Interview: Katherine Losse — Mark Zuckerberg’s Secret Kingdom

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Interview: Katherine Losse — Mark Zuckerberg’s Secret Kingdom

A Facebook insider gives a tell-all peek behind the social powerhouse’s curtains — complete with brogrammers, Vegas parties and a sense of just how much data is actually being compiled by the network.

Katherine Losse’s book about the early days at Facebook, “The Boy Kings,” made headlines for its insider’s take on those heady and hardworking times. Many reviews latched onto its glimpses into the vision, culture and growth articulated and fostered by the enigmatic Mark Zuckerberg, as well as insights into the hackers, financial backers and Ivy league grads who also worked and played there.

Losse, who was the 51st employee hired at Facebook back in 2005, started out in customer service answering questions like, “What is a poke?” and rose the ranks to become Mark Zuckerberg’s personal writer, drafting blog posts, company e-mails and updating his public Facebook page before leaving in 2010.

She uses her almost total immersion in all things Facebook to explore the implications of the many juicy details in the book. Losse had a front-row seat into how Zuckerberg’s quasi-serious quest for world domination armed and motivated the young workers to spread Facebok to nearly every corner of the earth, as well as the downside of so much early success — for instance, male employee VIP parties in Las Vegas, where women were paraded in to be voted on and escorted out by bouncers if not deemed pretty enough.

She bore witness to the company’s ambition to create profiles for everyone in the world — including those who hadn’t signed up yet — signaling a shift in our perceptions about privacy and sharing.

Tantalizing details — like the fact that female employees wore Zuckerburg’s image emblazoned on t-shirts while their male counterpart donned athletic sandals in honor of the day of the “noble” founder’s birth — are getting all the attention, but readers can also pick up on some of the deeper themes ripe for the picking.

By opening a window into Facebook’s inner-workings, Losse is also holding a mirror up for us to view ourselves and the changing nature of our identities, values and interactions — as well as where the emerging second stage of social media could be taking us and what bumps lie ahead.

Losse, who launched her book last month, took a few moments to talk with Mobiledia about Facebook and social media’s strong presence in everyday life and the issues — in terms of gender equality, security and privacy, this trend will invite and form.

2MACHINES: Thanks for joining us, Katherine. In the book, you write “At Facebook, you had to always assume surveillance, as that was our business.” So is there a growing awareness that most online activity, especially social interaction, is not private, no matter how much it is designed to feel that way?

LOSSE: I do think that we are witnessing the flowering or perhaps the golden age of companies who have harnessed the gathering of personal data for corporate use.

2MACHINES: This feeds into the notion of Big Data — companies like Spokeo who mine online activity and compile it into packages it then sells.

LOSSE: It’s actually quite remarkable how a company like Spokeo can gather that data and publish it, unbeknownst to and without the permission of anyone it is publishing data about.

2MACHINES: It seems for now, the advantage is definitely a corporate one — the design of these systems furthers the interest of advertisers and businesses often at the expense of personal privacy. Do think this is accurate at Facebook? If so, will it change for better or worse?

LOSSE: In Europe, they seem to have a stronger sense that privacy is important and something of a right, but here in the U.S. there is less regulation, so it has been something of a free-for-all for corporate entities.

In the past people have debated whether corporations have a right to freely harvest the products of the land or the sea; now a question people must ask is whether corporations have a right to harvest our personal data, and whether there should be any protections on that for individuals.

2MACHINES: You explain the company’s ambition to create “dark profiles” — Facebook-generated profiles with tagged photos for everyone in the world, whether they signed up yet or not — and relate it to the Mormon church’s quest to convert the deceased. News like this is fueling “right to be forgotten” initiatives in the European Union, which you allude to above. Is this something we’ll see here?

LOSSE: I think it is wonderful that the European Union is thinking about this, since I do believe that there is something a bit odd and unnatural about this state of perpetual recording that we all live under. Just because it is new and technical doesn’t mean we have to accept it — in fact, it could be a very sophisticated and civilized move to allow for privacy and deletion of personal content online.

2MACHINES: There is a lot out there about sexism in Silicon Valley and the rise of the “brogrammer,” subjects you touch on in the book. We know the absence of women and homosexuals from the Facebook story unfortunately doesn’t set it apart from other Silicon Valley behemoths. Why do you think that is and how can it be remedied?

LOSSE: I think that in order for Silicon Valley to become more reflective of the population at large a few things will have to happen. For one, there is the matter that computer science programs can be difficult places for women. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation: there aren’t many women in computer science programs, so the environment feels alienating to women, and so fewer women are drawn to these programs.

Women in computer science programs and also in the Valley have to be very tough to combat this, and not all women want to be the guinea pig or the tough cookie in a technical environment, for good reason. So in order to become more balanced the technical environment is going to have to become friendlier to women, and that will have to happen on a lot of workplace levels: professional, social, etc. Men will have to want it to be a welcoming place for women before it will truly be welcoming to women.

2MACHINES: In light of these gender issues, what is your reaction to the recent news of Marissa Mayer’s helmship at Yahoo (and pregnant to boot)?

LOSSE: Marissa Mayer’s appointment to CEO of Yahoo is great news. I think you see a lot of Sheryl Sandberg’s themes playing out here: this idea that you need to just forge forward as a professional woman, even if you are pregnant/a mother/etc. That go-getter spirit is great and inspiring.

