On this episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, host Kara Swisher talks with former Facebook ad target team leader Antonio García-Martínez to answer listener questions about how Facebook handles ads, user data and privacy.
You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
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Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode, and you’re listening to Too Embarrassed to Ask, coming to you from the Vox Media podcast network. This is a show where we answer all of your embarrassing questions about consumer tech and the week’s news and have lively discussions. You can send us your questions on Twitter with the hashtag #tooembarrassed. We also have an email addressed, TooEmbarrassed@Recode.net. Reminder, there are two Rs and two Ss in embarrassed.
Today on Too Embarrassed to Ask we’re back with everyone’s favorite topic, Facebook. I’m here with someone who used to work at Facebook, Antonio García-Martínez. He used to run Facebook’s ad targeting team and wrote a book about what he did there called “Chaos Monkeys,” which I really enjoyed. He’s quite a good writer. Antonio, welcome to Too Embarrassed to Ask.
Antonio García-Martínez: Thank you for having me.
We’ve also been arguing on online, right?
A little bit.
On the Twitter. On the Twitter.
A little bit.
It’s perfect. You’ve written and tweeted a lot about Facebook since you left the company, which was many years ago, several years ago.
Yeah, three or four years ago.
First, talk about what you did there and how long you worked there.
There were a series of misadventures. I ended up there in 2011, a year before the IPO. And the reason why that area — it was a while ago, but it’s still relevant — that’s when Facebook created most of its monetization products. It didn’t really ship anything that major since then. Everything that’s in use now — custom audiences, lookalike, all the weird retargeting, the pair of shoes that follow you onto Facebook — that was all created then. I was kind of there at the present, at the creation of that. I randomly ended up as the project manager for the ads targeting team. Before 2011, believe it or not, Facebook didn’t actually have a coherent vision around that.
Right. It’s your fault, the whole thing?
I’d like to claim that it’s partially my fault, but it’s not completely my fault.
No, I’m teasing. Talk about what that is specifically for the layperson. Obviously there’s a sophisticated group of people listening to this, but talk about what that meant. What did they morph into?
There’s a lot of fallacies people have when they think about Facebook. One of them is, Facebook is showing ...
Stupid journalists do, right? Is that the way you put it always?
I wouldn’t put it that way.
All right, go ahead.
Now that I’m a journalist, I have to be a little bit nice to my coworkers.
No, you don’t.
Facebook is showing me an ad for — that’s really not true. Ads are kind of a paid messaging platform. The way that you’re actually getting targeted, the smart targeting is what’s called custom audiences, which is an oddly Orwellian name. I didn’t actually come up with that.
The idea here, what actually happens, the outside world, whether it be offline stores like Target, Walmart, whatever, online Zappos, Amazon, you name it, have lots of data about you, things that you’ve bought, and they also have what’s called PII, personally identifiable information: Your name, your phone number, your email. They want to reach out and touch you online somehow, get you a message.
If you’re a Walmart, for example.
You’re a Walmart, for example, or if you have a Safeway discount card, just to cite another example. Those advertisers effectively go to Facebook and what they do is they upload your personal information, which I know sounds kind of scary, but they have it already. You’ve given it away. They join with Facebook. What that means is, say Zappos knows that this set of 100,000 people bought athletic shoes in the last month, and they create a targeting segment inside Facebook and say they upload 100,000 names, or they put a little piece of Facebook code on their website that actually creates that pool of people inside Facebook.
Facebook doesn’t actually know what that targeting segment’s about. All they know is that Zappos wants to reach them and there’s 100,000 of them and show them this set of ads when they show up. That basic join is how most precision targeting actually work.
With data that these companies already had.
Right. To be clear, they’re not uploading that data. Another wrong idea people have about Facebook is they think Facebook’s own data is this rich mine of stuff, that that’s why they’re showing ads, they’re listening to my microphone.
Yeah, we know that’s bullshit.
That’s all bullshit.
I’m not going to put that on them. I’ll give them some other crap, but not that one.
Right. Most of the data you’re actually being targeted on in a creepy way on Facebook is data that Facebook actually doesn’t have that lives offline but that got joined to you via ...
They’re joining. It’s the mixing of it.
It’s like nitroglycerin or whatever.
And you get TNT.
Right, exactly. What did they do to create the platform that created these problems then? You have the customized audience and then you talked about something else in your last Wired article.
Yes, lookalikes, yeah.
I wasn’t involved with that, but I was there when it started. Lookalikes is one of the not-so-secret weapons of the savvy Facebook advertiser. This, by the way, is how your Facebook data actually gets monetized. Lookalike audiences is a product that addresses probably the biggest need that most advertisers have, which is, like I said before, you’ve got 100,000 people that bought athletic shoes. Yes, great, I know these people. Your average savvy advertiser has 10 different ways to hit them, either in Google, Facebook, whatever. Show me another 300,000 people like those people, that’s what they want.
Exactly. It’s very self-explanatory. Facebook then goes and uses your ...
All of you.
All of you. The social graph, people you’ve contacted with, articles you’ve read. Everything they see that you do on Facebook, they come up with the similar score between two people, A and B.
Based on lots of things.
Lots of things.
Shoes are easy. Shoe interest is probably easy.
Right. It may not even vary as a function of the input audience. It could just be as a general thing. You and I are similar because we read Verge and a bunch of other stuff.
Right, got it. Got it, got it, lookalikes.
Right. We look alike and we’re more than likely going to consume the same things in our capitalist economy if we resemble each other. To cite an example, to go there, the Trump campaign said fairly publicly that they used a judicious mix of custom audiences, they used voter roles and whatever data they got from the Republican National Committee.
Joining to Facebook. Then they use lookalike audience to find people like those to hit them with a message, or even do voter suppression. They publicly said they actually did voter suppression. Those two things, custom audiences and lookalikes, those are the two ways that most smart marketers actually ...
You were talking in your article about smart marketers versus stupid marketers. You think it gets mixed up, right? I want you to explain it, because it was a great article.
Right. I think you’re referring to the piece where I speculate. It turns out the speculations were mostly correct. I’ll pat myself on the back there.
Go right ahead.
Bloomberg actually scooped — Sarah Frier at Bloomberg — got an internal report leaked from Facebook that showed that what effectively happened in the election was that Trump used this very smart direct marketing that the Zappos of the world use. It turns out the Clinton campaign used more what are called brand or more broad targeting, age, geo.
The old ...
The old-style stuff. Basically TV on Facebook.
Just weren’t as good.
They weren’t as good.
They basically weren’t as good.
They didn’t pay as much. You would’ve thought that they had paid more, but they didn’t, right? It’s not clear. They all paid a lot.
