Mar 6 2019

Book: Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe

I read Roger McNamee’s book Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe the day it came out. While likely uncomfortable for a lot of people, it was excellent, provocative, and challenging all at the same time.

I have not, nor have I ever been, an investor in Facebook. However, I benefited indirectly from, and indirectly contributed to, the rapid rise of Facebook as an early investor in Zynga. I remember being amazed at the pace of growth of both companies and, in an effort to understand it better, went deep on how each company’s product intersected with the psychology of humans.

If you hung around me during the 2007 – 2010 time period when I was on the Zynga board, you would have heard me talk with amazement at how easy it was to manipulate people into spending huge amounts of their time tending their virtual farm on FarmVille. I spoke with pride about the data that Zynga collected on every user, much of which came directly from Facebook and had nothing to do with what Zynga was doing, but was readily accessible to them via the Facebook API. Zynga endured endless Facebook TOS rewrites as they evolved their business model and tried to capture more of the revenue from companies like Zynga, including what I have come to refer to as the Facebook-Zynga Cuban Missile Crisis which ended in detante.

All of this happened a decade ago. I left the Zynga board just before they went public at the end of 2010 (as is my, and my partners’ at Foundry Group’s approach.) I continued to be a user of Facebook, but even that drifted away from me, as I never really felt that connected to it (I was more of a Twitter person.) I wasn’t surprised when the Facebook data privacy scandals started in 2017, but I was surprised at how timid the backlash was. I stopped using Facebook in 2018 and deleted my account in August.

McNamee has a deeper relationship with Facebook, as he was a mentor for Zuckerberg early in Facebook’s life and then an investor (first personally, then via his fund Elevation Partners) while Facebook was a private company. His experience has more emotion in it than mine (both good and bad), but his journey that led to this book started just before the 2016 US Presidential Election as McNamee was concerned that “bad actors” could be using Facebook to manipulate the election.

The book is riveting. McNamee moves between Facebook, his experience as an investor, his efforts to get through to the Facebook leadership team about his concerns, and his subsequent journey to make public his views about the negative impact Facebook is having on society and democracy in general. McNamee is not taking a cynical approach, but rather takes responsibility for his own lack of foresight into the potential problem, and explains his search for understanding and solutions.

I think this book is merely a preamble for what is coming in the next twenty years. As a species, we have little understanding of the complexity that we are creating through technology. This complexity cannot be solved, as complex adaptive systems don’t have a single solution – they adapt and evolve. Instead, we can only interact with them and, when they evolve at a rate much faster than we can understand and respond to, it’s can lead to an untenable situation.

We haven’t really begun to understand the implication of what we are creating. Regardless of the long-gone “Do No Evil” slogans of progressive technology companies, profit and power motives dominate behavior. And, with profit and power comes significant defenses, including denial about second order effects that result, and then the third order effects that result from the efforts to control the profit and power.

McNamee’s book is a taste of this. Read it and start to prepare your mind for what is to come.