TRUE BELIEVERS

The people building the internet trust that Facebook and “Mark” will do the right thing

Obsession
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Obsession
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The developers helping make Facebook among the most dominant forces on the internet don’t want to dwell on the Cambridge Analytica scandal. What’s done is done—they want to focus on the future. They trust CEO Mark Zuckerberg to fix the damage, for which they don’t really blame Facebook anyway. Rather it was just some “bad apples” in their community.

Earlier this week, thousands of developers who build on Facebook’s platforms and use its tools gathered for the F8 conference, the company’s biggest event of the year, at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center. They heard from Facebook executives and engineers about the company’s plans.

Observers expected Facebook to be apologetic, and the developers to be anxious. To be sure, the company’s executives included somber mea culpas in their keynote remarks. For the most part, however, they repeated what they already told journalists and politicians, and quickly moved on. This was a celebration, not a congressional grilling. What was important at F8 was a credo Zuckerberg put forward in his exuberant opening speech: “We will keep building!” The “we” was imperative—us, Facebook, and you, developers working on the next Messenger bot, the next Tinder. (Well, maybe not Tinder.)

The developers cheered, applauded, and whistled when they heard the company’s advancements in augmented-reality technology, and when Zuckerberg announced that everyone at the conference would get the Oculus Go, Facebook’s latest VR headset. And, in one-on-one conversations, while offering nuanced views of Facebook’s responsibility for the recent scandals, they agreed that “Mark,” as they all referred to the CEO, would do the right thing.

How were they affected?

Most of the developers that Quartz spoke with were affected in some way by the changes Facebook introduced across its platforms, including Instagram, following the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Most importantly, the company restricted developers’ permissions to certain types of user data.

Facebook also paused its app review process at the end of March, which prohibited developers from introducing new apps and bots to the network. Zuckerberg announced he was lifting the suspension during his keynote May 1.

One developer whose work was affected was Natalie Korotaeva from Vienna, Austria, who works for an AI company called Craftworks. “I work a lot with chatbots, and so for the last four weeks it was very problematic,” she said. But the company was responsive, she said. It was tough from a business perspective, because of the uncertainty, “but I understood why it was happening,” she added.

Paolo Tozzo, who works for Brandbastion, a social-media management company that specializes in content moderation, said changes to Instagram’s API broke the code he was working on. His company had to restructure the code over several days, and had to tell its customers they could no longer use some information. Instagram shut off access to follower lists, for example.

Even while explaining how their businesses were affected, some developers were nonchalant, saying that in the end, it was no big deal. Tozzo had to postpone a deadline for a client project, but he assessed the impact on his work as “not that much.”

Dana Gibber, co-founder and chief operating officer of Headliner Labs, which develops marketing bots for the retail industry on Messenger, said her business was able to quickly bounce back. “Between yesterday and today, when the Messenger platform came back up, we signed up 15 more retail customers,” referring to her company’s clients.

Who’s to blame?

The Cambridge Analytica debacle, in which the data of 87 million Facebook users was harvested without their consent, was a “mistake,” developers and company founders said.

“Mark [has] accepted that it was a mistake, something they missed,” Japjot Sethi, co-founder and CEO of Gloopt, a video marketing platform, said. “The goal is, it should not be made again.”

Others disagreed. “They must have known that [the user data] wasn’t really tidied up the way it should be,” Joe Cain, a senior producer for Jolly Bear Games, underlining that he was speculating. If that was the case, there was some “dereliction of duty,” he added.

Gibber said the scandal was overblown, and “sort of like ancient history.” “None of this [access to friend data] has been possible for developers for many years,” she said. “It’s getting reconciled publicly now, but it was reconciled as a policy matter years ago.”

While politicians, journalists, and academics have blamed Facebook’s targeted ad-based business model for enabling user data exploitation, developers at F8—a group of people who make their living working with Facebook, and chose to attend a conference that is in effect a fete for the company—tended to blame bad actors, rather than the company itself.

“Facebook has advanced all of us forward, light years, in terms of how connected we are, in terms of innovative experiences we can have,” Gibber said. “In order to do that, they rely on developers to utilize the tools they make available to developers and for the most part we’re a community of really honest and careful actors.”

Breaches are bound to happen, Korotaeva said. “Like Mark mentioned,” she said, referring to Zuckerberg’s keynote speech, events like Russian hacking, “will happen again and again.”

As a user, she said, you have to realize that you’re giving up certain rights. “If you use any kind of free product—Google, Facebook—there is always something that you pay,” she said. “Everyone of us pays—it’s our data.” It’s also a question of scale, according to Korotaeva. When something grows so fast, it’s hard to control. “When you make a product like that, that no one in the world has ever built, of course there could be mistakes.”

Perhaps the most critical views I encountered came from two German 18-year-olds, Sam Eckert and Paul Reichardt, who developed Bittracker, a bitcoin tracking app. Germans are very privacy-focused, they said, and no one had been surprised by the Cambridge Analytica news. “Facebook’s business model is to make money out of not respecting user privacy,” they said.

Facebook is doing the right thing

Counterintuitively, a common refrain I heard was that Facebook’s crisis is ultimately a positive development for the community. “We’re actually really grateful that Facebook took the time to do this inward soul-searching and to take a hard look at different policies because it does make the platform stronger,” said Gibber. “Our customers are retail companies, and making sure that they are comfortable with Facebook as a platform is really essential.” Facebook, she says, has always been a very “trustworthy” and “careful” platform. She hopes the company’s response to the scandal, from Zuckerberg’s testimony to the changes it’s implementing, to “how upfront they’ve been with the media,” could be resolved, “so that everyone can move forward and have confidence in Facebook, as they should.”

Facebook is going in the right direction, Korotaeva said. “Mark said he doesn’t know all the questions and all the answers, and there will be things to figure out as we try to build [the platform].”

The developers particularly liked the announcement about the “clear history” feature Zuckerberg announced during his keynote, because it was a good way to give users more control. However, Eckert and Reichardt this should’ve been implemented a long time ago. They didn’t like that it was being sold as a new “feature.”

Still others remained cautious, including developers who were at the conference to explore how they can work with Facebook. “Security, privacy is obviously important, for my customers it’s critical. That’s one of the reasons why I haven’t yet integrated with Facebook,” Sethi said. “I want to understand that deeper, what are these new changes.”

No other option

There are few properties on the web as dominant as Facebook, leaving developers without much choice on what platforms to build for. “If my customer wants to use Facebook Workplace or any of the Facebook products, integrated into our product, and there’s a real business opportunity for us to do it, we will do it, but with complete open conversation and transparency and customers,” Sethi said.

“Facebook has so many open source tools that are great to use,” Korotaeva said, as other developers echoed to me. And then, there’s the question of reach.

“The ability to reach so many people, it’s unheard of,” Cain said. “You’ll go to some of those games on Messenger, and you’ll see 10 million people actively playing the game at the same time.”

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