I think professional women also have the question of whether they are being asked to do more than men in order to fulfill this “having it all” notion of being able to do everything all at the same time. Is it fair that a woman has to work through her maternity leave in order to appear to be successful in her role? That’s also a fair question.

2MACHINES: Reflecting on the predominately male-centered workplace, you observe that to Mark Zuckerberg “and many of the engineers, it seemed, more data is always good, regardless of how you get it. Social graces — and privacy and psychological well-being, for that matter — are just obstacles in the way of having more information.”

Also, in response to Mark Zuckerberg’s near-worship of technology and the engineers who create it, you say, “While technology can be useful, it is not God; it is not always neutral or beneficent. Technology carries with it all the biases of the people who make it, so simply making the world more technical was not going to save us.”

Do you think an unwavering focus on the technical at the expense of other considerations is hurting Facebook?

LOSSE: I absolutely think that if a company can emerge that has a sophisticated sense of the issues around personal privacy and online presence, it has a shot at doing very well. Obviously we all are online these days, but being online doesn’t have to mean checking the nuances of personal privacy and communication at the door.

2MACHINES: Will a more balanced look benefit an emerging company? Do you see something like this happening and if so, where?

LOSSE: If a new company can capture this nuance they could be very successful. At the same time, I think people are starting to question whether everything needs an application and if there are analog ways to do things that are as good or better.

2MACHINES: Early on, security was not the highest priority, illustrated by the story about getting the master password so quickly and easily. Is that laxity due in part because Facebook didn’t know what it was or what it was going to have on its hands?

LOSSE: As the site grew, the company became increasingly aware that it was important to have protections on the data, so mechanisms were implemented over time in that direction.

2MACHINES: But, as time went on, did you ever feel like security of user’s data received the priority it deserved?

LOSSE: The larger question, I think, is not so much how employees interacted with the data so much as what it means that so many people’s personal data is filed away with so many large Internet companies. It is really up to these companies how they choose to manage that data; users just have to hope that it is managed well.

2MACHINES: The book mentions “transparency” a lot in several different contexts and describes the term’s use but questions if there was any, much less a singular, understanding of what it meant at Facebook, especially in terms of its users. Do you think it is making strides to be more so?

LOSSE: Facebook has become more proactive about communicating with users about upcoming product changes. This is why now, instead of the instant change that users saw when News Feed launched, you see long periods of testing and “opt-in” for new products like Timeline.

2MACHINES: Later when you worked with developers, it seemed those interactions were more transparent — do you agree and if so, why the difference?

LOSSE: There are other things like the usage of “cookies” to track user behavior online (this is something that many sites across the Web do) that isn’t necessarily transparent to users. As far as developers go, because Facebook felt that it needed developers to develop on the Platform and because developers spoke the same technical language as FB, it tended to communicate with them more readily, though the power dynamic is still similar in that Facebook holds the reins and makes changes while both developers and users are the position of adjusting and following along.

2MACHINES: The constant availability of mobile devices and social media is fueling a widespread “fear of missing out,” or FOMO — when well-laid plans for low-key activities like shopping or staying in to watch a movie may suddenly be up-ended by a smartphone buzzing with a text like “Having drinks at hot new club.”

Constant real-time awareness — through Facebook check-ins and Twitter updates — of the fun everyone is having can spark instant insecurity of FOMO, or fear of missing out. Social media can feel like a dizzying revolving door to ensure people keep coming back. Do you agree?

LOSSE: It is definitely in the interest of social networks to “keep users coming back,” or to “fear that they are missing out” if they aren’t online. This is why so many networks like Twitter and others are sending “email digests” and updates and things like that to users, as if to say, “this is where the action is and you are missing out if you don’t log in.”

2MACHINES: What does this mean and what can people do to counter these often unsatisfying and elusive standards?

LOSSE: [One thing] this really means is that the user has become a kind of prime commodity to the site: the user’s updates and content entertains other users and grows the value of the site for the company that owns it. The company can’t afford for the user to stay offline. The user, then, has to be careful that they aren’t being used. If a site is useful to a user, they should use it to the degree they want, but they should be sophisticated about how much they depend on the site. Often, there are other and better ways to live and interact than by doing everything online.

2MACHINES: Speaking of people, you say you were “the odd defender of the value of the human,” at Facebook. Were you able to find a community of others interested in defending “the value of human” outside the network or do you think Facebook, algorithms, and technology have rendered it unrecognizable in society?

LOSSE: I believe that the voice of the human will become increasingly important as technology becomes increasingly prevalent and sophisticated. This first wave of social media (2005-2012) was really a first land grab for tech and social media companies. They could harness all this data because people didn’t know much about the technologies.

2MACHINES: What place do you think a perspective which “values the human” has in today’s Internet and technology debates?

LOSSE: Now that tech is becoming more mainstream, I think you’ll see more push-back and awareness about what this digitization really means for data and for privacy. There will always be cheerleaders for tech who think that all tech is good, but with growing awareness you’ll also see more sophisticated critiques of the intimate role technology is playing in our lives.

2MACHINES: Ms. Losse, thank you very much for your time and offering your insights. We hope to follow up with you soon.

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