Another aspect of the Facebook ad system that bears a little scrutiny is the engagement focus. I think most of us realize that when it comes to News Feed, we don’t see every piece of news that our friends spit out. Facebook effectively parses the forest. What most people don’t realize is that engagement focus also works on the ad side. When Trump or Clinton or Zappos uploads an ad and says, “Show it to this person,” Facebook makes an estimation of how likely you are to engage with that. If that estimation is high, then you effectively pay less for the same media. Facebook didn’t invent this. Google works the same way. It’s part of a typical cost-per-click marketplace.
The idea is if you have content that’s very viral or very engagement-centric because of negative rhetoric, because of whatever, yeah, Facebook ads will be cheaper for you. You get viral distribution, so to speak, on the ad side, as well as you do on the News Feed side. It’s funny that piece was so re-posted. I think most people didn’t actually understand that was true on the outside as well.
The Russian spending then, which you said was minor, right?
They were just using the platform, essentially.
Yeah, the whole Russian ... I mean I wrote my piece in reaction to the whole Russian thing. Their amount of ad spend was negligible. How effective their organic non-paid viral thing is is a little bit hard to judge, but at least the numbers that came out of Facebook ... Here’s another problem when it comes to talking about Facebook. Facebook is so huge, and it’s so easy for journalists to spin up numbers that seem impressive to the layman but actually aren’t in the context of Facebook.
How big it is, yeah.
Right. Facebook is whatever it is now, 2.4 billion users. Every user sees an average of 100 to 200 to 300 posts a day, so we’re talking about trillions of pieces of content potentially a day or a week or a month. When somebody comes out and says, “Oh, the Russians produced 100 million posts over the course of the election,” that’s actually a tiny fraction of 1 percent of total content on Facebook.
Right. Unless they’re super effective.
Correct. It is. What they did, I think one of the things that does get lost is, all the hacking this is in, they never hacked it, they used it.
Right. Well, the Cambridge thing was different. They kind of did hack Facebook.
Yeah. Let’s talk about that, and then I want to get how you think they’ve been handling it, the Cambridge thing, from your perspective.
I think Facebook does bear some criticism there. I think everyone knows about Cambridge, or do I need to go through the whole thing again? The interesting thing about Facebook is that they basically stole data from the platform side, which I didn’t work on. Even back then, it was a separate world than ads.
Sure. That’s the thing he announced in 2009, I think, or ’08.
Right, and then they made a big deal of it in 2010 and ’11.
They shouldn’t even have anymore.
That’s exactly my point. It’s like any platform with third-party developers will cause data ...
Leak, leak, leak. Your Android apps, your iPhone apps, they all leak like crazy.
Leak, leak, leak.
You trade that off against a lot of good functionality, and so it kind of works.
Which is bringing apps into the system. They don’t need it at Facebook.
Right. They don’t need it.
They used to.
They don’t need it and they don’t have it. When’s the last time anyone’s actually used a Facebook app? Other than to log in.
At the time it was important.
At the time it was important. The question stands: Why didn’t they plug this gaping data hole?
Right, in this particular company, too, because they’ve done it before.
That’s the other thing. The company, I remember, was super aggressive about blocking data leakage, at least on the ad side, and so if this company had come and clearly misused data, Facebook would brutally just cut them off in the past. Well, why did they let them stick around for two years?
Right. That to me was not defined. They could plug that leak in seconds.
Yeah, they weren’t even spending much. Who cares? Who are these people? Nothing in the scheme of Facebook.
Right. I think the one thing that I felt was disingenuous is when they said well they took the data and we didn’t know what they did with it. Of course, everyone’s like, “Oh yeah.” It was like, I bet you could have followed that data or figured out what they did with it or somehow plugged the leak. There’s all kinds of things. They become stupid when it’s convenient, or hapless.
It’s true when you have third-party developers and that data leaves Facebook, there’s not much they can do about it. That said, they do have tools that sit there and try to ...
Figure that out.
... and then try to figure that out.
Why didn’t they figure out with this firm?
I don’t know. That’s a good question.
They did it with others, right?
All the time.
When I was there, I won’t name names, but there was ad firms that did sketchy stuff and Facebook just flicked them off the platform in a second.
Right, the way Google does or any of the others. They know when abuses are happening.
Why with this group? You have no idea?
I don’t know. That’s a good question.
Someone the other day was telling me from Facebook internally, “Well, it’s because the people that did it aren’t there anymore.” I’m like, “Well, who was running it that the platform was ignored?”
I think it might have been that, it might have just been they just slacked off. They ignored it.
I was like, “So they had a basement full of sewage and it was leaking everywhere, and they just ignored it?” That was, “Okay, they weren’t there and nobody was paying attention to it.” I don’t believe that.
You know, some of these large tech companies, it’s amazing how large and sophisticated some of them can get, but when the CEO and the collective zeitgeist goes in one direction, this whole other thing just gets forgotten.
No one deals with it.
Platform has been forgotten for three or four years at least.
Right. Why doesn’t it go away?
They announced changes that effectively have made it go away and locked it down such that it doesn’t really function.
Yeah, they needed it at the time for sure. From the outside, I know you’re from the outside, but how do you think they’re handling it?
It depends on your point of view. There was this Wired piece that interviewed insiders about how they felt about Zuck’s performance at the hearings, and they thought it was like cheering at Facebook.
You know what, low bar. I’m sorry.
Low bar, right.
What I say is that he didn’t do a good job, they did a bad job. In comparison, he was fine, but if you had good questions it would have been a very different situation.
There were moments that you can see him ...
Oh yeah, and they got a few. They got a few in there. I was like, “No.” The whole terms of service obsession, I was like, that’s really not the point, is it?
Yeah. I think one of the key things that came out of it, it’s funny, I said it in my book and no one believed it because it just seemed so unbelievable, Zuck knows almost nothing about ads. When I was there, knew nothing about ads at all.
Right. I remember him not caring about them.
Right, he just doesn’t care. I would say it, people were like, “Oh you’re full of it. You have no idea.” It’s like, “No, he really doesn’t.” In fact, there was a quote in there somewhere about how he literally, three days before the hearing, said, “Oh, is that how it works?” Literally, “I want to understand how we use external data for the first time.” Like I tweeted, I think Sheryl in that question would have been way better. She’s way more articulate and actually knows that side of the business much better than Zuck does.
Yeah, I think it was interesting. I was fascinated when they had the leaked notes, his prep notes. The section on how to face Apple criticisms was bigger than many of the other sections that were more important. It was like, “Wow, you’re obsessed with that part, someone calling you an asshole and you have responses to it.” We’ll get to that in a minute because you have a new piece out on privacy, but some more questions. How do you think they’re handling it? He did okay, but I don’t think he did ... I think they didn’t do well.
He didn’t shit the bed, as they say, you know what I mean? Like, okay, wow. He didn’t sweat. That was interesting. Of course he didn’t. He’s an adult.
He had that meltdown with you, right? At what point?
