The gap between knowing and acting
When even Facebook researchers struggle to be heard
Welcome back to fresh weekly issues of Finding Out! I so appreciate you sticking with the newsletter while I was taking a break, and hope you've gotten to rest and have fun, too. Now on to this week's issue. —V.
Buried a thousand words into a Wall Street Journal article is a small, two sentence paragraph.
Some Instagram researchers said it was challenging to get other colleagues to hear the gravity of their findings. Plus, “We're standing directly between people and their bonuses,” one former researcher said.
The article in question describes what people at Facebook know about how Instagram affects teens. It compares information from company slide decks and emails and other documents to what executives have said in public. And it finds the comparison lacking.
The company has indeed gathered and internally shared data that indicates teens (and others) are negatively impacted by their use of Instagram.
I happened upon the story via New York Times investigative reporter Jodi Kantor's Instagram account—an irony that she noted in her post's caption. But she described the article like this: "This morning the @wsj dropped this devastating story proving that the company has full knowledge of how it harms teenage girls."
What stood out to me from her description was not how social media can affect its users. We've known for ages that seeing too much of the good and not enough of the real in other peoples' lives can skew our perception of our own lives. Even if it is never discussed on company time, there are sure to be Facebook employees who have seen these results in their personal news consumption.
Instead, I was interested in the core of Kantor's sentence: “the company has full knowledge.”
The phrasing brings to mind the strange way that the legal rights of companies are often handled, called “corporate personhood.” It pretends that messy, hierarchical groups of people are instead a single “corporate person.” I'm sure the concept makes legal arguments more logical, but the idea has always made me uneasy. I know I've never encountered an organization where every or even half of the people there were unified enough to create a whole, artificial person.
Looking through the WSJ article, I had to conclude that the knowledge of the corporate person called “Facebook,” indeed, wasn't particularly “full.” I suppose the disparities between the documents and what the execs say might make a reader angry or even surprised.
I was not surprised, because I've been where I can only imagine that the anonymously cited researchers have been—I've experienced just how seemingly easily our peers and managers and executives can disregard research findings. The deadlines feel too urgent, or a stakeholder is too important to change what's already been decided.
I'm not angry, at least not for the reason that the article suggests, because the part of Instagram that shames some teenage girls doesn't stem from the technology itself, per se. The problem stems from culture, and that the people who build the technology do not choose to counteract that culture. Some Instagram users choose to post only positive parts of their lives not because Instagram lacks fun filters (as is suggested by someone in the article), but because of so many aspects of our culture: toxic positivity, diet culture, and grind culture, to name a few.
The culture that these teens are trying to navigate, it’s the same culture that affects how the people inside Facebook collaborate. Instead of writing a piece with the headline, “Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show,” I might have written one headlined, “Facebook Researchers Operate in the Same Culture as Teenage Girls on Instagram, Anthropologist Concludes.” Perhaps it's not as eye-catching, and I'd have to find the anthropologist first, but I expect she's out there.
Facebook executives, of course, have not been quiet since the WSJ article came out. They make valid points about the value and the limitations of research, and they provide more context for the cited findings, and they make cases for why research recommendations can’t always be immediately implemented.
While I hope these representatives of Facebook are speaking from what they think is best and I'm sure that the WSJ journalists shared what they thought was most important to know, I can’t help but long to hear more from the anonymous researchers who said they had a hard time being heard. I see my own career struggles in the tiny paragraph that mentions their struggles. The piece focused on what was known, and not on how decisions were made—that focus reinforces my concern that too many of us are being distracted from the origin of these problems.
Knowing research findings does not compel a person to do the right thing. A person must go beyond comprehension and choose to do what their experts recommend. Making that choice is most likely to happen when our coworkers make decisions the same way.
The culture we study and the culture we inhabit are one and the same. If we are to build products that protect our users, we have to change our workplaces.
Mentioned in this issue: Wall Street Journal article, “Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show;” Jodi Kantor’s Instagram post about the WSJ article; articles by Facebook execs: “What Our Research Really Says About Teen Well-Being and Instagram” and “What the Wall Street Journal Got Wrong.”