FlyTitle: Social networks

A journalist offers an inside look at Facebook’s rise


“I WOULD ALWAYS say to regulators,‘Look, bad things happen in human society, therefore bad things happen on Facebook’.” So said Chris Kelly, an ex-Facebooker once in charge of the social network’s privacy policies, to Steven Levy, a veteran technology journalist whose book about Facebook was published on February 25th. Mr Kelly was recounting conversations with officials in 2007, amid early rumblings about Facebook’s seamier side—specifically the ease with which children could find questionable content, such as a group named “I’m Curious About Incest”.

“我总会跟监管机构讲,‘你们看,人类社会中总有坏事发生,所以Facebook上也有坏事’。”Facebook前员工、曾负责该公司隐私政策的克里斯·凯利(Chris Kelly)对资深科技记者史蒂芬·列维(Steven Levy)说道。列维关于Facebook的书于2月25日出版。凯利回忆了2007年与官员们的谈话,当时人们开始抱怨Facebook丑陋的一面,尤其是孩子们轻而易举就能找到有问题的内容,比如一个名为“我对乱伦很好奇”(I’m Curious About Incest)的小组。

More than a decade on, Facebook claims 2.5bn people—a third of humanity—as users. The charge sheet against the company has grown as well. It has been accused of spreading fake news, facilitating paedophilia, and allowing countries to interfere in each other’s elections. Mr Levy’s book offers a ringside view of the growth of one of the world’s biggest companies, and of the backlash it has provoked. Other books, and even a Hollywood film, have chronicled the firm’s rise. But Mr Levy’s effort is fresh, up-to-date and insiderish. Thanks to the indulgence of the firm’s boss, Mark Zuckerberg, he had the run of its California headquarters and its denizens.


Such access can be a reporter’s blessing. It has long been apparent from the outside that Facebook grew so quickly that its employees had little time to grapple with all the implications, even those that would become central to the business. But it is still noteworthy to hear interviewees confirm as much to Mr Levy in their own words. Carolyn Everson, an advertising executive at Microsoft, was poached to head advertising sales at Facebook in 2011. Ms Everson assumed that her new employer knew what it was doing—after all, it was already raking in hundreds of millions of dollars. She was quickly disabused of that notion: “[Facebook] didn’t have everything figured out…everything was brand-new and [they were] still building.”

这样的渠道对于记者可谓幸事。长期以来,有一点在外人看来很明显,那就是Facebook发展得太快,员工们几乎没有时间去应对方方面面的影响,即便是那些可能对公司变得至关重要的影响。但仍值得倾听列维的受访者亲口向他证实这些。2011年,微软广告业务主管卡罗琳·埃弗森(Carolyn Everson)被挖来负责Facebook的广告销售。埃弗森以为她的新雇主肯定知道自己在做什么,毕竟它已经狂赚了几亿美元。但很快她就醒悟过来:“(Facebook)还没把事情桩桩件件搞清楚……所有的一切都是全新的,(他们)还在创建。”

In 2008 Mr Zuckerberg hired Sheryl Sandberg, a Google executive, to be Facebook’s chief operating officer, handing off responsibility for everything not directly related to building Facebook’s product. (It would take him a decade, writes Mr Levy, to realise that such a division of labour was a mistake.) Facebook’s board upbraided both of them for not spotting a Russian misinformation campaign designed to influence America’s election in 2016. When subsequently asked by Mr Levy whether he thought she had “let him down”, Mr Zuckerberg offers only a pause, followed by a non-committal response.

扎克伯格在2008年聘请了谷歌高管雪莉·桑德伯格(Sheryl Sandberg)担任Facebook的首席运营官,把所有与打造Facebook产品无直接关联的事务都交予她负责。(列维写道,扎克伯格花了十年时间才意识到如此分工是个错误。)Facebook董事会谴责他们两人没有发现俄罗斯大肆传播虚假信息,意欲影响2016年美国大选的行为。事后列维问扎克伯格有没有觉得桑德伯格“让他失望”时,扎克伯格只是停顿了一下,然后给出了一个不置可否的回答。

The author’s access risks putting him in thrall to his subject. He is not afraid to chronicle Facebook’s failures. But his tone is occasionally fawning. He recounts how Mr Zuckerberg reacted to a question about the wisdom of Instagram’s founders selling their photo-sharing app to Facebook “as if he were a chess grandmaster, startled by a move from an inferior player who suddenly shifted the board to his disadvantage”. At times Mr Levy can seem too quick to accept the tech industry’s macho self-image, for instance in his description of an internal team charged with driving new users to Facebook as “a data-driven Dirty Dozen armed with spreadsheets instead of combat rifles”.


In recent years Facebook has hired legions of moderators to check up on its users, and fortified them with automated monitoring systems. But its chief defence against accusations of harm is one to which Mr Levy seems mostly sympathetic: that from the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made, not even a social network. It is a belief that Mr Zuckerberg seems to hold sincerely. It is tactically useful, too, because while it contains more than a grain of truth, it also minimises the firm’s culpability.


In the end, Mr Levy sees Mr Zuckerberg as a Utopian genius undone by the world’s lamentable wickedness; a man who “set out to connect a world that was perhaps not ready to be connected”. Not everyone will be so generous.■