Steven Levy has been writing about technology for years. He’s interviewed Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs. He chronicled the rise of personal computers, online search, and cryptocurrency. However, he still remembers an August 2015 news alert that stopped him in his tracks — 1 billion people had logged into Facebook on the same day. That’s approximately one out of every seven people in the world.
“I knew Mark Zuckerberg’s goal was to connect the world, but he was really doing it. It was unprecedented so I decided to write a book about it,” said Levy.
After five years of research and unprecedented interviews with Facebook Founder, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO Sheryl Sandberg and other top executives, Levy released Facebook: The Inside Story. The book chronicles the company’s growth from Harvard University dorm-room project to a tech platform with a user base larger than the population of most countries.
Levy discussed the book at LIFT Labs PHL during a live interview with Eileen Hwang, Marketing Director, Strategic Development, Comcast. Levy offered insight into Facebook’s leadership, meteoric growth, and its changes to content moderation and data security in recent years. Here are seven things we learned:
Top Silicon Valley executives have one striking similarity
Throughout his career, Levy has spent time with the leaders of Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Google and, of course, Facebook. He said that they all have a willingness to be misunderstood and an eagerness to do the impossible.
“They have to be resilient enough to keep going when everyone around them says they’re nuts,” said Levy. “It’s nuts to say: I’m going to connect the whole world. It’s nuts to say: I’m going to gather all the information in the world. It’s nuts to say: I’m going to put a personal computer on every desk. But these founders kept going no matter what.”
No topic was off limits
Facebook had no editorial control of the book and Levy didn’t submit a manuscript before publication. He did, however, embargo all information until the book’s publication. Levy believes that led to more openness around sensitive topics like the Cambridge Analytica data breach, and moderation of fake news and disturbing content.
Privacy helped Facebook defeat early competitors like Myspace and Friendster
Although Facebook has had headline-making challenges around privacy recently, it was actually its privacy that differentiated Facebook from competitors in the early- to mid-2000s. Users had to be college students. They had to log on with a .edu email address. They were encouraged to sign up with their real names and upload their own personal information and images. Those elements made it more exclusive and trustworthy than competitors, said Levy.
Content moderation has evolved
In the early days, Zuckerberg figured that content would be policed organically in a crowdsourced way — with people shunning fake news or disturbing imagery. That obviously didn’t come to fruition, so Facebook eventually had to formalize rules and hire staff to moderate content.
Talent attraction and retention is now a major concern at Facebook
In Silicon Valley, the battle for talent is always raging. Facebook’s recent challenges with privacy and content moderation have hurt its ability to attract the best and brightest, said Levy.
“It’s not as cool of a place to work anymore. I’ve had people tell me that it’s not as much fun to go home for Thanksgiving and have people ask why you’re working for that company,” Levy said. “Facebook insists that their recruiting numbers are just as good as ever. But I talked to other CEOs in Silicon Valley who said that Facebook used to raid them for talent, and now they raid Facebook.”
The seeds for the Cambridge Analytica data breach were sowed in 2010, Levy argues
In 2018, news broke that Facebook exposed data on up to 87 million Facebook users to political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which worked for the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Levy argues that seeds for such a breach were sowed during Facebook’s 2010 release of its API — allowing information to flow back-and-forth between software developers and Facebook. If a user signed up for a third-party app that ran on Facebook back then, the terms and conditions granted the developer access to that user’s information as well as information about their friends, said Levy.