OneZero is partnering with the Big Technology Podcast from Alex Kantrowitz to bring readers exclusive access to interview transcripts — edited for length and clarity — with notable figures in and around the tech industry.
In 2011, Wael Ghonim created a Facebook page that sparked the overthrow of the Egyptian regime. Since then, the former Google marketing director has kept a close eye on social media’s evolution and has plenty to say about where it’s gone wrong and how it can get better. Ten years after Cairo residents painted “Facebook” on walls after the revolution, Ghonim stops by Big Technology Podcast to revisit what happened and where we go from here.
Alex Kantrowitz: You were working for Google as a head of marketing in the Middle East in 2011. Then the Egyptian regime killed a man, Khaled Saeed, and you created a Facebook page, “We Are All Khaled Saeed,” which eventually led to the overthrow of the regime. Can you take us back to that moment?
Wael Ghonim: Well, it was basically a moment of frustration. I’m someone who was born in 1980, and since I was one year old, since I was coming into life, there was only one president that runs the country, and the ruling party was getting old in their position of power. It had been 30 years at that time. Unfortunately, the way the country runs has not been ideal in the perspective of a lot of people, especially young people, who were exposed to the global phenomena, who got together on the internet. The event of Khaled Saeed happened and the response that came from the government about his case was basically a denial saying, “No, he did not die from being beaten up by police officers. He just swallowed some drugs, and that’s what basically caused him to die.”
When that happened, I started a page. My idea at that time was not to start any kind of massive unrest or any kind of massive revolutions or anything. It was as simple as I know how to communicate, I learned how to communicate, I have a background in engineering as well as a masters in business administration and a lot of experience in the street. People like me should be doing something about the environment, so I was trying to raise awareness about police brutality, human rights violations, calling for democracy in Egypt. All of that was happening in the realm between 2010 and for months until 2011 happened.
Just to give people perspective on the numbers — after three days of creating that Facebook page, about 100,000 people were on it. When the revolution started, the page had about 400,000–500,000 members, and at that time, in 2011, that was a huge number for a page that has some sort of a political agenda. At that time, because of my frustration and because of my desire to do something, I just decided to take a bit of a risk by operating this page anonymously. It was not a full risk. It was an anonymous management of the page.
The way events unfold is not about moments actually. No. We try as journalists or we try as people who write books or as people who try to understand experiences to come up with some sort of an analysis of what happened, but most of the time, there is a butterfly effect, the trailing effect for all the events, so it was not just Khaled Saeed that triggered everything. I did not join politics just because he died. You know what I mean? It’s mostly just general observation, frustration, anger that eventually gets manifested when an event like what happened to Khaled Saeed happens. Then, as we grew and as people were together when the events in Tunisia happened, I had a change of my own internal faith towards whether we should or should we not do something in the streets. Not that I’m the one who holds the key.
Remind us what happened in Tunisia?
On January 14th, Ben Ali, the president of Tunisia for over 20 years, due to protests, announced that he was resigning, and he had to fly outside of Tunisia. His plane was in the air, and the pilot was trying to find which country is going totake him because France said no, a few other countries said no, we can’t have you because there is a lot of trouble, and he ended up landing in Saudi Arabia. But that event gave us a perspective that change in systems could happen, that individuals are powerful. At that time, I thought the power of the people was greater than the people in power. I still think the same, but it was manifested in this scene.
I used the 400,000 people within the page — I put a date and a time and hoped for us to start working towards this. Just to clarify, I’m not saying that I’m the one who just ignited it. The real ones who ignited it were the regime, and if I was not there, it would have been a different scenario. At the end of the day, there was a total collapse in the system. That was also met with new technology that was bright and exciting. Everybody was excited about Facebook, liking and getting liked and the hype of feeling that they’re powerful, that they can do things, which is true but, at the end of the day, that contributed to the fall of President Mubarak.