He did. You know what is interesting, everyone put that video up, “Oh look, Kara made him melt down. He’s going to melt down.” It was like, first of all, that was years ago. Second of all, he’s an adult now, and third of all he can wear the suit. He can wear a suit and not melt. I am pretty certain he’s capable, but the expectations, you know how whenever Trump did a debate, if he didn’t vomit on the stage everyone was like, “Success!” You know what I mean, or grabs someone’s ass. That’s the thing is, he was competent, and so therefore it was a great raging success.
It sounds silly to say, but I think half of the shit that Facebook catches, it’s because Zuckerberg makes such a bad impression in public and kind of looks like an android and looks like Data in “Next Generation.”
Yeah, he does. He still does.
Google does the exactly same evil things with your data, if not worse than Facebook does, and in fact, they’re much more central to this whole sketchy ad business than Facebook is. Yet, somehow Google doesn’t get quite that level of scrutiny.
Why is that?
You know, I’ve never quite figured it out. It was almost a complex we had internally. Like, “Man, they’re annihilating us for doing just the tiniest little things with your data and Google’s getting away with all this stuff.” I think part of it’s because the relationship of a user with Facebook is that of an addict to a drug. They hate the drug and they hate themselves for needing it, but they need it, while I don’t think that’s the relationship that most people have with Google.
Right. It’s a very transactional kind of ...
It feels useful. Even though I’m getting monetized and the CPMs on Google Search are amazing and they make a huge amount of money and all that data goes into your cookie record and gets re-targeted elsewhere ...
It’s not personal. It is personal, but it’s not personal. It’s not the same level of personal.
Right. Even though the data usage is effectively the same. I think the other aspect that most people don’t understand also is that Google’s media empire, part of it’s the search thing, which again has the usefulness angle, but the other side is they run the world’s biggest ad exchange. All the retargeting that happens outside of Facebook is going through Google, effectively.
You don’t see that. You don’t see an ad with a Google logo next to it, it looks creepy and you don’t necessarily see it. Well in the case of Facebook, you do. I think that’s also part of the difference.
Yeah. I think they’ve made a promise to users, and Google does not have relationship with users. I think Facebook has made a promise, you can post anything. I’m your friend. This is our community. And Google, they’re just there. It’s like the electricity, essentially.
I would argue — and this gets to what I was writing my piece on — I think Facebook has crossed the line of becoming a utility, or social media broadly has.
Of course. That’s how Mark described it when I first met him, more utility, but it’s not. It’s more than that. Let me ask you one more question and then I’ll get to some questions from readers. One thing that Mark said all the time was we don’t sell your data, which I thought was so ...
But it’s true.
Yes, but okay, they hoard it greedily and then mash it up and give insights and sell the audience, essentially. They don’t sell it directly. It was such a use of terminology. They don’t sell the data but they sell the data. They make money from the data they keep themselves. How would you phrase that then? What do they do? They don’t sell your data but ... I say, “We’re a huge information thieves.
They don’t sell the data in the sense of like, “Oh, here’s this embarrassing photo of me in a bikini,” or something.
They don’t sell that to somebody.
Of course not. It’s like saying ...
Well, but that’s how people perceive it.
Yes, except I don’t kill you, but I damage you. It’s just one of those, I hate when people do that. What do they do? What do they do with your data?
The data that they sell, the data that they monetize, is the data that you don’t even think about. For example, they know who you are and every device you touch because you always log into Facebook.
Yeah, I do.
That’s your data, but you don’t realize that’s being sold. What I mentioned earlier, lookalikes, the fact that you and I are similar on Facebook. That’s data.
They don’t sell your data, they use your data to make money with.
Right. Your data never leaves Facebook. It’s almost impossible to steal it.
Right, but they use it to make money with, right?
They’re information hoarders is what they are.
Right, as is Google, but yes.
As is Google, yes. I know. I know, you want to go on about Google.
[Facebook] announced a huge executive shuffle last week, which Kurt wrote about on Recode. It said the new team is building privacy products. Does that seem like a radical change to you, or how do you evaluate it?
No. I don’t know.
It’s the same 10 white guys moving into different chairs, it seems to me.
That’s right. That’s one way to park the car.
Actually, Kevin Systrom had a black-and-white photo, so that was diverse.
I did count almost half of them were immigrants or are children of immigrants, actually.
Oh good. Okay.
Different types of diversity.
We’re going to go with that. Anyway, you just think it just doesn’t seem like a radical ...?
The blockchain thing I think is interesting. I wouldn’t have seen that one coming.
Yeah. The fact this, now it’s going to work. Now we’re paying attention.
It’s funny, there was so much outrage expressed at them. It’s a business that’s growing 40 percent year on year with over 40 percent margins.
I don’t know that they need a management shake-up or need some radical change.
They need perceptual management change.
Yes. We put on our suits and we’re going to catch Al Capone now after we’ve been helping him sell whiskey.
One of our listeners, Liz Weeks, wants to know, “How terrified should I be that Facebook has dared to utter the word ‘blockchain’?” Start with that. Then we get into privacy in the next section.
I’m not a crypto expert, I should preface that.
Why did you think that was interesting?
I did do a piece on it.
You just said it.
I’m trying to figure out why would they express an interest in blockchain. Look broadly. I’m going to share a tip with you, how to make $1 billion in Silicon Valley.
How to make $1 billion in Silicon Valley, foolproof. Show Mark Zuckerberg a growth chart that looks like Facebook’s during their first two years, and in an instant he will buy your company literally over the weekend, like he did with Instagram, if he has to. What is Facebook’s great existential threat right now? It’s being caught blindsided by the new way that we interact with these black mirrors that are in our pockets. Zuck missing that boat ...
Yes he did.
... is his existential fear, and the fact that Snap is not there ...
And he did, he missed it, true.
Well he missed Snap. for example, but he’s copying them with Stories. I think if blockchain were to turn into a thing, he’s trying to hedge the bet of if we actually have decentralized social networks with all our “Likes” and comments and data actually on the blockchain and portable data that we actually move around, and we scan our own blockchain, social network however we like. If Facebook were to miss that boat, then that would be the end of Facebook.
To be, what, a big old lumbering ocean liner whenever everyone is not, right?
In a sense, a proprietary walled garden ocean liner.
I’ve always thought they were AOL. I have no ... the comparisons are, it’s a different version of it.
Certainly if you compare the internet 15 years ago to what it is now, everything is a proprietary walled garden. Everything’s very centralized, there’s no open protocols. Facebook is definitely like that. Historically yeah, they’ve always thought about the world very defensively and in a very closed way, and blockchain threatens that in a way.
Absolutely. Everyone’s like, “Well there’s no next thing.” I’m like, “Oh, there’ll be a next thing.”
There’s always a next thing.
There’s always a next thing.
I was like, “There will be a next thing. It’s not obvious right now.” You know, what they did around Snapchat was super interesting. We’re having both Sheryl Sandberg and Evan Spiegel on the same night at Code, which should be fun, fun, fun.
No fighting. We’re also having Linda McMahon from WorldWide Wrestling, and she’s the head of the SBA, so fighting. Some fighting.
