If only Zuckerberg had asked

Companies of the new world are based on communities. But the tools they possess to gain insights from these communities are limited.

A man is silhouetted against a video screen with a Twitter and a Facebook logo (photo credit: DADO RUVIC/REUTERS)
A man is silhouetted against a video screen with a Twitter and a Facebook logo
(photo credit: DADO RUVIC/REUTERS)
Successful businesses never think they know it all. But the way Facebook got itself into trouble is something to learn from. In fact, it could have easily avoided this entire affair, if it only listened to its community.
Six years ago, the company called for a referendum on proposed changes to its privacy policy. According to press reports, 668,752 users fulfilled their “Facebook-given right” to participate, with the vast majority against the changes.
However, as the minimum participation threshold defined by Facebook was 30% of all Facebook users (300 million people, more than any Western democracy), the results were ignored.
But the failure is not with the results but with the methodology. Corporations prefer asking yes/no questions. It makes life simple. But wisdom requires more than a referendum. It requires listening.
Instead of asking developers how privacy could be maintained within the platform, Facebook called for a vote.
Instead of implementing all of its natural language processing (NLP) engines to turn inputs into insights, the biggest company of all opted for the simple solution.
Voting can be counter-productive. It can lead to a one-sided victory, whereas reality often requires compromise.
Voting generates a debate limited by two options, rather than an open brainstorming that leads to new solutions.
It’s them against us.
Technology has redefined so many aspects in our lives, but it still has failed to break the barriers of estrangement.
Codes and databases are binary designs. Our challenge is to turn them into “E pluribus unum” (“out of many, one”) in more complex ways.
If only Zuckerberg openly asked how to protect the data of his users, every junior developer would have explained the problem everyone already knew about, except for Facebook. Cambridge Analytics was clearly not the only company exploiting the vulnerability to which every developer was exposed: Facebook had no control over the data it released.
Companies of the new world are based on communities. But the tools they possess to gain insights from these communities are limited. If there is one lesson Facebook should learn it is: Ask.
Ask your developers. Ask your users.
They know and they can help.
If Facebook doesn’t change its course, it will soon discover that its worst enemy is not a polite Congress, but aggressive government regulators. It should therefore start asking its community to point out additional vulnerabilities, otherwise it should prepare for many more humiliating hearings in the future.

The writer is the CEO of Insights.US and a former adviser to Israel’s prime minister.