During the revolution, I got arrested 11 days out of the 18 days. They captured me on the street. I was arrested for about 11 days, and there was huge pressure coming from the street, coming from different governments, different countries, and of course Google, which did some diplomatic efforts to try and help me out. Not to get me out but just to make sure that I was okay because, at that time, no one even knew where I was. I was just basically taken out from the street and put in solitary confinement somewhere that I didn’t even personally know because they covered my eyes. Long story short, it was basically this collective action, and I was in the middle of it because of how internet savvy and also how frustrated and how driven I was about having a better future for the country.
What made you feel it was worthwhile to put your personal well-being at risk?
I think it was a combination of recklessness and immaturity combined with lack of knowledge as well as a lot of bravery and a drive to feel something. Throughout my career, I remember the last few months at Google, I was not really happy at all. I just felt something was going on wrong. I did not come to life to live a boxed life in a way. I just operate out of my own resources, and we’re here to just live life, whatever that is. I always feel that there is something stronger about the bonds between people. There has to be a price to try and bring those bonds together, so some people have to stand up and pay that price.
My naivety protects me somehow. While I was doing it, I thought there was a lot of security risks for myself, and I thought I might be arrested. But at the same time, I always reminded myself, even inside the prison, does it really matter how long do you live or what kind of work do you do during your life? Of course, that question of mattering is important too, whether you’re a believer of a God or a divine power that wants us in a certain way or even if you are nonbeliever that just wants to do things that matter in your own experience of life, because I just believe that life is all about feelings. It’s not about words; it’s not about action. It’s really about feelings.
The words and actions are just our way to feel whatever we feel. Many people who do actions or are addicted to certain actions, they’re just addicted to it because of the feeling that it gives them. In that sense, I value my feelings a lot. Whenever I felt like I was not happy, I did not just keep moving on in the same direction. I felt an internal urge all the time to do something while, at the same time, I strive to balance it. I was an anonymous admin. I was hiding my identity. I did not stay at my mom’s place on January 25th because I was living in Dubai, so I would stay with my family, but I didn’t. I stayed in one of my friend’s offices. I changed my phones. I broke one of my SIM cards because I don’t want the guard men to trace me if they are. Despite my naivety, I played the game as much as I could, but I can tell you that when they captured me, I was not ready for it, so I knew that a lot of it was also naivety.
How did they find you?
They found me by chance. At that time, the CEO of Google Jigsaw was visiting Cairo, and it was merely a coincidence, I swear, because his plan to visit was settled many months before. His name is Jared Cohen. He was working for the Department of State before Google. So when he came, he was coming to Egypt for a project about extremism, and he was in contact with the government. He was working through normal channels, but because of his background, I believe the government somehow followed him because he arrived on the 26th or 27th —
What’s the significance of the 25th?
The 25th was the first day the protests started. So when he arrived, he arrived at the time where the government was looking around at what’s happening, where all these people are coming from, and who drives them, and who’s motivating them.
It was a Facebook page.
Yeah. They were bought into a big conspiracy, that whatever’s happening cannot be just a coincidence. It must be a series of events or mass organized and orchestrated by foreign powers. They were trying to figure that out. They followed him, and I had just had dinner with him on the 27th because the 28th was going to be one of the days where we didn’t know what was going to happen next, so I just wanted to see him before I disappeared from the scene. I agreed to meet him for hookah and dinner in one of the cafes, and as soon as I finished my dinner with him, as I was walking in the dark street around midnight, and four people surrounded me. They had machine guns and stuff, and they pushed me on the ground. They hit me, and then they basically handcuffed me and put something to cover my eyes so that I couldn’t see what’s going on. It was like a movie. I kept trying to scream, but even people who would see you, they would not engage because they’re not wearing official outfits, but they had guns, and they clearly looked like they knew what they were doing. They’re not going to stop, so you get a sense that, okay, that’s security.
They eavesdropped with your conversation with Jared?
No, no, no. They were following him. They were finding everyone he was meeting, and they found out my story, why I met this guy, what’s happening. That was part of the investigation. A big part of it was asking me about my connections with Google, my connections with the CIA. I mean, I had no connections with the CIA. They couldn’t understand, at that time, my motivations for doing what I was doing. They thought it must be that I was recruited and paid to believe in the certain way I believed in to do whatever under foreign agents.
