Sunday, October 17News That Matters

The Myth of Big Tech Competence

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns.

We expect a lot from rich, smart and powerful technology companies, but they aren’t immune to mismanagement. And when genius fails, it can be jarring to those companies’ employees and destructive to the people left in the wake of the mistakes.

A Wall Street Journal article (subscription required) yesterday detailed the ways that Facebook essentially lets influential people flout the company’s rules, which apply to everyone else. In one example cited in the article, Facebook initially allowed the soccer star Neymar to post nude photos of a woman without her permission, despite its rules against such behavior.

It has been clear for some time that Facebook has given preferential treatment to some high-profile people, including Donald Trump. What The Journal’s reporting shows is that Facebook’s use of kid gloves for V.I.P.s is a systemic practice that affected millions of people, that Facebook mismanaged the execution of this policy and that the special treatment has resisted attempts inside Facebook to dismantle it.

Anyone who has worked for a large organization has probably had a taste of what seems to have happened at Facebook: The company laid out a logical plan for influential users that was bungled when enforced — and then the company was unwilling or incapable of fully fixing what went wrong.

Tales like Facebook’s botched V.I.P. system, Amazon’s chaotic management of warehouse workers and Apple’s repeated false starts in building a car show that even superstar companies can suffer from the bureaucratic quagmires and muddled decision-making that afflict many large institutions.

What’s different about the tech giants is that those companies seem to believe in their own supreme competence — and so does much of the public. That makes their missteps more glaring, and perhaps makes the companies more reluctant to own up to their mistakes.

The basic idea of Facebook’s V.I.P. policy — giving a second look at decisions that affect high-profile accounts — makes sense.

The company knows that in the crush of billions of Facebook and Instagram posts each day, its computer systems and workers make mistakes. Facebook’s computers might delete an innocuous photo from a child’s birthday party because the system misread it as sexual imagery that violates the company’s rules.

Giving another look to posts by influential people isn’t necessarily a bad idea; unfortunately, the policy hasn’t been carried out very well. According to The Journal, because Facebook doesn’t deploy enough moderators or other resources to review all posts, many teams “chose not to enforce the rules with high-profile accounts at all.” Got that? V.I.P.s were exempt from the company’s rules less out of malicious intent than neglect.

The Journal reported that Facebook knew for years that it was unfair and unwise to let high-profile people operate under a different, more lax rule book, but the number of people who were effectively exempt from punishment kept growing. The article said that at least 45 teams at Facebook started adding names to the V.I.P. list until it reached at least 5.8 million people last year.

I will acknowledge that at Facebook’s scale of billions of users, none of its principles or practices will be perfect. Facebook and its former head of civic integrity said that the company had made changes to address some of the problems of its V.I.P. list. But The Journal’s reporting ultimately points to a more fundamental error: A large organization displayed stunning mismanagement, and could not or would not fully fix its problems.

It’s not shocking when Congress or the cable company act incompetently. But we see tech giants with gazillion dollars and big brains as special and all-seeing and as being smarter than everyone else. That makes it feel more surprising when tech giants mess up worker pay and won’t admit it, as Google did, or fumble for years trying to sell groceries, as Amazon has done.

Tech companies including Google, Facebook and Amazon have seemingly invincible power, but their growing wealth is not stopping these giants from also, at times, being ridiculously inept.


This wallaby named Pocket would like to remind you to eat your leafy green veggies.


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