Facebook Movie: When Winning Isn’t Enough

Last weekend, my wife and I, and several million of our closest friends, went to see The Social Network. When we got home, my wife was seriously talking about getting off Facebook because she couldn’t reconcile the idea of using a service developed by the kind of people portrayed in the movie. Who knows how accurate the movie really is, but I’m betting she wasn’t alone.

In the end though, most of us will keep ‘liking’ on Facebook well beyond our liking of Facebook. This dissonance between my feelings toward a product and the company that’s behind it is often greatest with a certain class of products that I’d call network services. The primary value of network services is their ability to connect people and things. Facebook connects us with people, and increasingly with things like pictures, posts and other stuff that are connected with those people. Google connects people with websites, videos and other online information. I used to work at Microsoft, and we were pretty good at connecting the hardware people had with the software they wanted.

Network services tend to accrue power, which usually leads to lots of money over time. A funny thing about network services is that though their customers are free to choose other providers, they often feel compelled not to because of “network effects” (which is a fancy way of saying “if I use something other than this, people are going to find it hard to work with me.”). It’s a familiar argument, but a friend of mine recently lent me a book called Network Power by David S. Grewal, which has an interesting twist on how lots of freely made decisions add up over time to a loss of choice. Grewal uses this argument to explain globalization. It’s a fairly academic book and though I’ll confess to being only half way through it, I would still recommend reading it if you care about networks or globalization.

Too much power tends to raise concern and enmity. The crosshairs are now shifting from Microsoft to Facebook, but Google seems to be largely skirting much of this negative energy. Google has had its share of controversy, including some pretty serious questions about its apparent about-face on Net Neutrality but, by and large, people seem to trust and admire the company. Most people who follow Google know about its “Don’t be evil” motto. It has a pretty good mission too: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” I could see getting up every morning and being pretty psyched to come into work with that as my mission.

I contrast that to the mission that drove my company for the ten years I worked there: “a computer on every desk and in every home.” Yeah, not bad. I remember it being a pretty good rallying cry at the time. But now, looking back, it sounds more like marching orders for a conquest, which I guess, in hindsight, was pretty much what it was.

At least Microsoft was consistent with its mission back in its heyday though, which is more than what can be said for Facebook. Just take a look at how Facebook has shifted and twisted its mission statement and taglines from year to year. When I clicked the link at the top of this article – presumably to jump to the company’s mission statement – I found the following message waiting for me at Facebook:

Yes, something went wrong. Yes, it’s obvious that you’re working on getting this fixed, with alterations to the mission pretty much every year. Yes, go back. Yes, you need help.

People care about these things. We want our heroes to be on a mission, a mission we can trust, a mission we can get behind. That’s why winning by itself just isn’t enough. You can have great strategies to build network power that effectively prevents us from using your competitor’s offerings, but don’t do that and then tell us that your mission is “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” That just doesn’t pass the sniff test. It feels like a new slogan to promote some of your recent strategies – not a mission that lights the fire of your employees, partners and customers.

When companies build “network services” that society comes to depend upon, they step onto a new stage. We expect them to act like heroes. Spiderman wasn’t perfect, but he eventually learned the hard way that “with great power, comes great responsibility.” Microsoft was slow to figure this out, and ultimately the government stepped in to enforce its own take on what was – and wasn’t – responsible.

Mission does matter. It matters for all companies, but especially for our heroes. We want to see them fight for something that matters. We like it when they “think different” and when they “don’t be evil.” I’m not talking about surface level branding exercises, but the deep work of aligning people in why they do the work they do.

I’m willing to cut Facebook a ton of slack on this front, if for no other reason than they’re new at this. It was amazing to watch The Social Network and realize just how recent all this history actually is. I also really like their service and I am hoping that the noises the company is making about openness these days is genuine. But when people don’t understand why you exist, they go digging for deeper meaning. Sometimes Hollywood lends a hand. What we don’t want to hear is that a company we rely on was founded on greed, insecurity, deceit and betrayal.

Sometimes greatness is thrust upon us. The heroes in our society rise to the challenge by stepping up. “Stepping up” can mean things like monetizing, scaling, and restructuring in order to increase returns to the company’s owners. But stepping up also means something more. It means gaining clarity on why you do what you do and telling society honestly and passionately about your greater purpose in the world.

Sometimes winning is not enough…sometimes you need to tell us why.

One comment

  1. I enjoyed this Gid and appreciated the balance of your writing.