Impact metrics and the metaphysics of Meta
Goodbye Facebook, hello Meta! The tech titan foremost in recent vitriolic media coverage is shifting its focus away from yesterday’s Big Blue app and towards the new (virtual) reality presented by and through its Oculus interface. There are many open and significant questions about what the company’s rebranding will mean in practice, including on the technology side: as I noted in my C-SPAN appearance, there’s a huge difference between present-day VR for surgical training and futuristic advanced haptics needed for virtual fencing. Moreover, delivering on Meta’s oft-asserted goal of “building responsibly” will require more than good communications or an overdue increased investment in trust and safety. In this piece, I propose that Meta recruit a new Chief Impact Officer from outside the company, reporting directly to the CEO, and empower that individual with the resources and responsibility to engineer a major shift in the course of the company’s external impact through the development of effective impact metrics and strategies to realize them.
Facebook/Meta is banking a lot on this corporate rebirth. And rather than repeat its history of beginning with a product-first “move fast and break things” culture, then working to inject social responsibility after-the-fact — classic within the context of its contemporaries of the early 2000s, a culture I periodically refer to as “technolibertarian” — the early corporate messaging of Meta leans heavily at times into normative and external considerations, including frequent shout-outs to the values of interoperability, privacy and safety, and equity and inclusion. The timing may or may not be coincidental, but it certainly aligns nicely with the decision to move the Facebook product away from the use of existing automatic facial recognition capabilities (although the implications for future Meta products remain unclear).
I’m a big fan of the increasing professionalization of the trust and safety space, and I believe it will help advance the field as a whole. From that perspective, I appreciate seeing calls like that of the former civic integrity lead at Facebook, Samidh Chakrabarti, to put trust and safety on par with product and growth functions, rather than continuing to give the teams whose metric for success is user engagement the hefty premium of internal political capital they typically enjoy today.
But I don’t actually think that’s enough. And I say that because when you look at how the company measures its success — interpolated from how it presents itself to investors, but I strongly suspect it’s just as true internally — the metrics tell a different story.
Meta, like every other tech company, is measured by how much money it makes, and how many users it has. Those are the quantified indicators of success reported at investor calls and studied by industry analysts ad nauseam. While we can count up the academic reports and news studies that portray a net negative impact of Facebook on society, or study the ominous language buried within a company’s risk analysis in its 10-K filings, that exercise is hugely different from evaluating an easily digestible set of measurable targets and the complex but tractable corporate strategies used to reach them.
What if that could change? Meta could — and I argue should — add a C-suite top-level executive focused on impact, reporting directly to the CEO. This new Chief Impact Officer would be directly responsible for setting clear and comprehensible impact targets for the company and developing strategies to hit them, working alongside traditional product and financial goals.
Who, today, is principally responsible for improving a technology company’s overall impact? Impact evaluation requires a healthy dose of external perspective, thus public policy teams — responsible for engaging with governments and with other stakeholders, particularly civil society and researchers — often carry a substantial portion of the burden. Historically at Facebook, public policy has rolled up alongside communications. While tech companies are notorious for frequent reorganizations, my understanding is that Joel Kaplan, VP global public policy, reports into Nick Clegg, VP global affairs and communications, who reports into Sheryl Sandberg, COO. This is in contrast to Google (err, Alphabet), among other companies, where the public policy function rolls up to legal.
But whether it’s comms or legal, classical corporate hierarchy leaves some of the most critical impact questions up in the air. In the context of Facebook and facial recognition, for example: what about the hashes? Whose top-level corporate metrics are on the line for the team that makes that call — is it the communications function focused on how the company presents to the world, or the legal function focused on risk management and positioning?
In a better world, a well-resourced effort to evaluate and invest in improving external impact wouldn’t be part of any of the existing verticals at a company like Meta, whose services have such extensive and complex social functions. Rather it would stand alone, and would receive the fair share of time and resources it deserves at both the internal executive functions of a company as well as external investor and other interest group briefings.
Setting impact as a standalone function within a company offers upside on many levels because of its capacity to be positive. Product is positive and inspiring; legal risks or trust and safety concerns, on the other hand, are inherent downers. That undermines their ability to be influential within a corporate political structure and company culture built around optimism and the possibilities of the future (like Meta). Downers like legal and safety risks are the obstacles, not the things to be excited about.
But impact isn’t just a negative — it’s a positive as well, something we all forget, often, in our enthusiasm to bash a flawed company when it’s down. And as we continue to struggle with the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic, every service that helps us stay connected from the safety of our homes is a prized asset. That message is lost when it’s packaged in glossy corporate communications branding, rather than measured and highlighted as a company impact goal every bit as important as the unnecessarily large profit margins and growth numbers.
If Meta repeats its Facebook mistakes with the future of virtual and mixed reality technologies, we’re going to see the same problems over and over again. If corporate success is defined internally by how many people use Oculus headsets and how much revenue growth FRL (err, MRL) had over the past quarter and year-over-year, we’ll yet again view the incredible positive social impact of these services as little more than a defensive communications shield — and Meta will continue to struggle to make headway on the deep negative social consequences of its current services, which will certainly expand in unknown ways in the new product reality that’s coming.
I know very well that measuring impact is hard. I ran Mozilla’s global public policy work for several years, and iterated several times on our own internal metrics to demonstrate and document how our strategies resulted in positive impact for our organizational goals. More recently with R Street, I worked with the Knight Research Network to host a workshop on impact metrics specifically — tackling the thorny questions that arise alongside policy and research in particular, developing metrics that capture impact without becoming artificial drivers of activity that undermine strategy. (Side note, our report is public, if you’re interested! And feel free to reach out if you want to geek out on this topic with me!)
Impact is never going to be as quantifiable as money and MAUs (monthly active users). But at the same time, measuring and investing strategically in improving impact is critical for the long-term viability of any tech company with any significant touch points on the world. And the first-mover companies who embrace impact fully and genuinely — not as a division of their communications or policy functions, nor legal — will gain an advantage in recruiting talent and securing business partnerships in both the near and long term. More importantly, though, they’ll be leaders in helping to figure out how we can shape the future of the internet to contribute ever more and more positively to the world at large, not negatively as is so broadly portrayed.
Here’s a bonus idea, while the subject is fresh: Have the chief impact officer’s compensation be purely salary — no equity. Typical C-suite execs are so heavily compensated by stock they face … complex incentives for any decisions that would harm their short-term financial line. While a chief impact officer would need to be a team player working to support the company’s future, avoiding the vagaries of stock price fluctuations would help give that person a longer term outlook.
Metaphysics is the study of first principles and fundamental truth, or looked at in a different light, things that do not change. Understanding a company’s metaphysics means looking at its top level metrics of success, and how it sets its leadership up to reach them. If Meta wants to be something different from Facebook, now is the time to make big changes — and putting impact alongside product and financial goals would be a powerful move forward.