But it was from the heart.
Yeah. I tried to argue with them back and forth using logic and emotions, that it’s not what you think. And I do think that they did, at least the ones I talked to, have a different way of treating me, which gave me a bit of a signal. Necessarily, security people don’t give you the real impression. They are trained to do so. In that sense, I feel like I was able to deliver my message, but overall, most of the government, even until today, they treat me with a lot of suspicion.
What was it like being detained for those 11 days?
It was a very hard experience because, on one hand, you don’t know when you are going to get out, you don’t know what’s going on. I was completely disconnected and isolated from the scene. Just imagine me in a very small, tiny room that’s not even well painted, it has all these bad things that I’m smelling, and I kept coughing for hours because of it. I’m blindfolded and handcuffed even when I go to the bathroom.
The whole time?
Yeah, the whole time. It was such a tough experience. I am probably still trying to pass in the most positive way, but there are certain things in my head. Before I left, I just hugged everybody. They allowed me to see some of their faces, which is also uncommon. They don’t unfold you until you’re out because they don’t want you to recognize any of the faces of those who either interrogated you or beat you up or whatever that is. I guess many years have passed, no problem. A couple of the officers actually liked me, and they wanted me to see everybody, and I saw everybody including those who were beating me up, and I hugged them, and I told them in front of them that I wish them the best, and I actually wish it.
I get very irritated when people call that Stockholm syndrome. I like to call it Amsterdam syndrome because it’s all about making love. We are just here to love each other. At the end of the day, the fact that someone oppresses me does not automatically make them an oppressor for good, and the fact that one is oppressing me does not make them the evil people. I mean, even if they torture me, that does not make them the evil people because I’m not in the game of assigned — of course the act of torture is an evil act, and of course it’s unethical, and I oppose it with all that I can because I’ve actually experienced it, so I know how horrible it is. You go into your own terror room inside your head where all things are dull. You are no longer in control of your destiny. You don’t know anything. Even the food, someone is giving it to you, throwing it at you, and you have to accept whatever you’re eating. And the food was okay, so thanks to the chefs and the security.
That’s good. They came through.
I learned from my own experience in life and in the streets, just live with whatever that’s in front of you. If I’m complaining about the food, I’ll be beaten up there, but the food was something I could eat. The torture did not go into crazy limits. I did not get electrified. There was no mark on my body from the beating. All the beating was okay. I could’ve taken it. The humiliation, of course, all of that, as I say, is bad and horrible, and it’s not something that I am defending or justifying in any way, but at the end of the day, I believe it’s part of my responsibility since I’m working on trying to change reality in my own country, to understand reality for what it is and deal with it and accept it.
When I leave doing that to all of them, I believe that I’m working according to my own value system in which I believe that if I alienate them and they alienate me, they have power and they will win. If we communicate, then it’s a different story, so I don’t want to cut the communication. I don’t want to play the game of polarization. I don’t do ACAB. I was tortured by police, but I don’t believe ACAB at all. I believe that all cops are important to have in society so that we can actually have a manageable society.
All cops are…
Bastards. That’s a common lingo among —
Activists, but this is not your perspective.
Yeah. Of course, not all activists have the same view, but it’s like this idea that you are mad at the regime for being exclusive and so on, but then inside of you, you actually build up that same exclusive idea that you just don’t accept them at all, and you treat them as completely alienated, as if they’re just dictators and so on. In my own view now, I question the, generally speaking, Western narrative of the events in my own country. This whole idea that their problem is that they don’t have democracy, and if democracy exists, then their problems will be solved and the lack of freedom of speech that occurs. I just think it’s a whole “Western agenda” because it is an agenda; it’s not an ethical position. Ethical positions don’t change based on interests.
