The Morality of Ads and The End of Zuck

The “An Open Letter To …” format has always struck me as inescapably self-aggrandizing in a particularly duplicitous way. The explicit presumption is that the addressee will actually read the letter and care about the advice and admonitions within, when in fact the entire exercise is so transparently a cri de coeur that serves only the writer’s need for attention.

Nevertheless, I have to admit that I’m writing this post for one person, and one person only. If I could send this to him directly and be sure that he would take it seriously, I would simply send it to him. If there were no chance of him ever reading this, I wouldn’t bother writing it. However, Facebook tells me that my social distance to Mark Zuckerberg is quite short, so it’s possible that someone that Mark takes seriously will send this to him. I feel compelled to write this silly letter in this annoying format, because the future of the free world is at stake.

Dear Mark,

At this point, I hope you are past the point of denying that you are in fact The Leader of the Free World. This honorary title has traditionally (in our myopic nation) gone to the President of the United States, but the current occupant of the White House explicitly denies this “globalist” worldview, and implicitly disqualifies himself with his statements and actions. If there is such a thing as a leader of the free world, you’re it. Sorry.

Surely you already know what I’m going to write about here, but you don’t know why you should listen to me, so let me start with that. I am the only person in the entire world who (a) has faced a problem of the kind and magnitude of the one you face today, (b) has hands-on experience in implementing solutions to this problem, and (c) is willing to tell you all about it.

In 2010, I was hired to lead Product Management for Ads Policy at Google. This was an odd role: Policy isn’t thought of as a Product problem; it seems more like something that might be addressed by legal or operational or PR functions. But Google recognized that they had a serious problem, and felt that a product approach to this problem was required, in addition to all the other approaches.

By the way, the existence of this problem at Google was partially albeit indirectly your fault. Google had historically implemented Ads Policy through sales ops, which was led by Sheryl. You lured her away at a critical time, when Google was reaching yet another level of scale and impact, and the leadership vacuum in sales ops resulted in many small cracks in an implicit system of rivers and dams of policy issues. It was inevitable that one of these cracks would burst a dam somewhere, which is a pleasingly vague way of glossing over the numerous ads policy problems that led to the DOJ imposing a $500 million fine on Google. As you might imagine, a half-billion dollar fine tends to sharpen one’s attention.

So I had a Facebook-scale problem … but bigger. Facebook is arguably more important now, but Google still has more of everything: more users, more data, more dollars, more decisions. Billions of users, trillions of ads, the tiniest fractions of a second to make decisions: how do you decide what ads NOT to show? The clueless commentariat think it’s easy, but I know what it really takes.

I also know there is almost no margin for error. You can get it right 99.999% of the time, but for every billion results per day, that means you got ten thousand wrong that day. Not a lot of businesses can survive getting ten thousand decisions wrong every day. Each one of those errors is not only potentially ruinous, but each one can seem almost impossible to debug. When something gets through all of your best efforts, how do you know what went wrong?

So yeah, I think I understand your problem. Here’s my advice …

Question Your Attitude

Obviously, I don’t know what your attitude is, I can only make assumptions from your public statements, and I understand that there are many legitimate reasons why we must make public statements that don’t reveal our true attitudes.

So at the risk of making obnoxious assumptions, your attitude towards this problem can be summed up as: “Well, it’s very hard. I’m uncomfortable making these decisions.

Having had the same problem, I can say that it wasn’t any harder than other hard problems. I mean, of course it was a challenge, but I’m not sure it was any more challenging than dozens of other initiatives at Google. I don’t mean that we solved it perfectly, clearly there are still challenges, but addressing these problems is just another part of the business, not some special, impossible area.

I understand why you dream of a dynamic system that reflects different values for different communities, but that is an abdication of responsibility. I also understand the enormous business advantage in claiming that Facebook is just a “neutral platform.” I happen to think that it’s high time that all tech companies stop advancing the fictions that allow them to continue to benefit from the legal sacred cow that feeds tech, but it’s not necessary for you to admit that publicly or privately. You just have to understand that you really have a business problem and you have address it with a straightforward business attitude.

Your business is ads. The funny thing is, lots of people hate ads, and ad businesses justify ads to users by saying that ads fund the great experiences that users get for free. But it’s so much more than that: Ads are the conduit for the only morality that exists when we cling to the idea that we run neutral platforms.

You can blame “the algorithm” for a lot of things that you claim weren’t the result of human judgment. The Algorithm – the holy algorithm, the all-powerful, the unknowable – sure, you’ll fool the people who don’t actually understand computing. But even if you continue this claim into the ads business, you cannot escape the pressures that ultimately impose a kind of morality through the ads business.

Ads have advertisers, and the truly important advertisers care about their reputations. They have limited tolerance for being on a platform that hurts those reputations. That tolerance is limited by the fact that their customers are actual people, and almost all of those people have some sense of morality. So even though we may have amoral (i.e. “neutral”) algorithms, even if advertisers themselves might be amoral, ultimately the common morality of people flows up through the advertisers, and through our ads systems, and finally imposes a sense of morality on the people who run the most powerful ads businesses. It is this slow flow of morality that has finally become a deluge upon you.

