Tech leaders need to innovate on their apologies. But given the state of the internet, is a meaningful mea culpa even possible?
If you’re feeling a bit uneasy right now, you’re not alone. It’s the end of not just a year but a decade, and we’re not exactly closing on a high note. There’s more misinformation than ever, climate change is putting the future of humanity at risk, devices are eroding our privacy, and the police are happily tagging along at each and every step. What happened to the internet we were promised at the beginning of the decade, the one so full of creativity, connection, and joy?
It was squandered, as many writers have pointed out, by engineers and CEOs who opted for profit over people at every turn with seemingly no consequences. As these people’s role in creating a physical and digital world built on surveillance, harassment, and child labor has become more clear, we’ve seen a wave of pseudo apologies for the tools and decisions that got us here. For the past few years, the men (and it’s almost entirely men) who built this digital hellscape have been on a veritable atonement tour.
Chris Wetherell fessed up to the RT button on Twitter’s being perhaps a bad idea. Facebook co founder Chris Hughes admitted that Facebook had become too powerful. Another former Facebook employee, Sandy Parakilas, admitted that the company had no real interest in protecting user data. Ethan Zuckerman took credit, and blame, for his role in building an ad-supported internet (and coding the first popup ad). Guillaume Chaslot, a former YouTube engineer, revealed just how bad and biased the site’s algorithm has become. Loren Brichter, who helped invent the infinite scroll, made his regrets public. Even Mark Zuckerberg uttered the words “I’m sorry” in congressional testimony.
Yet none of it feels satisfying. Perhaps it’s because many of these apologies only happen when these men have something else to promote, like a book, a TED talk, or a new company. (Writer Audrey Watters has termed this lucrative side business the “regrets industry.”) Perhaps it’s because most of these men are still incredibly wealthy, thanks in large part to the decisions they’re theoretically apologizing for. Perhaps it’s because, Zuckerberg aside, they almost never actually say the magic phrase that every child learns: “I’m sorry.” Or perhaps it’s because it would be impossible for one person to apologize for the current state of the internet.
Let’s start by laying out what separates a good apology from a bad one. Writer Lux Alptraum, the author of Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex—and the Truths They Reveal, has thought (and written) a lot about this question. She suggested a three-part test for these techpologies. “A good apology says, number one, ‘This was bad, I recognize this was bad, and you are perfectly within your right to be hurt and angry and upset.’ Number two, a good apology says not just that harm was caused but that the harm was someone’s responsibility. And, ideally, number three, it shows growth and commitment to repair.”
It turns out that when you look at the apologies offered by the architects of our technological present, they often fail at least two of these three things.
Number one: The apologizer must recognize the harm done. Some techpologies do this well. Chaslot, the former YouTube engineer who built the platform’s recommendation algorithm, has tweeted about how that algorithm specifically impacted public understanding of things like the shape of the Earth, which is not merely subject to silly (and false) conspiracy theories but has also been connected to the murder of over 600 teachers by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Parakilas, one of the contrite former Facebookers, wrote that if the company isn’t regulated, “nothing less than democracy is at stake.”
Other times, apologizers are vague about the actual impact of their work, or they focus on their initial goals rather than the outcome. The Chris Hughes “regreditorial,” for example, never actual states the harm Facebook has done beyond saying very generally that “the News Feed algorithm could change our culture, influence elections and empower nationalist leaders.” (Unlike Parakilas, Hughes won’t go so far as to say that Facebook threatens democracy, only that it “could” have “influence.”) Justin Rosenstein, a former Facebook employee apologizing for inventing the “Like” button, told The Guardian, “It is very common for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences.”
Then there’s apology criterion number two: Take responsibility for the harm that you’ve just acknowledged. Those who do this almost always speak from a place of remove—as former employees who, years later, look back and safely regret their role in all of this. And even here, there’s a catch. In most cases, the people apologizing don’t really deserve the full credit or blame for the technology in question. Even if a piece of software or hardware were invented by one person alone, its use and deployment would never be a singular decision.
Chris Wetherell, who was profiled by BuzzFeed as “The Man Who Built the Retweet,” cannot take sole responsibility for the impact of this button. Wetherell seems to know this: In his Twitter bio, he clarifies that he “Only *HELPED* build retweet.” Though Zuckerman, now the director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, has apologized for his part in building an ad-supported web, he also can’t take responsibility for an entire business model. “The notion that I invented anything is just absurd,” he told me. “It was a shitty decision and a shitty move, but it wasn’t exactly a move of technical brilliance. There’s no way I can take responsibility for the harms or benefits of the web as a whole.”