We got a good series of questions emailed to us by Mike Bone. “I read Antonio’s book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ve worked in digital marketing space as a data scientist for three years now, and know there’s two big players, not just Facebook. Antonio’s original YC-backed product AdGrok was built on top of Google’s AdWords. I feel he knows more about ads than just his Facebook background and want to hear more about this, so I’m curious what his perspective on Google and their marketing platforms is. Does he think there was any abuse by the Trump campaign, Russia, etc., in the 2016 election on Google? How has Google so successfully stayed out of the spotlight during these talks about privacy when they are taking on the same activities as Facebook? How does he see Facebook and Google to be analogous to one another and distinct for potential regulations, concerns, activities or comments?”
Wow, there’s a lot in there.
I know, but maybe answer just one or two of those.
When it comes to the ads thing, I don’t understand why Google is missing the level of scrutiny that Facebook is getting, and I think it all comes down to perception issues, not reality issues.
Our relationship with the company.
Right. In terms of susceptibility to Russian or Trump hacking, Google doesn’t have the same organic side that Facebook does, so I guess in that sense it’s relatively immune to that level of hacking.
Sure. Except at YouTube.
I’m sorry, YouTube, that’s right.
YouTube is a Facebook version of it.
That’s right. What was the question four or five that was there?
How have they stayed out of the spotlight?
I don’t know. I think most people just don’t understand how the Google Ad system works. Heck, most Googlers don’t seem to understand how the company makes money.
Right, that’s true. “How do you see Facebook and Google to be analogous to each other and distinct for potential regulation, concerns, activities ...” Do you see them being differently regulated?
Regulated, no. I think they do seem to have different attitudes. I’m looking at Google as an outsider now, but I think in terms of how they make money, they do look at the world, I think, very differently. I think Facebook is very suspicious of the outside world, has a completely closed advertising stack. I mean, I get into this in my book. I think Google is more about building relatively more open platforms. They just have very different attitudes towards the world, I think.
Yeah, there’s a big difference there.
It’s still also a data thief.
But also a data thief.
They don’t hoard it, they use it.
They use it.
It was interesting, I used to say, when it was Microsoft, Google, I used to say Microsoft grabs everything and pulls it in and tries to control the world, and Google opens everything up and controls ...
Right, that’s exactly right. Google is surprisingly open, but it still manages to control a huge amount of spend ...
Yeah, control the world.
... via this open system.
Yeah, it was. I was like they let it out and somehow have the same control, which is interesting. Brigitte McGraw tweeted to ask, “Is there a different business model — besides app and revenue and subscription — that you would suggest for online social service?” Is this it?
Right. Everyone always said that the suppression model is the alternative to ads, and for years I would have said “no” for 100 different reasons, and then Josh Constine did a piece in TechCrunch actually advocating it, and he almost managed to convince me. I think in markets where everyone who’s going to be a Facebook user is a Facebook user, like the U.S. and parts of Europe, there is no longer a growth challenge. Maybe you’d have some people who’d be willing to pay.
An ad-free model.
An ad-free model. Unfortunately, the people most likely to pay are the ones you’d monetize the best in an ad model.
Those are the peoples whose RPUs, whose annual revenue are probably in the hundreds, and so you’d have to charge them hundreds, and would they actually pay for it? What would you charge them? What would the cost reflect in the U.S.? In India, their monetizations are very different. I think it gets problematic, but I think it’s probably not as crazy as ...
They’re not doing it.
I don’t think they’re going to do it.
Although, they’d still have to make a few ... apply a few things. You can tell he was leaving the door open to it, but not really. I think they’re going to try to not do it as long as they can.
Right. What was the most surprising from that hearing for you?
There were a few. I was glued.
Yeah, me too.
I thought it was going to be really boring, and I sat through the entire thing.
No, it wasn’t.
The one moment — and I mentioned it in the afterword to the book that’s coming out in paperback this summer. Sorry, that wasn’t a plug. It was a small plug.
That’s all right.
He mentioned how there was a scene in there, and actually went back to the transcript to make sure that I didn’t imagine it, in which he said, “Well no, no, no, we’re not a media company, we’re a tech company.” Then the senator asked, “Are you responsible for the content?” He says, “Well, we’re a tech company, but we’re responsible for the content.”
It’s just like, “Wow.” The fact that they would just come out and say that. It’s almost a nonsensical statement. How can you claim both at the same time, of being responsible for the content and then also a tech company? It seemed like one of these moments ... And it’s a congressional hearing. Those are words that you can’t take back.
Going forward, Facebook will have to be responsible for the content.
Yeah. Well, he tried to say that we have a broader responsibility here. What was interesting to me was the shift. When we were talking two weeks before, he said, “I don’t want to sit at my” — he said it again — “my desk in California and be deciding on content.” Remember he said that? I did an interview with him and he said that.
I said, “You’re the CEO, you built it, you made it, you created it. You are responsible for it.” Then in one of his statements he said, “I’m the CEO, I built it, I made it, I’m responsible.” It was like, “You’re welcome.”
Imagine this for a moment. Imagine Zuck in an editorial meeting like the ones that you sat in.
No, because you have to have values. That’s why. He doesn’t want to have values. Values require decisions that will piss one or the other side off.
He doesn’t want to do that.
Doesn’t want to do that. He’s going to have to.
The rules are so different, different countries.
It is. Well, you know what, he built it, he made it, I’m sorry he made a giant pie that he has to monitor. He just did. He created it. It creates a myriad of problems.
It is true that the profit per employee, I was looking at charts on Facebook. It’s like one of the highest in tech, and yeah.
It’s going to cost him.
Exactly, that’s the thing.
He’s going to cheat on that.
He’s going to need operational and user ops people in literally every country in the world, and that’s not the case right now.
Too bad. That’s why newspapers cost a lot. Guess what, welcome to my world, you know what I mean?
You make choices, you pay for them. That’s what an adult does. I’m not sure you know that, but that’s really the definition of adult.
We’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors and we’ll be back with Antonio García-Martínez. Antonio, can you give me your best reading of the line #money? Because I’ve got to make money but we do it really rather explicitly. Will you just read the ads and move on?
Let me hear #money. Say it in a really enticing way for readers.
Oh nice. That was a good one. That was better than Jason.
We’re back with Antonio García-Martínez. Tell me about this privacy thing you’re going to write, and then we’ll go through these other questions.
I’m going to catch flack for this, but it’s coming out, so I might as well just say it.
Look, here’s the reality. Most people don’t care about privacy.
They really don’t. Media like to care about it.
Get used to it. That was Scott McNealy.
Right. Underemployed Eurocrats care about it, and then the entire privacy industrial complex. There’s an entire set of very loud voices where they’re just constantly beating the privacy drum and have built media careers around this, care about it.
Yeah, this is going to go over all Twitter, but keep going.
For those who doubt, here’s a pop quiz — and I tweeted this, actually. It did very well. When in the past two or three months did Facebook reach the highest point in the app ranking in the Android app store? Guess. In the past two or three months.
