Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge
Last month, a researcher for Meta prepared a talk for colleagues that they knew would hit close to home. The subject: how to cope as a researcher when the company you work for is constantly receiving negative press.
The talk had been approved to show at the company’s annual research summit for employees in early November. But shortly before the event, Meta’s legal and communications department determined that the risk of the contents leaking were too great. So it disappeared from the research summit’s agenda days before, along with another pre-taped talk describing efforts to combat hate speech and bullying. Both talks never saw the light of day.
The pulling of the talks highlights how a barrage of leaks and external scrutiny has chilled the flow of information inside the company formerly known as Facebook. Many of the changes appear designed to thwart the next Frances Haugen, who worked in the Integrity organization responsible for making the social network safer before she quit earlier this year, taking thousands of internal documents with her. Those documents served as the basis for a series of damning stories in The Wall Street Journal and dozens of other news outlets, including The Verge. Some of them, such as internal research showing Instagram and Facebook can have negative effects on young people, have led to congressional hearings and lawsuits. And as the bad press continues, Meta executives have argued that the documents were cherry-picked to smear the company and paint an incomplete story.
While the documents Haugen leaked haven’t yet caused Meta to make meaningful changes to its products, they’ve already left a lasting mark on how the world’s largest social network operates, particularly in its research and Integrity divisions. Ten of the 70 preapproved talks presented at the internal research summit a couple of weeks ago received a second, more stringent review to minimize leak risk. Senior leaders, including policy and communications chief Nick Clegg, have in recent months slowed the release of Integrity research internally, asking for reports to be reviewed again before they’re shared even in private groups. In some cases, researchers have been told to make clear what is defensible by data in their work and what is opinion, and that their projects will need to be cleared by more managers before work begins.
Last month, Meta rolled out a new “Integrity Umbrella” system designed to thwart leakers. The Umbrella maintains a list of employees in Integrity and gives them automatic access to join private Integrity groups in Workplace, the internal version of Facebook used by employees. When it was introduced, several employees internally pointed out that the system wouldn’t have stopped Haugen, since she worked in the Integrity division when she gathered the leaked documents.
It’s not just the Integrity division that is locking down access to Workplace groups. The change has become so widespread that employees have taken to group in Workplace titled “Examples of Meta Culture trending towards ‘Closed,’” where they’ve been posting screenshots of previously open groups they belong to being set to private.
This story is based on conversations with current and former Meta employees and internal Workplace posts from the past month obtained by The Verge. In response to this story, Meta confirmed that the company was making changes to internal communication. “Since earlier this year, we have been talking about the right model of information sharing for the company, balancing openness with sharing relevant information and maintaining focus,” said Mavis Jones, a Meta spokesperson. “This is a work in progress and we are committed to an open culture for the company.”
One of the core company values shared with new employees who join Meta is “Be Open.”
“Informed people make better decisions and make a greater impact — so we work hard to ensure that everyone at Facebook can access as much information about the company as possible,” its recruiting website reads.
The philosophy comes directly from Mark Zuckerberg, who, until around 2016, would regularly share sensitive information with all employees during a weekly town hall — the contents of which would rarely, if ever, leak. Facebook — now Meta — has been unusually open internally, especially by Silicon Valley standards where companies like Apple preach a culture of secrecy. One former employee with a long history of working in tech marveled to me when he joined Meta’s consumer hardware group and saw detailed product roadmaps for unannounced products in which he wasn’t involved.
You barely have to read the news nowadays to know that Meta has become perhaps the leakiest and most scrutinized company in the world. Many of the leaks stem from the historically free-flowing access employees have to Workplace, which behaves like a more sanitized version of the real Facebook with a similar penchant for making things go viral. At the same time, the company’s headcount has continued to grow steadily: over 68,000 people now work at Meta full-time, up from 17,000 people at the end of 2016.
It’s within that context that Andrew Bosworth, one of Meta’s most powerful executives, wrote to employees one morning in late October.
“‘Be Open’ is one of our company values and I like to think that in my 15 years here I have lived up to that, if not even helped shape it somewhat,” he wrote in an internal post that was obtained by The Verge. “Perhaps it’s no surprise then that I am getting a lot of questions about my feelings as we reconsider how we manage information internally.”
A close confidant of Zuckerberg, Bosworth is seen by many as a cultural torchbearer inside of Meta. A prolific and sometimes controversial writer, he has personally been the subject of numerous leaked memos over the years. And with his recent promotion to chief technology officer, he is now over the division that makes Workplace and sells it to other companies.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that we also have lost some of the good faith that once bound us as well,” Bosworth wrote in the post titled “Information and Effort.” “But even without the consideration, serendipitous discovery of information internally is not the value for us it once was. Not only because the cost has gone up but because the value has gone down as the odds of stumbling on useful information diminish.”
