When I talk to my friends who work at the big social networks, they always tell me they didn’t join for the money; they joined for the mission. Don’t get me wrong: Their paychecks are substantial. But they would have been substantial at Apple, Microsoft, or any of the other tech companies that these friends could have worked for. And when asked why they’re still there despite the damages that social networks have caused to society, they still talk about the mission.
Upon joining, my friends bought into the idea that Facebook aimed to make the world more open and connected; YouTube wanted to give everyone a voice and show them the world; Twitter set out to give everyone the power to broadcast ideas and information instantly and without barriers. They believed that all three of these companies wanted to bring out the best in people, help them connect with family members and long-forgotten classmates, give voice to people who didn’t have one. They aspired to build platforms by humans for humans so that we could really leverage our humanity. Somehow most of them still believe all of that.
So how did these companies, their teams, and even my friends seem to have lost track of their mission to serve humanity? This isn’t just about making more money: These companies are flush with cash, their founders are billionaires, and many of their employees are millionaires. I also don’t believe we can blame it on a lack of empathy among hyperprivileged CEOs such as Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, or Susan Wojcicki. Even if you believe that these leaders are indeed lacking empathy, each has thousands of employees and leaders around them who could more than compensate for their deficiencies. And it’s not the result of fear of the current U.S. president; in many aspects they’re more powerful than he is.
How we got here
Why have the leaders and employees of social networks failed to take responsibility for the problems that they’ve created? I have a few hypotheses based on my 15 years of experience working with tech companies.
Not in their DNA: For the most part, social networks were built, and are run, by engineers. And most engineers believe, deep in their core, that computing is the best and most efficient way to solve all problems—that machines and software create better solutions than humans. As a result, humanity is rarely at the forefront of their thinking. To them, injecting emotions such as empathy into the engineering process is inefficient and unpredictable. It slows things down.
Too little time: In the tech world, speed is of the essence. When you’re pushing to release features at an increasingly fast cadence and to grow at breakneck speed you have little time to think about the complexity of human society and how your products and services might affect it beyond the obvious. Speed requires cutting some corners. Among the things most frequently sacrificed: building an empathetic, durable culture and being good corporate citizens.
Garbage fatigue: As a result of the nearly unrestricted content that appears on their platforms, employees at social networks have been exposed to the best but also the absolute worst of humanity. The latter can be overwhelming and lead to a sense of numbing detachment and depersonalization. Experiencing this fatigue—and increasing scrutiny from media and critics—a lot of social network employees seem to have simply accepted that the ugly and the horrible are part of humanity and an inherent part of their platform, and that filtering content is a Sisyphean task. Working at a social network can sometimes feel like playing a game of whack-a-mole: No matter which ugly content you take down, label, or deprioritize, there is always more coming; no matter how hard you work to close the loopholes, the “bad guys” will always find a new one. The job can feel impossible and draining.
Just a mirror: Blaming social networks for their lack of empathy sometimes seems similar to a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Our societies thrive on outrage, emotion, and personal attacks: Anti-intellectualism, nationalism, and militarism make regular comebacks every few decades in the Western world. Empathetic and compassionate policies are the first victims in difficult economic times. In many ways, social networks are largely echoing the world (though my friends conveniently ignore that their companies are also, by design, amplifying the worst of it.)
Never enough: The tech world thrives on a culture of “never enough.” There are never enough customers, never enough clicks; you can never be big enough, never fast enough. And while this culture exists in other industries, Silicon Valley has pushed it to the extreme. This is a world where people are always hyperaware of what they don’t have and still “need” to achieve, rather than what they have already accomplished. This goes beyond fighting for market share or against competition (most of these companies really only compete against themselves). It is the deeply ingrained conviction that a healthy company should always be growing exponentially, always get better, always be paranoid about potential competitors. It explains a lot of Silicon Valley’s success; it also makes it hard to accept measures that would slow down the growth in any manner or form.
Gilded and sheltered lives: A lot of Big Tech employees are isolated from the rest of the world in hyperprivileged bubbles where their every whim is catered to, their every need anticipated. The lack of diversity in their world (in the broadest sense of the word: gender, race, sexual orientation, age, socio-economic background, etc.) amplifies their echo chamber—and atrophies their ability to be empathetic toward other people.
Grand principles, little reality: Silicon Valley is a community that tends to think in hyperbole and absolutes. The principles championed by the Valley (freedom of expression, freedom of information, openness, and meritocracy) are considered unconditional and worth fighting for only in their purest form. Accounting for nuances of real life is often looked at as an unacceptable compromise; it’s better to use sheer willpower and hard work to bend reality. This makes it hard to demonstrate empathy, a skill that requires the acceptance of others’ imperfections and opinions.
How we change things
Multi-stakeholder action: From employees to investors, board members, stock exchanges, media, users, and yes, regulators—everybody needs to be involved. This is required to reconnect social networks and their employees to the rest of humanity and force them to take full accountability for the massive problems they have created.
Employee activism: Employees need to take action and make their voices heard when the company they work for is impacting the world negatively. Whether through internal forums and collective actions—as employees at various Big Tech firms have increasingly been doing—or through more organized structures, such as the Tech Workers Coalition, employees have the power to change things.
Spend time with users: CEOs and leadership teams need to force themselves to use their product every day (it is widely known that tech executives limit the screen time of their children and themselves). Just as important: They need to spend significant time with their users and begin wrestling with the nuances of real lives and real people. I believe that social networks would operate fundamentally differently if Zuckerberg, Wojcicki, and Dorsey were meeting weekly for half a day with victims of their companies: harassed women, families of bullied teenagers who died by suicide, survivors from Myanmar’s genocide. The list is long enough for them to meet with these groups for four hours every week for decades to come.
Enforce diversity and inclusion at all levels: Investors, boards, proxy advisers, investment bankers, and stock exchanges need to significantly increase the pressure around all these topics, starting with diversity/representation, not just at the leadership level but throughout the ranks. Tech executives and their advisers too often pay lip service to D&I initiatives, and action is rare. David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs, made waves earlier this year by announcing that his bank would not take a company public unless it had at least one diverse board member. Though the step was minor, he showed that it is possible for all stakeholders to have an impact. Now imagine if these same entities were to advocate for a percentage of employee time to be invested in local communities or for increased transparency around harassment, bullying, misinformation, and fake accounts on social networks.
Government action: In democratic countries, lawmakers and regulators need to enforce through adequate policies the vision for society for which they were elected, which includes antitrust actions and the protection of their citizens’ privacy and well-being.
Consumer pressure: Finally, users need to put increasing pressure on social networks on key topics such as privacy, data ownership, facts, and misinformation.
We don’t need less tech—we need more empathetic tech. This is more true than ever with social networks.
Maelle Gavet has worked in technology for 15 years. She served as CEO of Ozon, an executive vice president at Priceline Group, and chief operating officer of Compass. She is the author of Trampled by Unicorns: Big Tech’s Empathy Problem and How to Fix It.