An insider's view of Facebook's 15 months in hell: my take

Following up on Xeni's post from earlier today: For their 12,000-word, beautifully reported story on how Facebook's top executives coped with 15 months of mounting crises, Wired's Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein spoke with 65 current and former insider sources, producing a gripping account of how the people who built the worst thing to ever happen to the web coped when the world woke up one day and figured this all out.

It's a portrait of a company that can't escape its DNA, a company birthed with the proposition that it would let Harvard students nonconsensually rate the fuckability of undergrads, now blossomed into a 2.3 billion user juggernaut whose top management still operate on the ethos of violating their promises to their users, mouthing empty apologies, and moving on.

It's also a portrait in official incompetence, as grandstanding politicians in the US and the UK have demanded that Something Be Done about Facebook but who were totally underinformed about what Facebook is, how it operates, and what might actually be done about it (this is partly because, with few exceptions, lawmakers' staffers are paid so little that they take second and third jobs, leaving lawmakers to go into crucial hearings almost totally unbriefed).

Not a day goes by that we don't learn something new and horrible about Facebook. The company has accumulated so much scandal-debt that it will continue to default on that even if it were to clean house today (an impossibility) there would be new scandals breaking for years to come, detailing old misdeeds, each slimier than the last.

Facebook got a boost of good press from the effort, but the company in 2018 was like a football team that follows every hard-fought victory with a butt fumble and a 30-point loss. In mid-November, The New York Times published an impressively reported stem-winder about trouble at the company. The most damning revelation was that Facebook had hired an opposition research firm called Definers to investigate, among other things, whether George Soros was funding groups critical of the company. Definers was also directly connected to a dubious news operation whose stories were often picked up by Breitbart.

After the story broke, Zuckerberg plausibly declared that he knew nothing about Definers. Sandberg, less plausibly, did the same. Numerous people inside the company were convinced that she entirely understood what Definers did, though she strongly maintains that she did not. Meanwhile, Schrage, who had announced his resignation but never actually left, decided to take the fall. He declared that the Definers project was his fault; it was his communications department that had hired the firm, he said. But several Facebook employees who spoke with WIRED believe that Schrage’s assumption of responsibility was just a way to gain favor with Sandberg.

Inside Facebook, people were furious at Sandberg, believing she had asked them to dissemble on her behalf with her Definers denials. Sandberg, like everyone, is human. She’s brilliant, inspirational, and more organized than Marie Kondo. Once, on a cross-country plane ride back from a conference, a former Facebook executive watched her quietly spend five hours sending thank-you notes to everyone she’d met at the event—while everyone else was chatting and drinking. But Sandberg also has a temper, an ego, and a detailed memory for subordinates she thinks have made mistakes. For years, no one had a negative word to say about her. She was a highly successful feminist icon, the best-selling author of Lean In, running operations at one of the most powerful companies in the world. And she had done so under immense personal strain since her husband died in 2015.

15 Months of Fresh Hell Inside Facebook [Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein/Wired]