Facebook recently published another study, this time about what news individuals who list their political affiliations on the platform see on their News Feed. Its received a lot of attention, particularly from academics who have questions about the methods and the way in which the results were written. I won’t reiterate these critiques, instead I point to the very eloquent Christian Sandvig who writes about his concerns and has kindly included links to others.
I started to wonder about how Facebook decides what can be published by their researchers. I assume that proprietary information such as how News Feed works is not publishable. Facebook has never published anything about people who leave the platform as far as I know. I wonder whether that’s off-limits.
I started to think about my own experiences of publishing about corporations while working for them. At Bell Labs, anything I wrote had to be read and approved by three non-researchers in the corporation, as well as a lawyer. The lawyer was always looking for intellectual property possibilities. The others were meant to review it for completeness and anything else they felt was appropriate.
If there were explicit rules or areas that we couldn’t publish about I didn’t know what they were. But I did choose to omit two types of information from papers. I didn’t describe intellectual property. As I said the lawyer was always looking for new revenue streams (I was a sad disappointment) but I am quite sure that he would have removed anything that was describing a competitive advantage. (And since I often wrote about things going wrong, I was actually usually more focused on what one might describe as competitive disadvantage, more on this later).
I also didn’t provide explicit financial information. This I am a bit more troubled by. In any organization the importance of money, how much, to whom it flows, how often, authorized by, etc… shape many software outcomes. I referred to that, but I never put dollar figures to the flows. But even now I do still wonder whether I should have written more about money. Its a statement of the obvious to say that money has incredible influence on what happens, but how money flows inside a corporation is also fascinating. For although the corporation was participating in a market economy, its internal finances bore no resemblance to a marketplace.
I want to return to the competitive disadvantage. I remember one paper in particular. It’s one of my favorites. Its a horror story about a corporate metrics program. Lucent wasn’t named, but it was clear that it was the corporation. We’d been asked to look into this by the CTO of the corporation at the time. So no pressure. When we conducted our empirical research we quickly found a lot of problems. We wrote them up. I wondered as we submitted the paper for internal review whether it would be allowed to be published. We wrote about cynicism and apathy, about how metrics competed with “real” work, and how the view from the top can overly black box the corporation. I wondered whether our reviewers would feel we were painting the corporation in a negative light. But it was allowed and it appeared in ICSE.
I’ve thought a lot about this experience over the years. I am glad that I worked for a corporation that allowed me to publish this work because I think that the most important lesson that comes from it is that initiatives that look deceptively simple from the top of the corporation can be surprisingly complex for an organization to implement. That was an important conversation to have with an intellectual community that I felt at the time was very invested in process engineering without having too much real-world experience in rolling any processes out.
But today I’m thinking about this as an example of writing about things that might appear to be against the corporate interest. Lucent took a chance on us. I don’t think they got damaged by it. Maybe their competitors laughed (although I’d bet that they too struggled with the same problems). We got no press attention for it, either positive or negative. I wonder whether people thought positively of the corporation for letting its researchers write about things that didn’t go so well (or horribly).
I will probably never know what Facebook encourages and prohibits its researchers from writing about. But there’s a sense that the study had a framing, and one that was at odds with the results. And that’s unfortunate for both the researchers and Facebook.