Since it’s an agenda, I do think that, at the end of the day, this agenda is a naïve one. I don’t need much to prove its naivety because, at the end of the day, even the democratic solution in the West is a mess right now. It’s not where it needs to be at all. You see the way politicians are dealing with each other in the U.S. or the whole thing about Brexit in the U.K., and one could step back and ask, is this the real democracy? We are just all enslaved by a process that is not necessarily optimum, and, at the same time, a bunch of us want to force it on — and I was one of them — on collapsing systems or old-fashioned systems. Things don’t work like that. It was a naïve moment when I did that, and I still think that there is a lot of naivety that’s surrounding us, and you can see its impact in the global scale.
We’ve had moments over the past couple of years where it’s been like, how would we characterize what’s happening in the U.S. from an outside perspective?
All the events need to be understood in context. You cannot just create isolation events. That’s what I think a lot about right now. We are so invested in certain kinds of problems that look good and bring us more attention. The way we deal with these problems is not deep enough to fix the actual problem. So, for example, if you and I are good at math — seven billion people, they live 24 hours a day, 18 hours they’re up, and their awareness of who they are and what they are is driven from the sum of all the experiences they are experiencing, right?
If the experiences are good, generally their awareness and view is going to be more good. If they’re bad, it’s going to be more challenging and so on and so forth. If we have that holistic view, and then we look at big social media companies that occupy a large percentage of the market share and, by design, occupy a large number of hours of the consciousness of their users. You look at the kind of philosophy that they operate in order to distribute the content to their users, and we’re talking here about billions of users receiving billions of information pieces on a daily basis. These infrastructure networks, these highways of information that are being designed, have not been designed with safety in mind. They have not. They actually have been designed with recklessness in mind, with growth in mind, with speed in mind, but not safety in mind.
Safety gets prioritized as according to the experiences and limited experiences of the people who are operating the company from their headquarters. The design of tech problems is basically, you are in a headquarters somewhere in California where things are amazing, but you are operating your software where millions of people in Myanmar are using it. If you do not prioritize looking after the health of the network, not just the growth of the network, how healthy the network is by looking at the type of engagements that people are having with each other, if you are not looking at that and you are just keeping it in a chaotic system and whomever can have engagement wins, then you are basically facilitating a hacking consciousness and without knowing.
I’m not, by the way, questioning the intentions of the people. I have met a lot of people in these companies, and I’ve worked in these companies, so it’s not a matter of questioning intentions. It’s just a matter of questioning maturity, because a lot of the people in the tech companies do not admit to themselves that they have been immature about their understanding of the impact of their systems on the global scene. They continue to be immature by thinking that, in working on batches of fixes, rather than thinking philosophically, there is a huge problem that we are facing for the collective human consciousness, that it does not make sense that all this polarizing content, all these stupid funny crazy videos just makes us occupy most of our time.
Guess what happens when you do that? People start slowly losing reason and using humor to advocate reality. You just lose the overall sense of balance inside of you to see things for what they are, and then you can have a leader that claims whatever they can claim that it’s always the biggest, it’s always the best. Whatever these claims are, true or not — it does not matter if it’s true or not because he can say it and they can believe it. Just to be clear, I consider myself to be a liberal more than a conservative, but at the same time, I’m actually more frustrated by the liberals than the conservatives in general because I think that the liberals claim that they always have solutions, that they are more open-minded, that blah blah blah. I say “claim” because what I experience is actually just a claim.
I have been in too many of these sittings where we get top people from Silicon Valley and we’re sitting down to discuss how we can fix democracy and make sure that social media does not ruin the democratic scene. Every one of these sittings I was invited to almost had zero people from the conservative side. I always ask those people, how can you think that you can fix a problem in which one of the wings is not available? I mean, you can’t fix it. Even if they are the problem, just alienating them doesn’t make it happen. You can’t come up with a solution driven by liberal values and enforce it on people who have conservative values. Things don’t work like that.
I also tend to think that, right-wing and left-wing, it’s like a bird. You can’t really travel with one of the wings on its own. Why? If you look at the patterns of liberalism and how individual characteristics of the people who are leading that wave of progress and liberalism and so on, you’d find one commonality: They are recklessly optimistic. They push in directions, and they don’t know where it’s going. They get fascinated by short-term results, and they discount long-term impacts. It happens all the time. The people who are conservative, as a result, balance that view. On one hand, they are pretty stuck on many things and they don’t want to change although it might be better for them to change, but they are very skeptical towards a lot of the things that they see on the liberal and progress side, and their skepticism saves us all.