For many, Bosworth’s comments crystalized the reasoning behind the tightening of access to Workplace groups across the company: the employee base has grown too large to make the openness worth it. And even though Bosworth said in the comments that it wasn’t a response to a specific leak, it was clear the last few months of scandals had accelerated the change.
In Integrity, the new Umbrella tool created last month tries to strike a balance. It’s essentially a master list of employees in the Integrity organization, which now numbers just over 6,000, and people from related departments based on the company’s org structure, according to documents seen by The Verge. If you’re on the list, you are automatically approved to join a private Integrity group in Workplace for something like, say, combating fake accounts.
“The Umbrella encourages open collaboration while maintaining access to closed groups to individuals who work on Integrity issues as part of their day to day work,” one of the documents read. Others who need access to an Integrity group for a specific reason can request it through a specific form.
Matt Perault, a former policy director for Facebook for almost nine years and current professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, thinks that the policy is long overdue. But he also said there could be negative side effects, since fewer people will have access to information that could make them better at their jobs. “I think it’s totally prudent and I think it will have a negative consequence for decision making,” he told me.
Employees in Meta’s Integrity org agree. I looked through dozens of comments on a Workplace post from last month announcing the shift to closed groups in Integrity — news that was earlier reported by The New York Times. The overwhelming majority of commenters disapproved of the move to make Integrity groups private.
“This is [an] extremely worrisome decision,” wrote one senior engineer in the comments. “As someone who has worked both inside and outside of Integrity, I commonly see the lack of understanding of the Integrity space and challenges by the rest of the company. It hinders our efforts of building safe products with integrity by design. Sandboxing and isolating integrity discussions will further widen that empathy gap and could ultimately harm our users in the long run.”
Others in the comments worried that walling off Integrity discussions on Workplace will marginalize the work and make it harder to collaborate with colleagues in other departments. Several made the point that the change could have the opposite of its intended effect by encouraging more leaks.
“This could have a serious impact on employee satisfaction,” another engineer added, “and possibly lead to more leaks from disillusioned employees who have an incomplete view of FB’s work.”
You can read Bosworth’s full internal post from Oct 20th below:
Information and Effort
“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.” – Stuart Brand
I have written more than a few essays on the importance of open and effective communication. “Be Open” is one of our company values and I like to think that in my 15 years here I have lived up to that, if not even helped shape it somewhat. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that I am getting a lot of questions about my feelings as we reconsider how we manage information internally.
A few years ago I wrote (in response to leaks) that those of us who communicate internally need to take care not to write less but rather to write more. As our audience grows and the threat of context collapse looms we must take care to write with complete context. The extra effort required is a natural impediment to the frequency and candor of communication but one I continue to encourage people to work through. I still believe this.
But communication is a two way street and today I want to talk about the other side of the coin. While most of my writing has gone into the art and importance of communicating, that is only half the story. There is also an art to gathering information. Each of us brings our own context (or lack thereof) to everything we stumble across and as the company grows we naturally have less of a shared understanding. We often may not even have sufficient context to ask the right question. And our misunderstanding can easily compound.
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that we also have lost some of the good faith that once bound us as well. But even without the consideration, serendipitous discovery of information internally is not the value for us it once was. Not only because the cost has gone up but because the value has gone down as the odds of stumbling on useful information diminish.
If my previous advice in response to leaks is to be more intentional when writing, my current advice is that we must insist people be more intentional when reading. But reading and writing require asymmetric effort and so to accomplish that goal I believe we must manage our information more carefully. I would be disappointed if well-meaning people could not get access to information which had a legitimate chance of improving their work, but I don’t consider requesting access to such information to be too high a bar any more than I consider asking people to write more clearly to be too high a bar. These are the natural consequences of our scale and importance and to deny them would be to stick our head in the sand in an act of wishful thinking.
If Nothing at Facebook is Someone Else’s Problem then the problem of widespread context collapse belongs to all of us. I believe a culture can Be Open without access to information being entirely unfettered. We already have plenty of proof of that internally as there have always been areas where information was not shared broadly (matters of employment, of personnel, of acquisitions, etc…).
Closed groups simply don’t need as much context to be added to each post because people in these groups already share more. It is precisely to avoid the overlap between people without sufficient context and content without sufficient context. I think focusing our information ecosystems even has a chance of returning to us some of that serendipitous information discovery we once had. The chance that a random post from another group is useful to me is low and its presence crowds out some content that is closer to home and might actually make a difference to my work.
Those that want or need more information should be able to get it, provided it isn’t a category akin to the ones listed above. It will just take more effort. And in exchange I hope our internal dialogues are filled with more context and some of the burden of being pitch perfect can be shifted off of our authors. Because the alternative to this is that everything is open but nobody is talking. And that would be much worse.
Update November 16th, 3:15PM ET: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that the talk about coping as a researcher was pre-taped and that a Workplace group titled “Examples of Meta Culture trending towards ‘Closed’” was recently created. We regret the errors.