Un­der His Thumb

FACE­BOOK’S CHRIS COX IS MESS­ING WITH ONE OF THE MOST VALU­ABLE FEA­TURES ON THE IN­TER­NET

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Conntents -

Chris Cox tinkers with Face­book’s mighty “like” but­ton

The most dras­tic change to Face­book in years was born a year ago dur­ing an off- site at the Four Sea­sons Sil­i­con Val­ley, a 10-minute drive from head­quar­ters. Chris Cox, the so­cial net­work’s chief prod­uct of­fi­cer, led the dis­cus­sion, ask­ing each of the six ex­ec­u­tives around the con­fer­ence room to list the top three projects they were most ea­ger to tackle in 2015. When it was Cox’s turn, he dropped a bomb: They needed to do some­thing about the “like” but­ton.

The like but­ton is the en­gine of Face­book and its most rec­og­nized sym­bol. A gi­ant ver­sion of it adorns the en­trance to the com­pany’s cam­pus in Menlo Park, Calif. Face­book’s 1.6 bil­lion users click on it more than 6 bil­lion times a day—more fre­quently than peo­ple con­duct searches on Google—which af­fects bil­lions of ad­ver­tis­ing dol­lars each quar­ter. Brands, pub­lish­ers, and in­di­vid­u­als con­stantly, and strate­gi­cally, share the things they think will get the most likes. It’s the driver of so­cial ac­tiv­ity. A mar­ried cou­ple posts per­fectly posed self­ies, prov­ing they’re in love; a news or­ga­ni­za­tion of­fers up what’s fun and en­ter­tain­ing, hop­ing the likes will spread its con­tent. All those likes tell Face­book what’s pop­u­lar and should be shown most of­ten on the News Feed. But the but­ton is also a blunt, clumsy tool. Some­one an­nounces her di­vorce on the site, and friends grit their teeth and “like” it. There’s a dev­as­tat­ing earth­quake in Nepal, and in­vari­ably a few overea­ger click­ers give it the ol’ thumbs-up.

Chang­ing the but­ton is like Coca-cola mess­ing with its se­cret recipe. Cox had tried to bat­tle the like but­ton a few times be­fore, but no idea was good enough to qual­ify for pub­lic test­ing. “This was a fea­ture that was right in the heart of the way you use Face­book, so it needed to be ex­e­cuted re­ally well in or­der to not de­tract and clut­ter up the ex­pe­ri­ence,” he says. “All of the other at­tempts had failed.” The ob­vi­ous al­ter­na­tive, a “dis­like” but­ton, had been re­jected on the grounds that it would sow too much neg­a­tiv­ity.

Cox told the Four Sea­sons gath­er­ing that the time was fi­nally right for a change, now that Face­book had suc­cess­fully tran­si­tioned a ma­jor­ity of its busi­ness to smart­phones. His top deputy, Adam Mosseri, took a deep breath. “Yes, I’m with you,” he said solemnly.

Later that week, Cox brought up the pro­ject with his boss and long­time friend. Mark Zucker­berg’s re­sponse showed just how much lee­way Cox has to take risks with Face­book’s most im­por­tant ser­vice. “He said some­thing like, ‘ Yes, do it.’ He was fully sup­port­ive,” Cox says. “Good luck,” he re­mem­bers Zucker­berg telling him. “That’s a hard one.”

The so­lu­tion would even­tu­ally be named Re­ac­tions. It will ar­rive soon. And it will ex­pand the range of Face­book-com­pat­i­ble hu­man emo­tions from one to six.

Cox isn’t a founder, doesn’t serve on the boards of other com­pa­nies, and hasn’t writ­ten any best-sell­ing books. He’s not a bil­lion­aire, just a centi-mil­lion­aire. He joined Face­book in 2005, too late to be de­picted in The So­cial Net­work, David Fincher’s movie about the com­pany’s early days. While Zucker­berg man­ages an ex­pand­ing port­fo­lio of side busi­nesses and projects—in­sta­gram, What­sapp, the Ocu­lus Rift vir­tual- re­al­ity head­set, a planned fleet of 737- size, car­bon- fiber, In­ter­net-beam­ing drones—cox runs “the big blue app.” That’s Face­book’s term for the so­cial net­work that we all com­pul­sively check a few dozen times a day. He’s also the keeper of the com­pany’s cul­tural flame, the guy who gives a rous­ing wel­come speech to new re­cruits ev­ery Mon­day morn­ing at 9 a.m. It’s a safe bet that all 12,000 Face­book em­ploy­ees know his name.

He’s prob­a­bly the clos­est thing In­ter­net users have to an editor- in- chief of their dig­i­tal life. Cox’s team man­ages the News Feed, that end­less scroll of Face­book up­dates. In­vis­i­ble for­mu­las gov­ern what sto­ries users see as they scroll, weigh­ing baby pic­tures against political out­rage. “Chris is the voice for the user,” says Bret Tay­lor, Face­book’s for­mer chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer. “He’s the guy in the room with Zucker­berg ex­plain­ing how peo­ple might re­act to a change.”

Cox’s as­cen­sion has been grad­ual and, for the past few years, clearly vis­i­ble to Face­book watch­ers. Many first met him dur­ing the 2012 ini­tial pub­lic of­fer­ing road­show, when the com­pany dis­trib­uted a video of ex­ec­u­tives talk­ing about its mis­sion. Along with Chair­man and Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer Zucker­berg and Chief Op­er­at­ing Of­fi­cer Sh­eryl Sand­berg, the film in­cluded Cox, who gazed earnestly into the cam­era at close range while em­ploy­ing some se­ri­ously over­heated rhetoric: “We are now chang­ing within a gen­er­a­tion the fab­ric of how hu­man­ity com­mu­ni­cates with it­self.”