Because if you allow the liberals to push gas on stuff, they are actually going to take society into the wrong places. We are here because we have been connected to our roots. We are here because we are thousands of years’ worth of evolution, and we can’t just discount human behavior, human nature, nature of environments, complicated state of transitions. If you want to transition any society from one state to another, we can’t just disconnect all that and be excited about banners and movements and trends and hashtags and hypes and everyone creating a certain kind of hype and pushing it.
I feel this is one of the things I understand now, that we’re all wrong. We will not be able to figure things out until we all stop and say we are all wrong. If we are in the game of polarization, if we are making more people polarizing in this world, no matter what the polarization is for, it’s wrong because, at the end of the day, you can’t operate a society with no trust. I don’t want to be offensive, but American politicians are just making jokes of themselves. Because when you are someone who is supposed to be a strong leader and you are running a serious business, one of the biggest civilizations in the world, and your attitude is reckless — I don’t want to even call it a kid. You can actually have a mature kid with reckless behavior, and we all accept it as human behavior. Oh, that’s how the TV runs, oh that’s how the media, or that’s how the system — no. That’s all bullshit. That doesn’t work that way. If there is a fundamental problem, then we need to figure out how to solve it not to further the polarization.
Different viewpoints are important, and it’s unfortunate that everything’s become so two-dimensional right now.
I think that it’s unfortunate but, to be honest, it makes sense as the design of the game makes it this way. Why? For example, if one of these politicians is trolling another one, they get much more attention, and they need that attention because that’s the way they can actually raise funds because they are a known politician and people are paying attention to them. What I’m trying to say here is we all need to stop and zoom out a little bit and reenvision how to fix things without alienating anyone and without assuming. You said that you think that the conservatives are more fixated into their positions, but me and you have to understand that this is not to oppose the liberals.
This is something in their character. This is something they have experienced. This is the way they think. In order for that way of thinking to move or advance, you have to respect their own value systems so that they can listen to you. For example, you think that the right side is less listening and less respectful to the left side, but I can tell you, if you are in the right, if you are religious, a Christian religious, and they open a comedy show making fun of your God, making fun of your religious beliefs, you are going to feel the same way. Again, this kind of phenomena is what we need to deal with, which is we need to figure out how can we build some sort of meta thinking that absorbs all of us so we can think then to fix these issues. But I can’t think that a solution will emerge when comedians are the ones who are running the philosophy scene because they are capturing people’s attention in one way or another, with all due respect to comedians.
I like them, I enjoy them, and I can name quite a lot that make me happy, but at the end of the day, countries should not be run by comedians. Presidents or presidential nominees, in a realistic world, cannot be comedians because they crack a bunch of jokes, ha ha ha. We’re talking about a real world here. We’re not talking about your ability to present. For us to really start solving the problems, there has to be some deep questionings of the methods we have been using. You can’t allow people to mock each other, accuse each other with no limits, and then think that they are not going to be polarized in a horrible way. They’re going to be polarized, and sometimes they’re going to choose against their own interests as well just to punish the other side. Because — we see that in street fights. It starts local, and it keeps growing until it becomes a global phenomena within the environment.
You’ve been associated with one of the most positive uses of social media to rally a population against a regime. When you were pushing those levers back in 2011, did you have a feeling for where things might go?
It was not a feeling of where things might go, but it was a question in my head that I can see this tool has so much power that it can be abused by anyone. I mean, I was personally targeted by the tool. There was a page that had over a million people, and they would write things I never said. They said Wael Ghonim is saying this such and such. They claimed that I made a statement, and the statement is ridiculous and horrible and extreme, but no one checks who said what. At the time, I even sent a message to Facebook, and they said, “We can’t remove it.” They can’t judge that if I said it or not.