I don’t know.
Literally after the #DeleteFacebook hashtag went viral.
Because everyone went in and deleted it, or some people did. I mean, it would only take a few percent of Facebook to do this, to actually jack up its numbers. Then the next day they went and actually downloaded it again.
They like it.
When I say they don’t care about privacy, I don’t mean that when you pull them and ask them, “Yeah, I care about privacy, yeah, sure,” they say. It’s like asking a smoker, “Yeah, I intend to quit,” and then he’s sitting there puffing away. Do they actually drop Facebook for privacy reasons? No, they don’t.
They don’t. That was interesting because I was actually at a gun store after the march. It was packed with people. It was fascinating. I was like, “Wow.” You know what I mean? It was an interesting moment. You think that they get it, but they don’t care.
They’re aware of it. I was in an elevator with two guys, elevator repairmen talking about Facebook stealing their data, which was interesting, and this is San Francisco, but these were elevator repairmen so I was surprised.
Here’s the other thing that makes me think that privacy is not going to matter. I had looked up some cohort data by like old people, boomer, Gen X, Gen Z, millennial, what percent do you care about your privacy. As you’d expect, the newer generation ... I’m the bridge generation. I was raised without smartphones, there was no internet. People for whom this has just been ubiquitous always, and there was still concern, but far less than every generation that preceded them, and it actually went down in that sloping way. If you look at most social issues, whether it be gay marriage or privacy or whatever, you’ll see this cohort change as time goes on that points to the direction where the values are going, basically.
Yeah, people die.
Right, people die.
The idiots die.
Views change. That makes me confident that I think going forward most people won’t care in that deep way of deleting Facebook for the sake of privacy.
Although I got to tell you, I’m going to push back on this because my kids are very aware of what they’re putting up. They’re more in control of it and they’re super aware. They’re not angry about it. Like I took a picture of one of my sons, my youngest, 13, and I put everything up. I don’t care. He’s like, “I didn’t give you permission to do that so please don’t.” I was like, “Okay.” He’s like, “Yeah, you wait for my permission, and I don’t think that’s what I want.” It was really fascinating. It was not instant sharing. They both have that attitude. I think they do like Snapchat better because of that. They feel they are aware of Facebook’s information hoarding in a way. I don’t tell them that either. The group among them talk about it a lot.
Right. I think the Gen X generation will do exactly that. They’ll feel more in control. They’ll get the privacy controls, unlike the older generation. On the other hand, they won’t care about it as much.
Right. You were talking about a small town?
Right. I use it as an analogy. When I wrote my book, I moved to this little island up in the Northwest that most people don’t know about. It was weird, I had never lived in a small town. I grew up in a Miami suburb. The usual New York, San Francisco, bouncing, you know, little rootless cosmopolitan elite, blue stater. I’d never lived in a small town. In a small town, there was no privacy. Everyone knew who the drunk was, the adulterer, the cheat. I’d meet someone and they had already got the downlow about me from before. You’d speak to a friend, you’d get the downlow on your mutual friends. Like constant News Feed. No one actually used Facebook much, they don’t need it.
Then I realized — and I started reading about it — if you think about it, privacy as a concept as we understand today is a remarkably young sort of concept. It didn’t exist legally as a concept until 1890 when Brandeis wrote a famous legal treatise on it, and most of the case law is actually from the 20th century. The modern definition of privacy doesn’t even show up in the Oxford English Dictionary until about 1813. Privacy was really a reaction to this, the society that we live in. This urban anonymous police society. Back whether we were hunter-gatherer tribes or you were a 17th century French village, you were raised ...
Everyone knew everyone. People often slept in communal beds, which was very typical until the Victorian era. There was no privacy. Privacy’s important in our society, but it’s a young cultural value. It is not a deep human primal need. You know what a primal need is? Human connection. Have spending, sharing experience with you or your kids or whatever, assuming we’re close friends. That is actually a close thing. I think any app, and I’m using Facebook broadly to mean whatever social media thing is that we have. Facebook can go away and we’ll still have social media. I think it’s a utility. I think that we agree on that. Whatever the face of social media is, people are more than willing to sacrifice this abstract notion of privacy that Russell’s bureaucrats care about in pursuit of this community thing.
I think Zuck is right. Zuck wrote this manifesto about a year ago saying that, and it sounded very presumptuous at the time, but the more you think about it the more you realize he’s right. That he’s proposing Facebook be the social nexus that’s disappearing from many western societies. We don’t have bridges and unions.
Yeah, the solution for Facebook is more Facebook.
More Facebook, right. It sounds a little ridiculous. When you think about it, well, I mean, look at the teachers’ unions, the biggest labor strike in the past 20 years of U.S. history all organized via Facebook Groups. Not via the unions, via Facebook Groups. Ditto the most recent genocides in ethnic cleansing as well, and to me I don’t think it’s actually in doubt whether Facebook’s going to assume a bigger and bigger role in terms of the public forum in various societies. I think that’s already happened. That ship has sailed. The question really is ...
It’s an AOL that works, but go ahead.
Right. Which side wins? Is it the builders of the social fabric via Facebook or is it the destroyers of it on the negative side that’s going to win? I think the challenge for Facebook, and us as Facebook users, is to foment the former and avoid the latter. That’s my take on it.
Right. Which they haven’t done a good enough job.
Some would say, yeah.
What was interesting to me, that nobody got fired on Facebook. That would be my first question for Sheryl. What do you think? “Hi Sheryl, that’s my first question for you.”
Are you going to ask her that?
Yes, of course.
I’m Kara Swisher. I have to. I’m even telling her in advance so she can get ...
She’s still showing up, wow.
Here comes the punch.
The level of your power that you actually get a senior Facebook executive to show up even though you’re feeding them hostile questions is incredible.
Oh, that’s all right.
They wouldn’t do it for anybody else.
They can answer it, come on. They’re adults. They’re billionaires. They can have me killed and disappeared in 14 seconds if they chose. I don’t know why they’re worried about me. I would be worried about me. They can answer that question. It’s interesting. Equifax lost executives. There was clearly a failure of management here. Why did nobody ...
Yeah, whoever was managing the platform team during this whole Cambridge thing ...
They’re probably gone, right?
You might want to wonder why ...
They’re probably on an island they bought with their Facebook money.
My favorite part is a lot of the critics. You’re sort of a critic and not a critic at the same time, which is interesting. The critics have made a ton of money off of them. That’s my fave ...
None of them gave their shares back.
I know. I did, I said to several of them, I’m like, “Hey, want to give back the money to privacy groups?” What happens with privacy groups?
There will always be a cottage industry and the rage industry.
You just think ... and also in Europe. They do have different senses in Europe. They do.
You can’t get a parents list at a school in Germany, from what I understand, because it’s sharing data that’s not ...
