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Facebook's Growth Team Is a Magnet for Regulators

Facebook's Growth Team Is a Magnet for Regulators

Wednesday, 22 September, 2021 - 05:00

How do you add guardrails into a product that was built for constant interaction? A deluge of documents leaked out of Facebook led to bombshell reports in The Wall Street Journal last week highlighting harms — from unfair treatment of users to human trafficking — that the company partly ignored and then hid from public view. Facebook pushed back on the reports on Saturday, saying they didn’t tell the whole picture.

But Facebook’s former chief security officer offered this take on the leaks.

In other words, employees blew the whistle because no matter how high up the chain they went with concerns, they still hit resistance from Facebook’s management, in particular from its “growth team.” This is the tiny but powerful group of people who came together more than a decade ago to focus not just on adding more users, but keeping them regularly engaged.

Though it has been critical to Facebook’s success, that team’s work now seems to have also stood in its way to becoming a more reputable company; it could haunt Facebook as it gears up to fight increasingly aggressive action from international regulators and governments.

At other apps and websites, a growth team is a subset of the marketing and PR department. But Facebook’s growth team was practically part of the c-suite, according to Steven Levy’s book Facebook: The Inside Story, published in 2020.

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has been open about plugging the team’s ideas directly into his service. “To grow a product, often the best levers for doing that are in the product,” he said in an interview with Y Combinator’s Sam Altman.

Zuckerberg has also kept the group, handpicked in late 2007 by former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya, close to hand. A former Facebook executive told me in 2019 that out of the handful of people in Zuckerberg’s inner circle, at least two were key executives from the growth team: Naomi Gleit, one of the company’s longest serving employees, and Javier Olivan, who has led Facebook’s international expansion in the developing world. A third growth-team leader was Alex Schultz, who for the past year has been Facebook’s chief marketing officer. Zuckerberg has said that without Schultz’s work, Facebook would not have connected more than two billion people around the world.

Schultz himself gives some insight into why internal change might have been so challenging at Facebook. In a little-known presentation to startup founders in 2015, he explained that Facebook’s mantra has largely been to keep users visiting on a daily basis. “Retention… is the most important thing for growth,” he said in the talk at a venture capital conference.

When Facebook users tried to leave the site, he said, the company would get their friends to send the departing user a friend request so that they could be pinged with a notification. “When they come back, get them more friends,” he said. “It’s very focused, and we’ve stayed that way for eight years and it’s really worked.”

To keep adding new people to Facebook, the existing user base had to be regularly engaged, Schultz said, adding that Facebook’s number one metric for the past decade had been monthly active people, a stat for the number of people who use Facebook at least once each month. Schultz called it Facebook’s “North Star.” When asked at the end of his presentation if it had ever changed he replied, shrugging: “MAP to DAP [daily active people]. We want people to come back daily now. That’s it.”

When Facebook’s North Star is to keep people coming back day after day, it may feel impossible to push for better content practices. A case in point from the the Journal last week: Zuckerberg in 2018 resisted fixes to an algorithm that was making users angrier. His reason? The fixes might lead people to interact with Facebook less, according to the report.

Daily active users has been such a focal point that Schultz, cited the metric as a measure for cleaning up harmful posts. In an interview to the Financial Times in March 2019, he said that a recent rise in active user numbers in some western markets, which followed a slight dip, was a sign that the company was stamping out toxic content. “I believe the numbers show that they are sticking around, and we are doing the right things,” he said. In other words the site was not harmful, because people were regularly coming back to the site.

Yet Facebook’s own research shows this is not true. Among the internal studies reported by the Journal this week was a memo that showed “misinformation, toxicity and violent content” were among the most re-shared posts on Facebook. Facebook’s management knew, according to the report, that many people were returning to the site because of harmful content, not just in spite of it.

Facebook’s growth team has developed a mythical status in social media for fueling a steady increase in users over more than a decade. But they, and Zuckerberg himself, also seem to have also created a company-wide obligation to keep activity on the site near-constant. Anything that risked stifling that hum — such as hiring thousands more content moderators to better police harmful content — could potentially threaten Facebook’s North Star.

No wonder the leaks from insiders. The specter of more regulatory action against Facebook looks more likely than ever.


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