Of the four people credited as co-founders as Facebook, Chris Hughes’ contributions are perhaps the most unusual for a startup employee. Unlike Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz, he did not write code. Unlike Eduardo Saverin, he did not contribute to business development or sales. Instead, as recounted by Ellen McGirt in a 2009 profile, Hughes was known internally for what might be called his soft skills:
Hughes was the poet among the teenagers who created Facebook; unlike Zuckerberg and dorm mate and cofounder Dustin Moskovitz, he didn’t write software code and didn’t want to. Instead, he tried to figure out ways that people would want to connect with one another and share stuff more easily. (His nickname among Facebook insiders is “the Empath.”) Hughes began to make product suggestions, “screwing around with the site,” as he puts it. When they decided to open Facebook to students outside of Harvard, he argued that different schools should have their own networks, to help maintain the site’s feeling of safety and intimacy. He became the official Facebook explainer: part anthropologist, part customer-service rep, part media spokesperson.
Even while he was at Facebook, though, Hughes was a heretic. While the other founders wanted to build a unified network, Hughes argued each college should get its own network, to preserve a sense of close-knit community. He lost the argument in the moment, though Facebook’s recent embrace of groups suggests that he was on to something.
Hughes was charmed away from Facebook in 2007, three years after the company’s founding, by another prominent empath: Barack Obama. He went on to have rocky careers in politics and magazine ownership. But today Hughes re-emerged, with an op-ed in The New York Times, to renounce the company he helped to build. Facebook should be broken up, he says — it is simply too big and powerful for one person to run it:
Mark is a good, kind person. But I’m angry that his focus on growth led him to sacrifice security and civility for clicks. I’m disappointed in myself and the early Facebook team for not thinking more about how the News Feed algorithm could change our culture, influence elections and empower nationalist leaders. And I’m worried that Mark has surrounded himself with a team that reinforces his beliefs instead of challenging them.
The government must hold Mark accountable.
Over 6,000 words, Hughes makes his case. The themes he touches on will be familiar to any reader of this newsletter: Facebook’s anti-competitive behavior toward its rivals; its steady rise toward near-total market dominance; its rapacious consumption of our data and our attention; its near-unchecked power to draw and maintain the lines of acceptable political speech around the world; and its negative externalities on the army of contractors that supports its work. (Hughes cites my recent piece on Facebook’s moderators in Phoenix.)
Like many pro-regulation critics of Facebook, Hughes’ proposed remedies include forcing the company to spin off WhatsApp and Instagram. He also (problematically) calls for the creation of a new government agency devoted to protecting consumer privacy and regulating internet speech.
In some quarters, Hughes was praised as brave. Tristan Harris, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, called the op-ed courageous. Anand Giridharadas, a prominent critic of Big Tech, called it “morally important.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said: “Chris Hughes is right.”
Others saw the op-ed as a good dunking opportunity, and acted accordingly. Many tweets were in the vein of “oh looky here, the man who was made insanely wealthy by Facebook has belatedly found the courage to criticize it.” (Here’s one of those.) Techmeme’s Gabe Rivera looked at the op-ed as an opportunistic effort to recast Hughes’ personal narrativeaway from failure.
Hughes’ precise motives may be a mystery. But set those aside for a moment. What’s most important here is the consensus that Hughes’ op-ed now reflects.
Consider how many early Facebook executives have now come out against Facebook’s existence in its current form:
- Moskovitz is a top donor to Color of Change, which are campaigning to have Zuckerberg fired. (On Twitter, Moskovitz told me I had mischaracterized this donation, saying it was intended solely to aid Democrats. When I asked what his argument against a breakup was, he said: “If the goal is to improve democracy we should break up Fox and Sinclair first.” He later deleted the tweet.)
- Justin Rosenstein, who led development of Facebook’s like button, warned about the negative effects of social networks on individual psychology. (Rosenstein co-founded the business collaboration company Asana with Moskovitz.)
- Sean Parker, Facebook’s first president, called himself a “conscientious objector” to the social network. “It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways,” he said. “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
- Chamath Palihapitiya, who led Facebook’s all-important growth team in its early days, told an audience at the Stanford Graduate School of Business to take “a hard break” from social media. “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” he said. He added that he felt “tremendous guilt” over his time at the company, before walking those comments back after getting an angry phone call from Sheryl Sandberg.
- Brian Acton, who co-founded WhatsApp, was not an early executive at Facebook. But he famously told people to delete Facebook upon leaving the company.
The executives’ individual criticisms vary in kind and vehemence. But collectively they paint a view aligned with Hughes’: that the company is too large, too powerful, and too deleterious to the health of our individual psyches and of our society.