Right. European notions of privacy, specifically like the GDPR, which is this new privacy regulation that’s kicking into gear at the end of this month, their views on privacy are very different, and they always claim that it’s shaped by history and fascism, this and that, but then they go around and they regulate companies which has nothing to do with the next Gestapo. Yeah, they just have a very different view on things.
They really do. It’s quite ingrained, actually, in the culture too.
Well, but I think that’s also part of the reason ...
You think it’s not?
No, I think it is.
Yes, culture I think, but it also means in tech. I think GDPR is a bad idea, actually.
Because big companies will do better.
Oh yeah, at the end of the day they’re going to be ...
Oh yeah, they have 100,000 lawyers.
Oh, of course. Exactly. They’re going to be in hock to Google and Facebook even more five years from now thanks to GDPR than they will ...
What should they have done?
They should create the next Facebook.
Oh my god.
If you want to control the future, then you create it. You don’t sit there and try to regulate the current future.
If you had invented Facebook, you would have invented Facebook. Let’s ask some questions. Lee Chang: “When I do a lookalike audience with a set of emails, is the data actually secure by being hashed before uploading to Facebook servers or is that data still vulnerable to a man in the middle attack?”
It is hashed, yeah. I mentioned that in “Chaos Monkeys.” What that means, for those that don’t ... well, your listeners should probably get it. What that means is when you do the personal data match, when effectively the Axioms or the Zappos of the world, Axiom is a big data hoarder, yes, they pre-hash. The reason for that, by the way, is not for data privacy reasons really, although it does help, as your listener said. It’s mostly because neither Facebook nor the outside party actually trust each other.
I see. Good one.
If there isn’t a match, then you’ve basically just given up free personal data, like, “Oh yeah, we don’t match,” and then they just keep it. Since neither the outside trust Facebook, vice versa ...
... they do it, that’s why it was hashed.
You’re killing me. You’re killing me, Tony.
They don’t want to do it for your privacy.
That wasn’t the first order of concern.
Yeah. John Hall: “How many people on the planet can Facebook name by their photos? What are the benefits of this emerging technology and what’s not to like?” Oh so much.
Oh yeah, I don’t know. I’m not involved with photo recognition.
Did you see that movie? There was a movie with what’s her name? Anyway, there’s a movie about that they can do everything by your photo. Do you know much about that?
No. What I will tell you is that every market’s dream is that scene in “Minority Report.”
Everyone’s seen it.
Yes. Mr. Yakamoto with the eyes.
“Mr. Yakamoto, how’s your tank top?” Tom Cruise is obviously not Mr. Yakamoto because he had stolen the retinas or whatever. That is every marketer’s dream of the future.
Absolutely. Yeah, “Would you like another fleece?”
That’d be amazing.
It is. Part of us like it. I use things like Clear. I got to say, I know they’re coming to get me some day. I get it, but I got to say, I sail through the airport in this part of my life. Later when they jail me, that will be different, but it’s an interesting trade-off. I think about it all the time, the idea.
The convenience versus security trade-off?
Mm-hmm. They have my eyeballs. I figured they’d figure it out by some point. You know what I mean? I’m an idiot. I’m also watching “Handmaid’s Tale” and I realize I’m an idiot.
Venkat Ananth wants to know, “I want to understand Facebook’s approach to its biggest market in India in terms of political advertising” — and I want to get to political advertising — “Social media is a part of this world, plays a growing important role in electoral politics and Facebook in that effect has become a dominant player.” Sort of. There’s a lot of players in India right now. “What are some of the issues?” It’s like a “Game of Thrones” there. Different ... SoftBank and Naspers. There’s a whole bunch of different alliances there. “What are some of the issues we need to watch out for for our general elections in the next year?” Political advertising, one of the things you and I talked about, was that they should have known it was coming in 2016. Like the numbers in 2012 were low.
Yeah, so one thing, one excuse Facebook used and reasonably used it, then in 2012 ... I was there in 2012 when this whole political thing was going, and there was already a political ad sales team. It wasn’t zero, but it wasn’t that big a deal. One of your jobs as product manager is prioritizing product requests, which basically means saying no to almost all of them, and we’d say no to all the political ones because frankly they didn’t drive enough spend.
It wasn’t quite that, but yeah. It wasn’t important enough, that it mattered more. In 2016, the sales team would have done estimates and gone around and understood that the $100 million or whatever that combined Trump and Clinton spent, that’s pretty sizable from Facebook. That’s up there.
They’re not going to try that ...
One other thing they can be criticized for. One of the other random things I did at Facebook, by the way, is for about nine months I was PM of what’s called ads quality. I think now it’s called ads integrity, but basically it’s the police, the ones who actually police the ads.
Yeah, it’s Naomi.
At a high level maybe, but the job that I used to have it’s a guy named Rob Leathern who used to be a Facebook ads partner, we’re actually friends. Now it’s a much bigger team than when I was there.
They police everything.
Yeah, what the ad says, what it says.
Literally, you upload porn or whatever ... Exactly. Yeah.
Gets rid of the porn ads.
Gets rid of the porn ads. I always cite the example of alcohol ads.
For example, are super regulated. They’re actually really good at it.
What are they pulling down? They talked about something else recently, but go ahead. Yeah.
Why can’t you extend the exact same tech stack in operational workflow to politics?
Well, I don’t know. Clearly they got caught with their pants down.
That’s a great question for Sheryl Sandberg, why?
Yeah, why not?
You can do it with alcohol, you can do it with porn, why can’t you police them better? Why?
I think they just didn’t focus on it.
Right, even though it’s an enormous amount of money they were doubling.
It’s getting up there.
What about the next election?
I think they’re going to be a lot more aggressive, which I think is good.
Yeah, they’ve got to have names on them. I think that’s their new thing. You got to have an address.
Russia’s buying a lot of Trump Tower apartments. We know they buy those, the Russians.
Joe Ruski with a credit card and paying in rubles can’t just target swing state voters in Ohio anymore.
If he just moves to Trump Tower and does it, right?
His name isn’t Joe Ruski, it’s Joe Roose now. Don’t you watch “The Americans”? They blend in really well, spies.
They blend in really well, these outsiders.
Yeah. I’m a Russian spy, by the way. One reader who asked not to be named emailed us to ask, “What data did Facebook use to train its dating algorithms, possibly all the dating apps that required Facebook logins to use were merely unknowing data vacuums for platform. Just a hunch.” #justahunch.
What porn you watch?
I don’t know.
I have no idea.
What do you think of the dating thing? That was kind of a creepy introduction.
I think it’s probably the worst product in the history of Silicon Valley. Why do it now?
I think it’s kind of cool. It might be interesting.
Yeah, you think?
At least from the teaser of things that I saw, it seems like it’s been configured pretty well. It’s friend-of-a-friend mutual dating. It’s keyed around events and stuff.
Not in my life would I use something like that.
No? Nhy not?
I don’t use dating apps, but that’s another issue. No. I’d rather just go right to dirty Tinder, I guess. I don’t know.
