gullible enough to take specious claims and accept them as facts is a seemingly unfixable disease. Education is not the issue; it’s our desire to have our biases confirmed. Previously, we’d have to search out the viable publication that slanted stories to our base. Now, we can just find the craziest thing online and believe it full cloth.

Facebook and Twitter are definitely worried about regulation and, to a lesser extent, optics, so you will see some movement on their part to address the above issues. But not sure they will be able to fix what is their operating principle: the wide dissemination of information without gatekeepers.

You Have 20 Minutes to Respond to This

How to unpack the most recent New York Times Corner Office column featuring Erika Nardini, CEO of Barstool Sports? There’s a couple of interesting quotes, but this particular passage got the play on journalism, markets, and socialism Twitter (the Holy Trinity).

The easy joke here is to claim it’s paradoxical that such a bro-y site would have such exacting standards, but that barb doesn’t really jibe with reality. Any company – especially ones that pursue quote-unquote frivolous things — can be workplace boiler rooms. The businesses with the least serious subject matter an be the most seriously minded when it comes to work ethic. I’m far from surprised that this quote came from a lad & sports bible, and not a hedge fund.

But Nardini’s comment above touches upon a couple of interesting points, which I will break out below. While there are no doubt A-type people and others who support such an approach, let’s assume more people will have a negative reaction to that quote, then positive. As such:

1) A tough job market (overall and within media) enables this sort of behavior. If the workers had more power (as they sometimes do in industries where everyone is growing and skilled talent is rare), this would not be a thing many bosses said. When the company has slim pickings in talent, they try to not force the issue or make unforced errors. Nardini clearly feels they can weed through people who will not respond within three hours to find the high intensity workers because there’s enough chum out there.

2) This is a net-negative strategy. Even if your team is replete with an ideal-to-you staff of always on workers, they will get burned out, whether that does or does not show up in an eye test or whether they do or do not confess that to you. Countless research backs it up.

3) Her other comments – which are wiser than the ones being passed around – seemingly contradict a reliance on this approach. She talks about how there are two types of people – the 90% and the 10%. The 10% are people who are not super-dependable most of the time, but have a 10% capacity for brilliance that outstrips the others. Her growth as a manager, she says, has come from learning how to utilize the 10%. Now, if she is using a Sat morning response time as a baseline for hires, she is clearly going to miss out on people who respect their own free time, but then are the biggest assets for a company during the work week.

4) This is just bad for society as a whole. While Nardini is clearly monomaniacally focused on her own company, it contributes to a wider responsibility worker drones feel they owe to their company. Employer-employee transactions should hew to a fair exchange as much as possible. Clearly, we are far from that, and how close we should be undoubtedly influences your political beliefs, but expanding that ravine is going to lead us to nothing but trouble. So let’s hope this is a teaching moment for business.