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Will Facebook ever learn?

March 18, 2020, 7:04 PM UTC

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Two Facebook-related news items point to business as usual for the platform. The first relates directly to its coronavirus response.

Facebook is being acknowledged for offering their 45,000 employees a $1,000 bonus to help them defray any additional costs or burdens they may be facing while now quarantining in place, setting up home offices, childcare, and the like. Yes, it’s a very good move.

(According to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the median annual salary for a Facebook employee was $228,651 in 2018. Just leaving this here for the moment.)

The corona-bonus story was first reported by The Intercept, who immediately connected the bigger dots: The tens of thousands of hourly contractors, who work from centers around the world, would not get the benefit.

“The [$1,000] is for full-time employees who are working from home,” a Facebook spokesperson told The Intercept. “For contract workers, we are sending them home and paying them in full even if they are unable to work—which as you can imagine is much more meaningful than a one-off payment.”

I’m not sure that’s how cash works, but let’s press ahead anyway.

Facebook, which according to CNBC, had some $52 billion in cash on its balance sheet as of December 2019, has a spotty record supporting their contract workers who mostly do the dirty work of content moderation on the site, and who are consistently exposed to the most violent, depraved, and disturbing content humans can create.

A damning story of their workplace conditions, published last June by The Verge, was made possible when many such contractors defied non-disclosure agreements to share how and why their jobs were untenable.

It opened with the story of an overtaxed moderator who literally died at his desk on the overnight shift. Keith Utley, a former lieutenant commander in the U.S. Coast Guard and father of two, had been haunted by the content he’d seen—hate speech, murders, child pornography. He is believed to have collapsed under the strain of impossible benchmarks and poor management. “The stress they put on him—it’s unworldly,” one of Utley’s managers told The Verge. “I did a lot of coaching. I spent some time talking with him about things he was having issues seeing. And he was always worried about getting fired.”

Many contractors work two or three jobs to make ends meet. “We have never been, nor will we ever be worthy of dignity and respect in their eyes,” one contract worker told The Intercept. When asked if a $1,000 payment would be meaningful, another made it plain. “That’s almost two months of rent for me,” they said. With those margins, work-provided meals are a legitimate bonus. “Would help ease the cost of not having hot food and snacks at work five days a week also.”

In other news, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that Ken Chenault, the chairman of venture-capital firm General Catalyst and former American Express chairman and CEO, will not be seeking re-election to Facebook’s board, “following disagreements with Mark Zuckerberg over the company’s governance and political policies.”

His decision caps a year of turnover for the board. Three other independent directors have also left—former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, and former Genentech executive Susan Desmond-Hellmann. The Journal thinks there may be a plan afoot, as they were replaced in some instances “with people who have preexisting social or business relationships with Mr. Zuckerberg.”

Chenault became the first African-American member of Facebook’s board in February 2018, and was seen as a sign that the company had become more serious about representation.

People familiar with Facebook’s quest to diversify their board expressed concern at the time that the company’s efforts would prove to be cosmetic. “They think of this as a public relations problem to be solved, and not a systemic issue to be addressed,” one told raceAhead, under conditions of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the search for new directors.

But these two news items intersect powerfully with a third: Chenault, along with Rachel Carlson, CEO and co-founder of Guild Education, have recently launched Stop The Spread, a non-profit coalition to galvanize the business community around effective responses to the COVID-19 crisis. Their goal is to make the dream of stakeholder versus shareholder value come true.

It also offers a pretty good snapshot of Chenault’s leadership philosophy.

“Over the past few years, we have watched the American business community move beyond caring simply about shareholders and bottom lines to embrace their relationships with their communities, employees and customers,” the pair wrote on Medium. “Now is the time for us to live up to those commitments.”

They’ve asked CEOs and other leaders to join the effort by taking a COVID-19 action pledge, and in a post updated this morning, the collective action has begun:

“Starting today, we are asking our 1,500 signatories to stand together and make a significant financial commitment to support COVID-19 support and recovery. We’ll be focused primarily on funding national healthcare needs—tied to ventilators, respirators and supplies for our hospitals around the U.S.”

But they’re also posting other interventions. This one, called #PayItForward, caught my eye. It’s “an initiative to ask large companies with flexible balance sheets to immediately pay their small business vendors, rather than waiting 30–45 days to pay their accounts payable. This will help them stay afloat for the next 30 days and pay their employees as best they can.”