Why do you trust Tinder more than Facebook?
Because they don’t have all the rest of it, I guess. You know what I mean? It’s like Google. I don’t have a Google Nest in my house. I have a Google Home, but it’s unplugged, and I plug it in when I want to get something. They just got enough. I trust Apple more than ...
You do? Wow.
I do. You don’t think so? I shouldn’t? More.
It sometimes shocks me.
I trust none of them!
What you’re doing, it sounds pretty reasonable, but the degree to which some people go to actually completely change their browsing experience to that of like an international fugitive just for the sake of basically making your ads suck, which some people actually have. There’s like a Chrome plugin that will ...
No, I know. No, of course not. No. I’m looking for camps for my kids for the summer. Fine. Big deal. There’s nothing you can grok from that. I am concerned about them having just too much inside my home. It’s just cameras in my home. I don’t like it. I know, but you can.
If it was the government, it was Orwellian.
It will be the government.
Eventually, yes. It could be. Every time the government can do that, they always do, in history, in the history of our country. They always overstep, our government. They do. They just do, and they can’t help themselves. They love to overstep, all those agencies. That they can do it, I don’t know, I just don’t want a camera in my house thanks to them.
The Facebook States of America.
I just don’t want their camera in my house. A camera’s a different thing in a home. It’s very different.
This is all going to be rendered moot by Deep Fakes going forward.
Deep Fake ...
Oh, they can listen from outside?
Well no, you can construct arbitrary video showing you doing anything.
Oh yeah, they’re fakes. Oh don’t even get into that, Antonio.
I think that’s going to totally shake things up.
That’s how I’m coming down. They’ll make a fake video of me doing something like hanging out with Donald Trump or something.
Here’s another question from Liz Weeks. “My impression is that Facebook post-Cambridge is a company that might not even know some of its own processes and how they interact.” Which I think you mentioned. “Assuming they truly want to improve, what level of confidence do you have in their ability to self-correct? Is it just too algorithmic now?”
Facebook or Cambridge Analytica?
Facebook. They’re gone. Facebook post-Cambridge Analytica.
Yeah. They’re gone. Those cockroaches ran for the ...
I think there’s been a couple of changes that I think all this noise or this brouhaha has created on Facebook. One is the privacy controls they’re offering now are super aggressive. If you go download your data from Facebook — which I encourage everyone to do, by the way — it’s interesting. It’s a lot better than it used to be because I did it back when I was writing the book as a way of getting my ...
It was hard. It was intentionally bad. You could tell they had made it such that you could not port your data. Now it’s actually quite readable and quite portable. Then the other thing is this business of letting you delete your browsing, I was surprised they actually allow you to do that. They actually are shipping things that are, assuming they work, which I assume they do work, those are really powerful tools.
Why do it?
That’s a good question.
They don’t have to, right?
I think Zuck is just obsessed with a perception issue. There’s a scene in the prologue of my book, I hate to plug the same thing, but it’s a reference in which I was pitching all this retargeting, so that didn’t exist at all until then on Facebook, and it wasn’t quite clear how the tech would work at the time, but we were just getting a yes to go ahead. The only question Zuck had, he didn’t ask any detailed questions at all in the presentation, “Are you going to use the ‘Like’ button data or social plugin data on this?” It’s like, well, we could. “Do you think it’s actually useful for targeting?” Then we got into a little discussion, he’s like, “No, don’t use it. I don’t want people to actually look at the ‘Like’ button and think of monetization or think of Big Brother.”
Of course that attitude changed somewhere in 2013 or ’14, they started using ‘Like’ button data.
Of course they did.
My god, it’s a big juicy steak, right in the middle of the ...
Maybe. Well, they’re allowing you to delete it now. I don’t know how juicy a steak it is that they’re actually putting an off button on it.
Interesting, because people won’t turn it off.
That’s the idea.
Do you think there’s been a come to Jesus moment for these people?
I mean there’s been a few come to Jesus moments. One is, yes, they’re giving you better privacy tools. One, I think ...
Which you think are useless.
If they work in deleting all your browsing history, that’s a very real change. Two, I think their PR might slightly change. Historically, Facebook’s PR, as you know, has been total stonewall. We let in access favorites or Kara Swisher or Google.
They don’t let me. They don’t invite me.
You’re interviewing Sheryl Sandberg.
I am, but they don’t let me into a lot of ... anyway, go ahead.
Right, or they just don’t want ... and I think they’re being a little bit more forthcoming. Like Boz is tweeting. After my piece ...
What did you think about that? He stepped in it. It was a bigger issue, and he was focusing on a smaller one, which he was technically right, but not generally correct.
Then Rob Goldman was retweeted by Trump and he kind of stepped in it too. That’s the nature of tweeting, whenever you put yourself out there you’re going to step in it.
He didn’t see the bigger problem people had. It’s like Uber saying, “Well we didn’t really do that at the Kennedy Airport,” but the fact of the matter is people don’t trust Uber, so it doesn’t really matter. Don’t defend yourself right in the middle of a small thing right in the middle of a bigger issue.
Like anyone, it’s hard to look at yourself when you’re so deep inside that Menlo Park myopia.
It’s not myopia, it’s victimy. They’re all like, “Oh.” I literally had one come up to me and like, “Oh you’re so mean to us.” I was like, “Go fuck yourself.” You know what I mean? It was like, “Oh so sorry. Go salve yourself with a private plane ride to Paris.”
They’re not all rich anymore necessarily, Kara.
Oh, come on. Ugh.
Well the ones we’re talking about are.
The senior people, yeah, sure.
Yeah, sure. Yeah, weepy, weepy. Another one of them was so earnest I wanted to punch him, honestly.
That’s the other thing. I think Facebook is still very ... that was the other thing I wanted to mention. One other hit, ultimately I think the real damage that Facebook might have suffered due to all this stuff is internal turmoil and unit cohesion. All these leaks that are coming out. For years, Facebook was historically the most impenetrable company ever, I think. Apple maybe as well.
I think they’re trying a little hard, but yeah.
If you talk to ...
Yeah, harder. Not at all hard.
What leaks there were either half accidental or kind of implied, but now you actually have the insiders intentionally and malicious siding with the outsider against some internal faction, that sort of thing, that you just never saw before. I think, wow, that’s huge. If Facebook loses that level of mission focus, that’s a big deal.
Yeah, they definitely lost that. People blabbity blab. I don’t even try now. I think if I tried back then, I didn’t focus on Facebook that much, but early days I’d get shit out of there all the time. They would leak away. It was fantastic.
Was some of it intentional maybe?
No, some of it wasn’t. No, no, no, not at all, because I got yelled at, for one. I forget, they fired someone.
It occasionally happened, but this business of literally every week a new leak ...
Let me say, if you’re a good reporter and you try, you can always get information and it’s not intentional. It’s pretty easy in Silicon Valley, I find, if you try. Some of them are super easy. Others you have to try a little harder. Even Apple, if I set my mind to it, I could probably ...