I got targeted by the same tools, and I’ve seen how, at the end of the day, being excited about a tool is no longer something I do. It’s naïve. Being excited about a tool that revolves around financial principles controlled by a bunch of investors trying to amass a huge audience and selling advertisements on it — in my view, it still exists and probably will exist for a little bit, but I think it’s doomed to fail. I mean, if Facebook did everything great and they made their users happy, users would not flock to social networks as they appear because, at the end of the day, the reality is that humans are actually looking for a good experience all the time. And if you offer them this good experience, they can stick with you. The problem is that these companies get so excited about connections.
Mark Zuckerberg has already reviewed a lot of his positions in that sense and talked about it, but they get so excited about amassing large numbers of people, they get so excited about growing the figures and advertising and whatever, but they don’t ask themselves philosophical questions. When I talk to anyone, that’s human behavior. Well, it’s not true — we all know in design that if you change a bottom color, things change, so in that sense, if you create an environment that is decent, people will be decent. If you create the right tools to enforce decency, that’s fine. As long as they are nonpartisan and as long as they are not enforced by a platform on its own.
That’s why I think there are some interesting things about Clubhouse, but I still think in the same way. I’m just using it as a tool now. I don’t know where it’s going. I’m not going to be excited about a tool. I’m no longer putting my emotional capacity on corporates, on companies that basically want to become huge. I just think this whole path is somehow part of the reason why we are in the problem we are in. Everybody’s rushing for success. All these networks bite off more than they can chew. They just take more and more and more because they have to report every three months here and there and increase their stock price, but these tools are somehow not in the service of the people it claims it is.
So do you view what you did as good, when you started that page?
Of course. I still benefit from social media every day. There is a lot of good that comes out of these networks, and that’s by design, but one gram of bad removes a thousand grams of good. If you think about it, if you just spoil a thousand grams of good with a gram of bad, it could just get all spoiled eventually and go bad. This is something very important to people who work in social media networks. Don’t get defensive when people are just going after you for the problems you have because we have not forgotten all the good moments, all the great things that have happened because of social media in our lives. It’s just that the current memory is so occupied with all that polarization and all of that bad stuff that’s happening right now.
It’s not about targeting these companies and claiming that they’re not doing good or telling them this so that they can tell us about their amazing efforts and great directions. No argument there. Good human souls, and I assume that they’re trying to live their own way without hurting others while making things better. However, the real problem is because of the defensive nature of humans and because of the lack of that kind of experience within the tech industry, all these consequences happen. Consequences happen, and they really have no honor to fix, and most of the time, the solution is we sit down and keep talking about it, and it’s never the solution. The real solution is to rethink the design.
Do you think they’ve become too defensive when it comes to criticism to start rethinking the design? If we’re talking about building a product that better reflects the good parts of humanity, how might you do it?
Great two questions. The first question, I really don’t know because I’m not inside the companies, so my view is super limited to the outside perspectives. I’m not comfortable making a judgment about their internal efforts. I’m sure the people there have the experience of understanding problems and how to deal with them, so I believe that you can come up with practical solutions.
I think Clubhouse, for example, the current version of it, not necessarily the future ones, the way it is designed doesn’t make you pay attention all the time to how the audience is engaging with what you’re saying. For example, on one hand, that drops the engagement in a way because, of course, if everybody’s clapping and we count the number of claps, and people know how many people are clapping to this and how many are clapping to that and all that kind of stuff.
It’s going to all be exciting and fun, but guess what? The game is going to be eventually hacked. Why? Because the people who are optimizing to be recognized and be nice and get all the claps are not necessarily the ones who have the value. The design right now, somehow, just because it did not manipulate and tap into that kind of human behavior just to increase the number of audience, is by design making things calmer. What I’m trying to say here, my fellow friends who are thinking too much about how to come up with holistic solutions to solve the problems of social media networks, is that sometimes actually the solutions are way easier than we think they are.
Sometimes the solutions have to do with the design of the experience rather than the algorithms and the machine learning and whatever that is. Just a quick example here. They say to know the difference between a marketer and an engineer, ask both of them to fix the problem that the escalator is a slow one and that people get bored as the escalator keeps going up. The engineer kept trying to solve the problem by fixing the machine, to increase the speed by a bit. But the marketer put up a mirror because, in his assumption, if you put a mirror, people start looking at themselves and they lose sense of how much time has passed as the escalator goes up.