It sounds like smart and effective advice. 

I hope Facebook, who despite itself managed to create a robust supplier diversity program, will take it to heart.

Ellen McGirt

On Point

How did Facebook's supplier diversity program come about? Bärí A. Williams does not get enough credit for her efforts to help create a supplier diversity network for the social platform, work that was outside her scope as former lead counsel. “When I was an attorney at Facebook, the company lacked a proactive program of partnering with minority-, LGBTQ-, and women-owned businesses,” she tells Wired. “Our consultants, service providers, hardware, and infrastructure suppliers reflected the majority company itself. So, taking the cue from my favorite black woman proverb, ‘Fuck it, I’ll do it,’ I decided to take matters into my own hands and start a supplier diversity program.” Let’s hope they all get paid.

Medical device company threatens to sue volunteers who 3-D printed lifesaving respirator valves I’m sure they’ll think better of it, but it points to some interesting tensions when field innovations run afoul of business-as-usual IP rights. The valve became an essential tool to save lives at a besieged hospital in Italy, but their typical supplier couldn’t keep up with demand. Enter Cristian Fracassi and Alessandro Ramaioli from the Italian startup Isinnova, who offered their company’s printer and a literal lifehack. The actual valve typically costs around $1100, but only took about $1 to fabricate. The valve has been used successfully on 10 patients, so far.
The Verge

The Root’s Michael Harriot has some thoughts on the economy I’m not quite sure how I missed the fact that Harriot, everyone’s beloved white-people-explainer, had a degree in—and taught—International Business and Macroeconomics, but he does. So this fascinating thread explaining what might be ahead for an economy rocked by COVID-19 is really a gift. “First, we have to come to grips with the fact that this country has been quietly building an economy that benefits corporations—NOT NECESSARILY INDIVIDUAL RICH PEOPLE,” he begins, explaining how we’ve already lost the middle vendors and service people who make up the middle class. “It's all a house of well-placed cards… What happens when the house of cards tumbles?”
Michael Harriot on Twitter

On Background

Bodegas tell the history of immigration, aspiration, and communities They’re always open. You can buy a lottery ticket, an egg sandwich, or a clutch of daisies. And if you live in or visit New York City, there’s one on almost every corner. But these mom-and-pop shops, owned by families from countries from the Dominican Republic to Yemen, were already struggling to stay afloat before COVID-19, under pressure from chain stores and rising rent prices. But they’re worth saving. NPR’s Code Switch has a terrific story featuring many of the bodega owners, most of whom are equal parts business champions and community therapists. "Corner stores play a huge part in anyone's life living in New York," says Brooklyn's Abdul Sulaimani. "If you're not cool with your corner store guy, you're not from New York."
Code Switch

Somewhere in the dream we had an epiphany. Now we right the wrongs in history If you’re digging into history by watching the Ava DuVernay film Selma about the 1965 marches for voting rights with your quarantots, then add on to the experience with this extraordinary performance of the Oscar-winning song “Glory.” John Legend and Common won Best Original Song at the 2015 ‪Golden Globe Awards and the 87th Academy Awards for the song. But the staged version, which was performed at the Oscars ceremony, offers a subtle lesson in grace in racial partnership that’s easy to miss. As the “marchers” fill the stage to sing during the dramatic finale, the white performers march shoulder to shoulder with the black ones—but stand in silent solidarity. The glory is in the details.

A list of podcasts for little kids The New York Times has compiled this wonderful list of podcasts for little kids, to help all the #quaranteaching folks out there to manage all the quality time they’re now enjoying. If you’ve got kids ages 2 to 6 at home, it seems like a great start. Any to add? Hit us back.
New York Times

Tamara El-Waylly produces raceAhead and manages the op-ed program.


“Nothing is more punitive than to give a disease a meaning—that meaning being invariably a moralistic one. Any important disease, whose physical etiology is not understood, and for which treatment is ineffectual, tends to be awash in significance. First, the subjects of deepest dread (corruption, decay, pollution, anomie, weakness) are identified with the disease. The disease itself becomes a metaphor. Then, in the name of the disease (that is, using it as a metaphor), that horror is imposed on other things… Feelings about evil are projected onto a disease. And the disease (so enriched with meanings) is projected onto the world.”

—Susan Sontag, "Disease as a Political Metaphor," The New York Review of Books, Feb. 23, 1978.