Former Facebook last month Tim Kendall, executive director of Pinterest, told Congress during a House hearing on the dangers of social media that Facebook is making its products so addicting because its ad-supported business model relies on people paying more attention to its product every day. He said something similar in the Netflix documentary "The Social Dilemma," in which Kendall – along with numerous other prominent early employees of large technology companies – warns of the threat Facebook and others pose to modern society.
Kendall, who runs Moment Today, an app that allows users to monitor device habits and reinforce screen-time positive behavior, has not yet campaigned against his former employer. On Friday morning we spoke to him about the FTC getting closer to filing an antitrust lawsuit against Facebook for its market power on social networks. what he thinks of the DOJ's separate antitrust lawsuit against Google filed last Tuesday; and how venture capital added to the "unnatural" way companies got our attention – and with it, advertisers' dollars.
Our conversation was extracted. You can hear the full conversation here.
TC: Like everyone else, you grapple with the addiction of the apps on your phone. At what point did you decide to take a more public role in identifying and potentially resolving the problem.
TK: I've always been interested in willpower and the different things that weaken it. I am dependent in different parts of my family and in my extended family and have seen substance abuse and substance abuse up close. And when I started investigating this issue, it really felt similar. It is the same shape and size as drug addiction or behavioral addiction to food or shopping. But it didn't seem like anyone was treating this with the same gravity.
TC: How did your colleagues react to the fact that you turned the tables in this industry?
TK: It developed in the sense that I was friendlier to Facebook at the beginning. When I started speaking publicly about my work with Moment I said, “I think these people are focusing on the right topics. And I think they will solve the problem. “And I've been out there all of 2018 saying that. Now I've gotten a lot louder [about the fact that] I don't think they're doing enough. And I don't think it's going to go fast enough. I think they are absolutely negligent. And I think the negligence is really about not fully and accurately understanding what their platforms do to individuals and what their platforms do to society. I just don't think they got their arms completely around it.
Is that on purpose? Is that because they are delusional? I dont know. But I know the effects are very serious. And they disagree with the rest of us about the severity and significance of these effects.
I think everyone on Facebook has confirmation bias, probably just like I have confirmation bias. I pick the family in the restaurant who aren't looking at each other, staring at their phones and thinking, "Look at Facebook, it's ruining families." This is my confirmation bias. I think their confirmatory bias is, "There is so much good Facebook has done and is doing for the world." I cannot deny this, and I suspect that the leaders there are looking at these cases more often and the severity of the cases we are talking about, [including] the 2016 election, the spread of conspiracy theories, and the spread of misinformation.
TC: Do you think Facebook needs to regulate the FTC?
TK: I think something has to change. What I really would like to see is the heads of government around the world, the consumers who really care about this topic, and then the leaders of the company come together and maybe it's just a discussion to begin with about where we are. But if we could only agree on the common facts of the situation we are in and the impact these platforms are having on our world, if only we could align ourselves in a non-controversial dynamic, I believe there is a way in which [all three can] come together and say, “Look, this doesn't work. The business model is inconsistent with the long-term well-being of society, and so – much like fossil fuels inconsistent with the long-term prospects for the earth – we need to have a settlement and then create a way out of it. & # 39;
I am not sure if strict, controversial regulation can solve the problem. And it will just be a protracted battle where more people will get sick [from addiction to their cell phones] and [companies like Facebook] will continue to wreak havoc in society.
TC: If this antitrust measure isn't necessarily the answer, what could possibly be on a regulatory level assuming these three don't come together alone?
TK: Congress and the Senate are looking very closely at Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which allows platforms like Google – and has allowed it since its inception in 1996 and Facebook operate very differently from your traditional media company in that they are not responsible for the content displayed on their network.
That seemed like a great idea in 1996. And it has fostered a lot of innovation as these bulletin board and portal-like services grew unabated as they did not have to deal with the liability issues for any content received posted on their platform. But fast-forward to this day, it sure seems like one of the ways we can resolve misinformation and conspiracy theories and this tribalism that seems to take root due to the social networks.
If you rewind five or ten years ago, the problem that really plagued Facebook, and to a lesser extent Google, was privacy. And the government has repeatedly threatened Facebook and never done anything about it. Finally, it was fined $ 5 billion in 2019, as well as fines for privacy issues. And it's interesting. It's been a year since these were set up and we haven't had any privacy issues on Facebook.
TC: You were hired to develop Facebook's ad-supported business and find a way for Pinterest monetize its users. As someone who understands advertising as well as you do, what do you think of this case brought against Google by the DOJ? What's your hot attitude?
TK: If you're trying to build a business online and want to monetize that business through advertising, it's not impossible, but it's an incredibly upright battle.
Pinterest finally broke when I was president of Pinterest and working on their revenue business. However, the dominance of Google and Facebook in advertising makes it very difficult for newcomers. The advertisers don't want to buy from you as they can basically get to anyone they want through Google and Facebook in a very effective way. And what do you need Pinterest for? What do you need Snap for? Why do you need an XYZZ startup tomorrow?
That's on the advertising page. On the search side, Google has been stifling competition for years, and I feel it's less about allowing newbies to search – although the government may claim it is. I actually mean it in terms of content providers and publishers. You've been suppressing Yelp for years. You basically tried to create these universal search fields that have the same local information as Yelp. [Yelp] shows up organically when I search for sandwich shops in downtown San Mateo, but then
TC: Aside from running moment, you've spoken to startups dealing with some of the issues we're seeing right now, including startups telling you whether a news agency is tilted left and right so that you are aware of prejudice in advance. Would you ever start a fund? We're starting to see these solo GPs raise pretty massive donations the first time, and people seem just as happy to trust you with their money.
TK. I think traditional venture capital with traditional limited partners and the typical seven year timeframe from when the money comes in and the money has to come out has caused some of the problems we have today. I think that once companies raise traditional venture capital, they will be able to do unnatural things and grow unnaturally. Absolutely the social networks that took up venture capital felt the pressure of traditional venture capitalists at board level to grow and monetize the user base faster. And all of these things led to this extractive business model that we now take a critical look at and say, "Oh, whoops, maybe this business model creates an outcome that we don't really like."
If I were ever to take outside money to make more serious professional-quality investments, I would only take it from wealthy individuals, and there would be an explicit term that basically said, "There's no time horizon. You get your money not necessarily back in seven to ten years. ”I think those are the criteria you need to have if you really want to invest in a way that doesn't add to the problems and misaligned incentives we are facing today.