Yet to hear an apology coming from a brand isn’t likely to feel satisfying either. For all their horny tweets, brands are not people, and people may be inclined to feel that corporate communications reflect cold, calculated PR rather than true and genuine emotion. When Uber spent $500 million apologizing for everything from the CEO’s connection to Donald Trump to allegations of gender bias and sexual harassment, the campaign failed to change most people’s minds. Even Zuckerberg’s apology to Congress felt more like a faceless Uber ad than a real person’s reckoning with his sins. “Either you over-empower individuals and give them too much credit, which is what happened to me,” said Zuckerman, “or you have people who really are that powerful and then you’re perhaps not dealing with a human being anymore so much as you’re dealing with a media brand.”
Here is perhaps where journalists should fess up to being part of this problem. We love a personal redemption story, even if it’s ultimately toothless. By allowing individuals to take responsibility for the digital mess we’re in, the media perpetuates the “great man” myth. This not only misrepresents how technology is built and deployed, it impedes discussion of meaningful solutions and progress. When journalists overstate one person’s role in creating the problem, we also overestimate their ability to fix it.
Take Tristan Harris, for example, who has made a second career out of warning people about the perils of “attention stealing” systems. His argument is that he was once the problem, and now he can be the solution. This is a narrative that journalists love: This very publication called Harris “part Don Draper, part Carrie Mathison, and part John Nash as portrayed by Russell Crowe.” But Harris can no more be blamed for “attention stealing” writ large as he can be expected to fix it single handedly.
This brings us to the third part of the three-point test: showing some kind of meaningful action toward repair. I think this is where many tech apologies feel unsatisfying to the consumers who are living with the consequences. Because almost none of these people who trot out their apologies can, on their own, repair the harm done. “You should be able to ask someone who’s apologizing for something to undo it,” says Zuckerman. “Part of what’s so unsatisfying is the thing they’re apologizing for isn’t undoable.”
In some cases, it’s unclear whether those expressing their misgivings and regrets are even trying. Many still work for companies within this ecosystem, gathering a steady and probably lucrative paycheck while slamming their former employers. Parakilas, who has called out Facebook for data harvesting, went from Facebook to Uber, and now works at Apple. Rosenstein, who helped implement the “Like” button at Facebook, and who has spoken up about the addictive nature of said likes, co founded a company that “improves office productivity.” “These people are getting status and money and clearing their conscience, but the rest of us aren’t getting anything but the recognition that we live in a fucked up world,” says Alptraum.
For his part, Zuckerman is working to fix the problem he helped create. He’s currently working on imagining and building a new way of thinking about the web—one that looks more like a public good than a private-monopoly-run product. “I don’t feel like I have the solution. What I do think is that everybody who is critiquing platforms is thinking way too small. They’re thinking about small tweaks to a system that is pretty badly broken. What we actually need is a much better vision of social media that is actually good for us as citizens in a democracy. ”
It’s also possible that it’s too soon to judge any of these apologies. Changing an entire system takes teams and years of work. “The apology has to be the start of a process, and maybe the reason an apology feels unsatisfying is that they feel like the end of the process,” says Zuckerman. “If the apology is the first step, then maybe we appreciate the apology five, 10, 20 years later. Some of these apologies are insincere, some are inappropriate, and some just aren’t there yet. We have to give people the time to see.”
Perhaps my desire to see a meaningful apology for our current digital hellscape is wishful thinking. It might, in fact, be impossible to properly apologize for any of this. (In fact, some research hints that apologies are always better when we imagine them than when we actually receive them.) But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. “Maybe the apology is the first step in trying to think about doing that affirmative, forward-looking work,” Zuckerman told me.
So this December, I’m channeling a sentiment that several celebrities have lately shared on Instagram earlier this year: “I don’t want to end this year on bad terms with anybody. APOLOGIZE TO ME.”
Rose Eveleth is an Ideas contributor at WIRED. She’s also the host and producer of “Flash Forward,” a podcast about possible (and not so possible) future scenarios, and has covered everything from fake tumbleweed farms to million-dollar baccarat heists.