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Code 2018: When will Silicon Valley take responsibility for its products?

Who’s growing up — and who’s lagging behind — was a recurring question this week at the Code Conference.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Spotify CEO Daniel Ek at the 2018 Code Conference
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Spotify CEO Daniel Ek
Asa Mathat for Recode

An unofficial theme of the 2018 Code Conference was the “Spider-Man” quote (or was it Voltaire?), “With great power comes great responsibility.” Tech is changing and disrupting the world every day — but do its leaders see themselves as responsible for those changes, good and bad?

On the latest episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, we convened a supergroup of Vox Media podcast hosts — Recode Decode host Kara Swisher, Recode Media host Peter Kafka and Converge host Casey Newton — to recap the conference and dive into that question. They concluded that whether or not tech companies are volunteering for that great responsibility, it is being thrust upon them.

“All of these companies — not just Facebook and YouTube, but Spotify and Uber — describe themselves as ‘platforms,’” Kafka said. “The argument is, ‘We’re just in the middle here and people are putting stuff up,’ or ‘People are connecting with drivers, we’re just facilitating it.’

“This is the year where we’re bumping up against some of those limits, whether the companies are recognizing it on their own or being forced to recognize it,” he added.

Newton drew a distinction between leaders like Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi — who he said appeared “more boring” than former CEO Travis Kalanick, for the better — and Spotify CEO Daniel Ek. While Khosrowshahi explained clearly how he intends to clean up the mess he inherited, Ek wouldn’t or couldn’t explain Spotify’s temporary decision to ban R. Kelly from its playlists.

“If you have artists who have done really bad things in the real world, should you continue to promote them on your public playlists?” Newton asked. “Not, ‘Should they be allowed to be on the platform?’ because there’s a lot of artists who’ve done a lot of shady things, but if you’re going to put together the best ‘90s playlist, should R. Kelly be on it, given all the stories about [him] being a sexual predator?”

“[Ek] said the word ‘transparency’ 400 times, and I still have no idea what his company thinks about its policies,” he said.

You can listen to Too Embarrassed to Ask on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

On the new podcast, the trio also talked about one of the limitations of judging tech execs based on their public appearances at conferences like Code. Following on Newton’s remark that Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Mike Schroepfer were “clearly there to wrap up their apology tour,” Kafka said we shouldn’t read too much into interviewees who seem to have been heavily coached before an interview.

“What’s the upside for them to be candid?” Kafka asked, saying former Apple CEO Steve Jobs was the exception that proved the rule. “‘Oh, this is how I really feel about this.’ And they might tell you as soon as you walk offstage, or at least a version of it. But they can’t do it [onstage].”

Newton said he was most intrigued by a different aspect of the Facebook interview: The lack of a clear statement defining the social behemoth’s purpose, like the one given to its smaller rival Snapchat via Snap CEO Evan Spiegel.

“When Spiegel talks about Snap, it’s about getting away from this world where you feel like you’re competing online for attention with your friends, you’re competing for ‘Likes,’” Newton said. “It’s about building closer connections to the people you already know, as opposed to doing these broadcast performances for the entire world.

“Sheryl Sandberg was not trying to make the complete case for why Facebook should exist,” he added. “It’s so big that I don’t think they feel like they need to make the case for why. But I would say that given the year and a half that they’ve had, what they should be doing is putting forth an executive who can sketch a positive vision of what Facebook is doing in our lives.”

If you like this podcast, make sure to check out our others:

  • Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with the movers and shakers in tech and media. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • Recode Media with Peter Kafka features no-nonsense conversations with the smartest and most interesting people in the media world, with new episodes every Thursday. Use these links to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on Apple Podcasts — and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Kara. Tune in next Friday for another episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask!

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