I mean, you have super powers.
No, but ultimately people want to say things.
Again, this business, and it’s clear some faction inside wanted to screw another faction, so therefore they leaked. That sort of thing is very strange.
Oh yeah, that’s happening. That whole thing around Alex Stamos and Sheryl. That was riveting.
I think for example, yeah, or the report that came out about Trump/Clinton that I cited earlier. All these things, like ugh.
Yes, that was a definite hit on her from someone. I was trying to figure out who it was. I don’t think it was entirely true. No, it wasn’t.
I have no idea.
It wasn’t what was written, I’ll tell you, because they took it out, which was really interesting.
That’s the weird thing, they deleted it later.
Yeah, they did. I didn’t like that when they did that. They should have explained themselves.
Last question, do you think he’s changed, Mark Zuckerberg? You don’t know him.
I don’t know him that well at all.
He is the company. He still is “le roi, c’est moi,” you know what I mean?
I think so. In the book, I define him ...
He’s the reluctant king.
I describe him as the boy emperor, which he definitely is.
Yeah. Some boy. He’s an adult. Say the adult. He is, he’s 33. He has two children.
Are there any adult men in Silicon Valley? I’m not so sure.
Yes, there are.
Stop juvenilizing them. Yes, they don’t need to eat food that’s pre-chewed. They’re fine. They’ll be fine. All men are so juvenile. Man.
They wear t-shirts and drink Gatorade, for god’s sake.
Whatever. You know what? They’re adults and they have to act like adults and they have to stop sexually harassing women and stand up and be a man and take their responsibility seriously. God, I sound like Jordan Peterson now, which I’m not.
Clean your room. Clean your room.
Oh my god, him. I’m not even going down that road because I’d like to have a nice debate with that man.
You should have Jordan Peterson on your podcast.
I can’t. He’s just such a horse’s ass, I’m sorry.
Yes. Just read him. It’s so easy to piece ... Whatever. The people like it. Men like to hear about sitting up straight. Far be it for me to make them feel bad about themselves, because men are the victim, just so you know. Are the victim of all societies. Anyway, I’m joking with you. Any other thoughts? Where’s it going? What’s going to be our issue for Facebook next? Because they always seem to step in something.
The thing to me, it’s like all this ad noise and everything we discussed, at the end of the day it’ll blow over and we’ll muddle through as we always do.
The bigger issue that I don’t know we’re going to muddle through, for which there isn’t a clear answer, is this whole post-truth society. People often cite the parallel between the printing press and the smartphone, which I know sounds ridiculous and like some stupid VC pitch, but I’m increasingly thinking that is kind of true. I’m actually going back and reading some of the histories of the development of the book and the spread in Europe in the 15th century and the whole thing. There’s some amazing parallels there. The level of political and economic and religious strife that the printing press caused, it ushered in a century of bloodshed in Europe and totally changed everything.
It’s funny, Gutenberg himself was just like a skeezy operator who was trying to make money off of it. He had no high-minded whatever. He actually didn’t make money off of it. He ended up almost in poverty. I think there’s definitely a parallel there. If you look at the impact that Gutenberg had on society in which knowledge, recorded history, went from this intermediary of this clergy that was selected sort of more of a broad thing.
Sure, the monk thing.
How did we recover from a century of madness? Well, the Enlightenment happened. We had standards around editorship and truth and objective truth. The encyclopedias, we created this notion of an encyclopedia. Expertise. Totemic reference knowledge. You go to the library and that’s the truth. We all agree that’s the thing. We all kind of converged on this paradigm. It seems that somehow even though this tech is more sophisticated, and sometimes we’re going forward to the past.
How do we unite around anything?
Right. We’re almost forgetting these standards and what we now call fake news, in earlier age we would have called tribal folklore. Things that seem true but really aren’t, and they’re kind of media-phemera that spread through these informal social networks, and we believe them because we like to believe them but there’s no outside truth. Both left and right have the aspect of folklores, although perhaps one side more than another. I really do think that the smartphone is in some sense undoing some of what Gutenberg and the Enlightenment created.
Wow. I agree with you. Unity is really hard. What do you unify around?
I’m not sure what the answer is. I think it may be the case that we continue to live in this somewhat tribal folkloric fake news world.
Man, Facebook’s to blame. Should we blame Facebook?
To me, the problem here ... What’s the issue? I think the problem — and I mention this in the piece that comes out today — that the issue is that these online tribes, the fault lines of these tribes now run under and between the colored boxes on the map that used to define our own political and culture entities and no longer do. If you look at a place like the United States, it no longer refers to more or less a single collection of beliefs and values. It really doesn’t. You can say the same thing in other western countries, which I think is why in so many western democracies there’s this political other that we hold in contempt and we just don’t understand why we’re sharing political power with them. That feeling is completely mutual. We all know who we’re talking about here, right?
Here’s the only thing, is you thought there were things in place that everyone believed but a lot of us didn’t.
Yeah. You’re a woman or like I’m gay, the world you all say existed didn’t for us. We lived by different rules. I’m higher up on the chain because I’m white, I have education. One of the things I think about a lot is why did the MeToo stuff get written now? Why did it happen now? Who wrote it? It was women at the New York Times and a gay man, Ronan Farrow. It is not a mistake. He saw it. He understood it. He saw it because he understood it, and then he said it. I think that’s what’s interesting to me is the ability to say it. I think we didn’t live in a world you think was so in agreement. I don’t think.
I was just thinking of political ...
No, I agree, but I think we didn’t agree with them ever. It’s just now people can say it. That’s the problem, and I think it’ll be interesting to see if we can find some real cohesion. What is the real cohesion? And that’s harder because it’s not religion. Solution isn’t more Facebook. It’s something else. Aliens arriving, I think, will do it for us.
Shared suffering in a common enemy.
You know what? Aliens. That’s what we’re going to go with. We’re going to go with aliens. Thank you so much. This has been a really great discussion and a great episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask. Thank you for joining me. This story is out in Wired. He’s written several. Are you a guest writer for Wired? What are you do? Contributing?
I’m a contributing writer. I’m part of this Ideas [column series] they’re ...
Good, you do a great job. You’re quite a good writer. You should keep on the journalism thing, it’s a good idea, even though you always sully journalists all the time. You have become one, and you’re very persuasive.
I know, I feel really awkward about that.
That’s all right. That’s what we all do. We hate each other. It’s good. It’s fine. It’s like my family, my Italian family. We just insult each other, but we love each other. Does that make sense?
Okay, you can insult journalists. You don’t know you’re a ... that’s my favorite part. Anyway, it’s fine. Doesn’t bother me. In his 2016 book about working at Facebook, it’s called “Chaos Monkeys,” it’s coming out in paperback.
This summer, yeah.
This summer, great.
With a new afterword.
It goes into a lot of the stuff.
Oh I can’t wait.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.