What I’m just saying is you can actually think of easy solutions to improve decency in environments like Facebook. You can actually reduce polarization by not building everything just around engagement numbers. What to do exactly, I don’t think that’s the problem. The real problem is that if you do that, you make less money.
Maybe there is a way where you can make more money, but unfortunately, I think that resources on Earth, they behave in an interesting way even if they are resources created by humans. If you accumulate a lot of them in a short period of time, you are surely going to lose them in a short period of time. And if you accumulate them in a balanced and slow and well-rooted way, they are for sure going to last far longer. Whatever’s happening because of technology is because we rush everything. When I say a solution, I really think of different design within the experiences that can be tested to see how you lower the tense, intensity, the heat, the temperature.
Build things that reward people for being decent. If you are in the company thinking ads, ads, ads all the time, thinking revenue, revenue, revenue all the time, or if you are trying to do these changes while not taking revenue hits initially. In either case, it’s not going to work. It is true that there are losses to doing something like that from a perspective of any company, but also the company is not aware of the losses it is already taking now.
Life could have lasted for 30 years, and it would only last for 20. Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe it would have lasted for 50 years, but it will last for 30, but then how do you really know all of that? You can’t. There is no way for you to know. The only way for you to know is look at the current moment. Are you actually being as good as you can? By the way, one last part is we want improvements, and I personally don’t want a whole change of the system because if you change everything, everything changes. I’m not naïve. I’m not looking for a complete makeover of social media. Maybe it happens through another platform just like how Clubhouse is coming in and changing a bit of the nature of communication between individuals. Maybe it happens that way, but at the same time, if it’s meant to happen within Facebook, it will have to be gradual, but there has to be way more transparency. There has to be way more commitment towards making sure that the collective awareness is not up for grab by human traffickers.
You can see the differences between the conversations on Facebook, Twitter, and Clubhouse, and they each reflect differently, and there’s got to be a way to design this stuff that makes it not reflect the worst parts of us but the best.
We have already designed a lot of these kinds of experiences in the past. It’s just that it was pretty local, it was tailored towards small numbers of people, so when globalization happened and everyone wanted to operate and open in huge markets, everybody rushed in their designs. The whole design process of things that are used by billions of people does not really look at the consequences in the right way. How many people within these platforms advocate for unintended consequences? How many people have experiences outside the experience of the tech environment? Also, tech has a lot of fundamental problems that this created around the industry itself. It doesn’t have anything to do with Facebook itself.
For example, if you’re in the oil industry, before you dig a hole, you have to talk to thousands of people and get hundreds of papers and meet this and that and lobby with this and that, and then you dig a hole. In tech, before you even talk to anyone, you probably could’ve had 100 million users already.
That’s what happens. There’s 10 employees and a billion users.
I’m not here to say this is wrong and we should stop it and we should manage this. I’m not an idiot. I’m not naïve. What I’m trying to say is, since we are trying to understand why things are where they are, somehow we need to understand what are the general characteristics of this industry that differentiates it from other industries. It’s a very high-speed industry. I actually think one of the problems of high tech is that it’s high tech. There is a lot of influence on tech, tech, tech. We are here to live experiences and feel feelings, and tech is just a tool. If you just take the high tech as your own way, live around gadgets, and occupy yourself with plastic and all these virtual-like experiences, then that’s not really high tech because it is using human intelligence in very low-quality transactions most of the time. It also lowers human’s ability to do cognitive things, and there has been a lot of research about that, right?
High tech is supposed to raise our own awareness, raise our own experiences. That’s what I would expect from high tech, but, unfortunately, high tech now means let’s figure out a solution to any problem without really making sure that this is an actual solution; it’s just a way to create a more complicated problem.
Disrupt for disruption’s sake, is that good?