It is worth noting once again how extraordinary it is to see so many early executives at a tech giant express such alarm about its consequences for the world. Certainly, employees of Google, Apple, and Amazon have left and complained about specific aspects of those companies’ work. But no top executive there has left and called for them to be broken up — much less a whole parade of them.
Viewed in that light, Hughes’ specific arguments around breaking up Facebook are less significant than the new consensus that they reflect. As many Facebook co-founders now support radically changing the company as support maintaining the status quo. And anti-Facebook sentiment is now a mainstream view among the core of Facebook’s founding team.
Of course, Facebook’s current executive team had a different take on the op-ed. Nick Clegg, the company’s new head of policy and communications, issued an affronted don’t-worry-we’ve-got-this:
“Facebook accepts that with success comes accountability. But you don’t enforce accountability by calling for the breakup of a successful American company,” Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communication, writes in a statement given to The Verge. “Accountability of tech companies can only be achieved through the painstaking introduction of new rules for the internet. That is exactly what [CEO] Mark Zuckerberg has called for. Indeed, he is meeting government leaders this week to further that work.”
It was up to journalists Olivia Solon and Steve Rhodes to point out that Clegg had been forenforcing accountability by calling for the breakup of successful American companies before he was against it.
If there was a legitimate criticism of the Hughes op-ed, it’s that it includes some fairly radical anti-speech sentiment. It’s part of his idea to create some sort of federal online speech monitor. “This idea may seem un-American,” he writes. “We would never stand for a government agency censoring speech. But we already have limits on yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, child pornography, speech intended to provoke violence and false statements to manipulate stock prices. We will have to create similar standards that tech companies can use. These standards should of course be subject to the review of the courts, just as any other limits on speech are. But there is no constitutional right to harass others or live-stream violence.”
Adi Robertson explores the problem with that kind of thinking here:
In the most charitable and coherent formulation, Hughes is simply asking for the police to enforce existing laws online. Police departments don’t always understand web platforms well, and the internet’s scale makes it easy to spread harmful information and hard to hold people accountable. But in the US, we don’t need new agencies and speech guidelines to get better at investigating violent hate groups or arresting people who make threats. The criminal justice system has huge problems, but they won’t be solved by deputizing private companies — especially because a lot of internet harassment and extremism takes place on independent sites or through private channels like email.
The internet is an ugly place, and discussing how to make it less ugly is a legitimate and urgent task. But simply calling to “create guidelines” for turning websites into content cops — while implying that existing laws somehow don’t apply to the internet already — is a piece of glib handwaving that’s not worthy of Hughes’ broader manifesto.
See also this worthwhile thread from Stanford’s Daphne Keller.
A criticism of the op-ed that I find less compelling is that Facebook should not have to spin off WhatsApp and Instagram because doing so would not address every problem that Facebook had ever been implicated in, or would represent some kind of massive government overreach. Among those arguing the former are Benedict Evans, Mike Masnick, Shira Ovide, and Kevin Kelly. For the latter, see Matt Rosoff. Ovide’s take is representative:
I don’t have the answers. But I worry that “break up Facebook” has become a catchall, soothing solution to the feeling that Facebook is bad and something should be done about it. A breakup may be the right approach. But I want advocates to start by uniting people around the root problems and working backward to possible fixes before we all back a Standard Oil-style dismantlement.
Surely there is truth in this — the “somebody do something!” sentiment is real and can have terrible consequences in politics, as we have seen with the (Facebook-endorsed) FOSTA and SESTA. But the case made by Hughes and others seems clear enough to me: creating multiple large, economically viable social networks introduces valuable friction and competition into the economy. That friction will likely make ideas slower and just a bit harder to spread — giving humanity a bit more time to think before it reacts to the outrage of the day. And competition will provide better incentives for the new networks to untangle thorny problems around political speech, content moderation, platform integrity, and so on.
If you believe the United States has been generally well served by having 50 laboratories of democracy, you might expect to see similar benefits by having seven or so distinct, multi-hundred-million strong American social networks. Each of them will struggle with many of the issues that Facebook’s conglomerate struggles with today — but they’ll also have compelling new reasons to innovate, and many new rivals from which they can shamelessly copy.
Whether you support breaking up Facebook (or Google, or Amazon, or Apple) depends largely on what you think the problem is. If you believe that terrorists coordinating anonymously on WhatsApp is the primary issue here, then you’re right — breaking up Facebook won’t address your pet issue.
But if you believe that monopolies are inherently bad, and that serving a customer base in the billions creates problems that no single person or company can capably solve, it seems to me that you probably support breaking up Big Tech. And if you work in the United States government and you’re considering this issue, it seems worth noting that so many of the people who built Facebook are now practically begging you to.