Reading Zuck's emails

Shoe, meet other foot

I wrote a couple weeks ago that if your company gets sued, your email becomes collateral,

The key issue at hand here is a legal term known as “discovery.” Let’s say your company gets in some sort of legal trouble. For example, maybe, I don’t know: you’re an energy and commodities service company based in Texas and you get into a little bit of fraudulent accounting, which makes your stock price fall from $90 to $1. (No, this isn’t about WeWork. WeWork’s theoretical stock is worth less than that.)

Someone sues you - maybe the federal government, maybe shareholders, maybe the SEC. What usually happens in a case like this is that before the lawsuit starts, both sides start gathering evidence which will decide whether the case goes ahead. Each side issues a request for the documents they need, and the goal of the opposing side is to technically adhere to the request while providing as little information as possible . One way to do this is to flood the opposing side with documentation.  The goal of each side is to process all of the information, panning for legal gold. This is discovery.

Recently, thousands of documents were collected for discovery for a trial related to a bikini picture app’s (yes) usage of Facebook’s API.

In order to understand what was going on, lawyers collected a lot of internal Facebook conversations around competition. These documents were subsequently leaked to the press.

A cache of leaked Facebook documents shows how the company's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, oversaw plans to consolidate the social network's power and control competitors by treating its users' data as a bargaining chip. The documents were obtained and are being published by NBC News.

This trove comprises approximately 7,000 pages in total, of which about 4,000 are internal Facebook communications such as emails, web chats, notes, presentations and spreadsheets, primarily from 2011 to 2015. About 1,200 pages are marked as "highly confidential."

The documents, which NBC News first received and reported on in April, originate from a years-old lawsuit pending in state court in San Mateo County, California.

There is something about emails that makes them perfect candidates for anthropological observation. They have this weird dynamic. They’re both public, because they’re meant for multiple people to read at work, and private, because they’re only meant to be seen inside a company, and to the people you email. Because, even though we know emails are potentially public, we are mortified when our emails go to unintended recipient.

Emails, much like social media, are liminal spaces, and as such, interesting places to learn about humanity - and companies.

In today’s tech environment, emails are especially important, because we get very little insight into how the companies that use us as products, as advertising revenue, as A/B tests, operate. We don’t get any say in what ads are served to us, which features these companies push, and what we can keep or delete. And we certainly are not in the room where it happens when the decisions get made. With these emails, for the first time, we’re reading Facebook’s data, instead of the other way around.

I didn’t read all 50 bajillion pages, but I looked through enough to get a small glimpse into its corporate culture, at least between 2012-2015 or so.

Here are some of my favorite observations from having skimmed this massive dataset:

Facebook-specific etiquette norms. One of the first things I noticed was that no one at Facebook really uses signatures or titles, or asks you to be considerate of the environment before printing the page, or has Gandhi quotes in their signature. This probably stems from the initial informality of the culture when Mark built the company, and it’s something that never went away. As such, it was hard for me to understand who people were without Googling them. What I think is interesting, though, is that, despite its “move fast and break things” mentality - and its new, hip corporate propaganda posters - Facebook at the very top still runs on all the standard corporate stuff: Outlook, first and foremost, a lot of Powerpoint, and Excel attachments. The corollary to this is the use of non iPhones to check and send mail. Again, I assumed everyone in Silicon Valley was all Apple all the time, but I was surprised to find out how much like all of the rest of us FAANG really is.

A good question this brings up: if people at FB use Google phones, is Google using that data for anything?

The usage of the + Person and @ Person dynamic to get people’s attention in emails. I thought this was present only at the large companies I have experience with, but was surprised to find that maybe this is just an overall 2010s corporate America thing. This to me speaks both to the flexibility and kludginess of email.

The length of emails. Corporate Facebookers love writing long emails, almost like blog posts, summarizing things, having discussions, debates, almost as if they’re in the public internet. Of course, these emails were cherry-picked specifically for their relevance to a court case, but I’m always surprised how executives never have time for anything, and yet have a ton of time to write these long, long things that end up having to result in 5 million meetings anyway.

Calling Mark “Zuck.” I thought this was a thing that the press invented, but the personality cult started long ago, internally. BTW, here is more on Dan Rose (making a choice about “putting my Facebook family first”), Mike Vernal (now a venture capitalist), and Sam Lessin (who has too much stuff going on here for me to pull just one thing).

The use of the Sheryl power quote tweet. Sheryl Sandberg appears a couple times in the email set. As with Zuck, there seems to be a bit of cult of personality around her, and respect for what she writes and her decisions. The emails she responds with on her own are the email equivalent of a quote-tweet: her decisions and opinions seem binding. This reminded me of the great piece Katie Notopolous wrote in Buzzfeed a while back where she tried to email like a CEO and felt more like a jerk, but also much more empowered.

Mark, ironically, does not email like a CEO (or at least didn’t in 2012). He tries to write long, nuanced opinions that make him seem authoritative, even though it’s not always clear he knows what he’s doing. For example, this is probably the most important email I was able to find. In 2012, Mark goes back and forth with Sam Lessin on what Facebook’s business model actually is. He writes, “I don’t get the difference between being a distribution platform around people’s attention versus being an information platform.”

This sentence is so key to me, because I think it’s the heart of the problem Facebook is still wrestling with, and why they’re in trouble with political ads now. It does not seem like Mark has been able to answer this question for himself.

And, finally, Speaking of Sheryl, here’s a message summary from Marne Levine, who worked on policy (aka lobying) for Facebook, of Sheryl’s visit to Davos in 2013. I didn’t include all of it, but enough to give context (you can find it for yourself here), and basically this is probably the most important thing of all, aside from Mark’s thoughts on platforms.

What it’s basically saying is that FB tried to woo the exec in charge of GDPR (Viviane Reding) before the law came into place, but Viviane did not like how harsh and agressive Sheryl came across, and Facebook felt frustrated in its efforts to work against GDPR.

It confirms my beliefs that, while Lean In was meant to have some benefit to working women, Sheryl (very successfully!) uses it to make her way into as many conversations that benefit Facebook as possible.

The other very important point that comes across here is just exactly how much lobbying Facebook does. All the press right now is about Facebook subverting democracy through ads. This shows they don’t really need to, at all. They simply need to go to Davos and talk about Lean In to move policy. It was a fascinating read for me.

And finally, decks. Every company, no matter how insanely complicated their machine learning platforms are, and how many PhDs are working on them, is hooked on the Powerpoint deck, building the deck, getting data for the deck, showing the deck to execs.

All the data in the world is ultimately condensed into slides.

All hail Microsoft now and forever.

Art: The Letter, Pietro Longhi 1746

What I’m reading lately:

  1. Gorbachev and Pizza Hut


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I’m a data scientist in Philadelphia. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a preschooler and an infant, reading, and writing bad tweets. I also have longer opinions on things. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.