Yeah, and by design, a lot of the people who are trying to disrupt it, they don’t take time to understand the existing system. They make a lot of arrogant assumptions about the reality of things, they rush into conclusions about why bad things are happening, but the reality is sometimes bad things are happening because there are crucial, hard design problems that makes them happen if you take that path, and they design other paths where they can avoid the problem but then fall into huge other problems in the future.
I’m not against multinational companies, I’m not against corporations, but I’m also interested in understanding what it means, that individuals within a company that has not been voted for by the public control the transportation sector across the world. Just because they can build this model that can go everywhere in the world that we rely on, and what happens when these people turn out to be corrupt or when the model gets broken after people have completely relied on it? I think the real spirit of tech initially started with democratizing information, giving access to everybody, making opportunities for people, so one would imagine then that design is going to be these islands that help other islands get formed and created, and we build whole worlds of that.
We played the usual game because of the negative, the dark side of human nature, where everyone is playing the game to control and look good. And I don’t blame them because you don’t want to question the system, and you see the good things you are doing, like if I’m Google, I’m seeing all the great things I’m doing as I’m building the company. It slips in our heads that we just start optimizing to become bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger, and you are operating opposite the spirit of the experience of democratizing access because all those people who you are giving information to want to have a better life experience, want to have a better role in life, and they want to do something. It’s a numbers game if things are centralized in small super powers, whatever they are, corporations, countries, and the certain individuals within a sector, whatever that is. That leaves very little room for others to grow and increases the level of frustration among people and gets those people who want to interrupt rather than disrupt.
If you keep disrupting, they want to interrupt you because your disruption is not adding value in their own value system. Here, I think one of the very important solutions is somehow having more conversations with the investors around us. We target Facebook, we target Twitter, but the reality is if you really want to change this environment, convince a few big investors. Why?
You can talk to the venture capitalists, but some VCs don’t seem willing to listen.
I hear you. I’m sure that there are some other kinds. I mean, since they are in the game, they must be seeing it from different perspectives.
I’ve seen enough people that are not optimizing for profit. I’m not against profit. I do want to have a nice life and a lot of money and whatever, so I’m not against profit, and I appreciate the system, but at the same time, I’m not going to make my life about that profit. I’m not going to create a whole reason for existence and say, “Well, that’s how capitalism should work.” No. I mean, capitalism is not religious. We can just actually take things here and there and modify them and see what happens. We can try and create different ways, shapes, and forms to influence the model. By the way, I believe that change doesn’t take a lot of people anyway. You don’t have to have a lot of VCs. It’s probably a couple of VCs who are disciplined enough, and they happen to be well-known, so they inspire certain types of founders to help build on new principles, and they will be okay waiting because that’s the biggest problem with the existing cycle.
You can’t just build something right in that kind of cycle. You’re going to build something that grows into cancer in the cycle, like trying series A, series B, what is happening? We need to improve this number because the investor’s looking at it. This whole world is not the environment where you’re — I mean, you can add value, of course, over time, but that’s not suited for adding value. Adding value happens if it’s linked with ability to monetize most of the time.
Look at the teams and how they’re organized and the meetings and how they’re shaped. You will see always some sort of focus in making sure that the business is not impacted. YouTube did not want to be the Ministry of Truth until the advertisers decided they are not happy. Then the Ministry of Truth was launched, which is fine. At the end of the day, it’s their platform, but I’m just saying their positions have changed because of the pressure of the financial institutions and not necessarily because of the pressure of the public opinion.
I know there are some investors out there that are receptive to thinking outside of the way that has been traditionally thought in Silicon Valley where impact on society matters as much as profit and growth.
And there are a lot of people inside Facebook and Google and Twitter and other companies who would actually listen to this and agree on trying to do something about it.
Another thing I learned in my own experience in the Arab Spring or the Egyptian Revolution is not to make assumptions on behalf of people’s intentions and not to make negative assumptions about the future, how the future could emerge given my cynicism towards someone. It’s not my job. I mean, if they don’t do it, they don’t do it because it’s their problem and they’re going to pay a price for it, but it’s not my job to keep saying they’re not going to do it. There’s no one that wants to do this. That defeats the purpose of us trying to fix this in the spirit of fixing the problem.