Dear Silicon Valley Tech Companies: Stop Treating Your Structural Challenges As Political Challenges
from the politics-and-business-are-not-the-same dept
A couple weeks back Karl wrote up an excellent analysis of the NY Times’ big piece looking at how Facebook tried to deal with ongoing criticism of the company concerning the influence operations that it appears Russians used their site for. Karl’s post focused on just how many companies make use of similar political smear campaigns, and everyone (including the press) should be much more tuned into this kind of thing. Indeed, a followup story from the NY Times last week showed that a bunch of other tech companies — namely Lyft, Lime, Juul and Qualcomm — all had hired the very same “Definers” firm that Facebook had hired to smear its opponents.
I wanted to write a follow up post, though, to make a slightly different point. This one is more directed at the people who work at all of the big tech companies: Stop thinking about running your companies as political campaigns, and focus most on what is best for end-users. It should be noted, of course, that all of these companies are a bit different, and they all do take different approaches to the market, but over the last few years, especially, one thing that has shined through with many of these companies is that they’ve dealt with the challenges suddenly being directed at them as political issues, rather than structural issues.
It’s not difficult to see why this is happening. To some extent, it goes back to the popular saying: “We judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions.” When these companies are getting attacked over their actions, they often feel wronged by the coverage, which they feel is unfair, because the press are often judging the decisions absent larger context that shows how they reached those results. And sometimes it is unfair. But there are still elements of truth in all of these complaints, and companies need to recognize even more, that these challenges are both structural and potentially existential, rather than one of people just being “unfair” in their coverage.
The second reason why this is happening is that the political world has spent years beating on Silicon Valley to be “more engaged” in politics, and so much is now being driven by how things look through a political lens that it’s become controlling in many ways. All of these companies have hired tons of political operatives, who know how to do political campaigns. Not all of them care what the company is actually doing — they just care about how it’s perceived.
Years back, when I was studying “organizational behavior,” in college, I remember the professor explaining office “politics” succinctly: raising your own profile while decreasing the profile of anyone else. And, indeed, there are many examples in the NY Times Facebook article of this kind of thinking in action. Rather than deal with the larger structural problems, Facebook decided to go after its critics and its competitors. After the NY Times piece came out, TechCrunch published a bunch of the pitches they received from Definers, noting how very political they were. Unlike most PR pitches, in which the sender identifies what company they’re representing, and why they’re emailing, Definers pitches were… different:
We checked our inboxes and none of the pitches Definers sent to TechCrunch made an explicit disclosure that the messages they contained had been paid for by Facebook to push a pro-Facebook agenda. They all required the recipient to join those dots themselves.
Here?s an example of Definers? oppo mud-slinging we were sent targeting Apple and Google on Facebook?s behalf:
Just came across this ? thought you might find it interesting: https://digitalcontentnext.org/blog/2018/08/21/google-data-collection-research/
?A major part of Google?s data collection occurs while a user is not directly engaged with any of its products. The magnitude of such collection is significant, especially on Android mobile devices, arguably the most popular personal accessory now carried 24/7 by more than 2 billion people.?
The study?s findings are rather shocking? It really highlights how other tech companies should be looked at critically ? scrutiny shouldn?t just be on FB for data misuse. Apple & Google have been perpetrators of data abuse as well?
?Scrutiny shouldn?t just be on FB for data misuse? is the key line there, though it?s still hardly a plain English disclosure that Facebook paid for the message to be sent.
We received multiple Definers? pitches on behalf of what looks to be three different tech companies ? and only one of these is explicitly badged as a press release from the firm paying Definers to do PR. (In that case, e-scooter startup Lime.)
Not that they listen to me, but if there was a simple message I could get across to everyone working at these companies, it’s that they need to stop treating actual structural issues and the actual impact of what they do as political fights, but as real, structural issues that need to be addressed. That’s not to say admit that all of the criticism is valid — because some of it is not. But, recognize that there is truth in many of the complaints, and to focus on actually doing right by your users, not simply attacking the messenger or denying the seriousness (and certainly not by merely pretending to take the issue seriously in public while privately admitting nothing will change). The fact that Facebook repeatedly denied “key aspects” of this story, only to post a blog post the night before Thanksgiving that more or less admitted everything they had previously denied, shows that the company is still treating this as a political campaign. Friday night news dumps are a classic political move to “bury” bad news, and the only time better than a random Friday night is the night before a major holiday.
For many years I’ve said that one of the reasons why I find the tech industry so important is that it has — historically — been a demonstration of what good happens when certain (not all) companies and their users have interests aligned. Rather than working at cross purposes, or trying to screw over users, many tech companies have shown that they can provide value in a way that everyone comes out of it better off. When they actually focus on doing the right thing — even at the short term expense of the bottom line — good long term strategies tend to result.
However, treating everything as a political campaign is the opposite of that strategy. It means attacking critics and competitors, rather than focusing on doing what’s right. And, unfortunately, this political thinking is becoming pervasive across the tech industry. Some will argue that it has actually always been true, but that’s not accurate at all. Much of Silicon Valley’s success was premised on taking a very different approach — one that really did focus on doing the right thing, rather than the most expedient or the most immediately profitable. But, that has changed for many, many companies. And even if it may be understandable as to why it is happening, that’s still no excuse.
So, for everyone who works at these companies, please take a step back and think about what your actual vision is. Are you making decisions to actually do what’s best for the users of your products. Or are you simply attacking your critics and competitors? If it’s the latter, it seems like a clear sign that your company has lost its way.