It’s not that hard to understand the downstream impacts of your business, and get ahead of the trickle of backwash before it becomes a deluge. The problem here isn’t about being a neutral platform, it’s not about avoiding the content business with its obligations and regulatory attention. It’s about understanding the cycle of users, advertisers and apps in the world’s most powerful ads business – that’s you now, apologies to my Google friends – and protecting each properly so that you are limiting the appearance and impact of bad ads.

I realize that the unwashed masses think that ads are evil. Only people who don’t understand business and don’t understand ads think that a powerful platform would knowingly sacrifice user interests for short-term revenue gains. Advertisers flee platforms that treat their users poorly. “Focus on the user and all else will follow” is a business mantra, not a moral mantra.

You struggle publicly like this is some kind of impossible problem. For that struggle, I can only play you the world’s smallest violin. You have a business problem, and it’s your business and therefore your problem.

Invest In People First

I had a medium size team at Google. Eight product managers working with over a hundred engineers, closely partnered with several hundred internal operations people and several thousand contract operations people. Yeah, I understand that most of the world looks at that and says “This is medium??” But as you know, that’s merely a sub-team when you’re talking about a critical function in a (then) $40 billion business.

How big is the policy team at Facebook, Mark?

All those people worked together to produce thoughtful policies, powerful computing systems, and vigilant human operations, working closely in a virtuous cycle. I could detail all of what we did, but you are better off just giving your own people in this area many more people.

Yes, I know AI can make this a lot more efficient than it was in Ye Olde 2010. I still don’t believe that AI is sufficiently advanced enough to get where you need to be without many many humans, though I’m no expert in AI. More importantly, I don’t think that the type of expert who can make that assessment is the type of person who should be deciding how many humans to put on this problem.

Here’s the part that will look like bragging, but I’ll take that risk. I want you to know what it takes to manage ads policy products, so I have to talk about myself. I studied political philosophy and law, under the great conservative theorist Robert P. George as well as the liberal giant Ronald Dworkin. I learned economics from Alan Blinder. I started my career in high finance law, working on leveraged buyouts for Mitt Romney, before I chased Silicon Valley dreams, first coming to Craig Johnson‘s firm, then going into venture capital and eventually working for “the Willy Wonka of virtual reality,” Philip Rosedale.

My point isn’t that I’m so great. I’ve done a lot of things, but I was mediocre or worse at many of them – a C grade in macroeconomics! My point is that this isn’t a job for just programmers, or philosophers, or economists – it’s highly multidisciplinary. Now that you know the template, it will take you less than a second to find the thousands of people who are basically just like me (except with higher grades). It’s not hard to put together a team to go after this particular kind of problem, but you have to know what you’re looking for.

Deep in the well of self-aggrandizement already, I’ll risk some more name dropping in order to move onto the next point. (I comfort myself by thinking it’s not name dropping when the person you’re talking to already has all these connections in his database.)

You need to truly empower the people working on this problem. I wasn’t particularly powerful by title. And yet, when I told Dennis Woodside that he was letting me down, he stepped up. When I told Nikesh Arora he was getting in my way, he pulled back. When I told Philipp Schindler he had to give up sales, he gave it up. When I showed Kent Walker we had a fire, he brought the fire trucks. When I told Claire Johnson I needed her help, she became my greatest ally. None of this was because I was great or powerful – I doubt any of these highly distinguished people remember my name. And yet they always cooperated with me, because they knew that when I got in their faces, they weren’t talking to me; they were talking to the leadership behind me. And there was never any question that my leadership would back me.

I wonder if policy leaders at Facebook feel that way? I wonder if they can go around to literally anyone at the company, insist on doing what is good and what is right for the business, and act with complete confidence that everyone will cooperate, all the way to the very top?

Assess Your Leadership

Let’s take the gloves off, shall we? You have built a company that has played a great part in letting a foreign influence endanger the integrity of our democracy. Have you even yet truly internalized the failure of leadership for which you bear complete responsibility? I mean to ask this clinically, not as an attack on your ego, character or capabilities. Do you have a complete grasp of how you have failed as a leader, and do you truly want to institute the change in yourself and in your company that would be required to make amends?

It’s really not a terrible thing if you understand the challenge and don’t think it’s yours at this point. Lots of people believe that you could be the actual President, not just the holder of the mythical “Leader of the Free World” title. Maybe you should make your impact on the world from the White House rather than Menlo Park. Given the current state of affairs, I would happily vote for a Sandberg/Zuckerberg ticket. Maybe it’s time to elevate yourself to the board Chair at Facebook, and focus on preparing for your campaign.

You’d have almost any option in the world to take on the CEO role at Facebook. I certainly don’t know everyone, but I can tell you who I know is great, because they were great with exactly the same problem at Google. Oh, I guess that this part of the open letter is addressed to them –

Nick, Susan, Sridhar: you guys don’t get enough credit for handling Google’s problems way before they could turn into the problems that Facebook has now. You would be the first to admit that of course Google still has problems, but we know they would be a lot worse without your leadership. 

– back to Mark, in closing – You probably can’t get Susan or Sridhar out of there. Why would they want the headache? You could probably get Nick, if you were serious about giving him true leadership authority to fix your problem.

If you still intend to fix Facebook yourself, I sincerely wish you luck. You’re going to have to change: the “Zuck” who created Facebook is not the person who can fix it. I haven’t seen you doing the things that I know would work, and it truly worries me. The future of the free world depends on your success.