He’s fre­quently seen at Zucker­berg’s side. Here are Zucker­berg and Cox run­ning a three-legged race for a com­pany game day, with Cox wear­ing a ba­nana suit; em­brac­ing af­ter Face­book started trad­ing on the Nas­daq (Zucker­berg hugged Sand­berg first and Cox se­cond); rid­ing a float to­gether dur­ing San Fran­cisco’s gay pride pa­rade.

Zucker­berg says Cox is one of his clos­est friends and “one of the peo­ple who makes Face­book a re­ally spe­cial place.” He men­tions Cox’s IQ and Eq—emo­tional in­tel­li­gence—and how “it’s re­ally rare to find peo­ple who are very good at both.” He’s also cool in a way that Zucker­berg, in par­tic­u­lar, isn’t. Cox, who moon­lights as a key­board player in a reg­gae band, dresses fash­ion­ably, usu­ally leav­ing a but­ton open on the top of his neatly tailored work shirts. He’s also irk­somely hand­some and dis­plays the ca­sual cheer of some­one who knows it.

Look a lit­tle deeper, though, and Cox’s

THE OB­VI­OUS AL­TER­NA­TIVE, A DIS­LIKE BUT­TON, HAD BEEN RE­JECTED ON THE GROUNDS THAT IT WOULD SOW TOO MUCH NEG­A­TIV­ITY

record isn’t quite as tidy. He’s been in charge of some of Face­book’s big­gest duds: a nicely de­signed news-read­ing app for smart­phones called Pa­per, which no one used, and a ma­jor re­vamp of the News Feed that was scrapped be­cause it didn’t work well on small screens. If you look at the things poised to de­liver big growth op­por­tu­ni­ties at Face­book— In­sta­gram and What­sapp be­ing the big­gest— they’re mostly ac­qui­si­tions, not rein­ven­tions of the big blue app.

In Sil­i­con Val­ley fash­ion, Cox prefers to re­cast past mis­takes as healthy ex­per­i­ments and valu­able learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ences. “I think any good com­pany is try­ing things, is forc­ing it­self to try things, and you need to be able to put things out there and try and learn,” he says. “Peo­ple only get in trou­ble if they’re not hon­est about fail­ure.”

Cox first heard of job op­por­tu­ni­ties at Face­book while pur­su­ing a mas­ter’s de­gree in com­puter-hu­man in­ter­ac­tion at Stan­ford. A room­mate al­ready worked there and bad­gered Cox to in­ter­view, pri­mar­ily be­cause there was a $5,000 re­cruit­ing bonus. Cox was skep­ti­cal. Wasn’t Face­book just a glo­ri­fied dat­ing site?

The head­quar­ters back then were on Univer­sity Av­enue, Palo Alto’s main drag. When he got there, co­founder Dustin Moskovitz de­scribed Face­book as a crowd­sourced direc­tory of ev­ery­one. He drew cir­cles on a white­board, then lines con­nect­ing them to rep­re­sent “friend­ing” on the site. By look­ing at each other’s pro­files, friends could by­pass the first awk­ward five min­utes of ev­ery con­ver­sa­tion—those rote ques­tions like “where are you from?”—and move on to deeper con­nec­tions. Cox was riv­eted.

He dropped out of Stan­ford (nat­u­rally) and joined the com­pany when it had about 30 em­ploy­ees. His first job was de­vel­op­ing the News Feed, the fea­ture that made Face­book a global ad­dic­tion. At the time, though, he and Zucker­berg badly mis­judged user re­ac­tion: Peo­ple hated it. They felt as if their pri­vate in­ter­ac­tions were sud­denly be­ing ex­posed. “It wasn’t our best prod­uct roll­out,” Cox con­cedes. He learned that peo­ple tend to be sus­pi­cious of well-cap­i­tal­ized Sil­i­con Val­ley star­tups preach­ing lofty val­ues such as “open­ness” and “shar­ing.”

In late 2007, af­ter Face­book hired its 100th em­ployee, Zucker­berg de­cided he needed to put some­one he trusted in charge of per­son­nel. This be­came Cox’s strangest ca­reer move: Zucker­berg asked him to be­come the com­pany’s first hu­man re­sources chief. Zucker­berg now says he thought it was “an op­por­tu­nity to take a dif­fer­ent ap­proach than other com­pa­nies and to bring a tech­ni­cal spirit to defin­ing all th­ese dif­fer­ent aspects” of the com­pany’s cul­ture.

Cox sched­uled one-on-one meet­ings with ev­ery em­ployee and be­came a sort of in-house ther­a­pist. “He had to en­dure the slings and ar­rows of peo­ple’s com­plaints from all over the com­pany,” Yis­han Wong, an early em­ployee, wrote on the com­mu­nity web­site Quora. “And he did so with­out be­com­ing a cyn­i­cal, un­car­ing shell of a man.”

Cox says the HR job gave him a way of look­ing at things through other peo­ple’s eyes. It also led him to ponder Face­book’s mis­sion in the world, which is when he started read­ing the works of com­mu­ni­ca­tions the­o­rist Mar­shall Mcluhan. Each wave of me­dia tech­nol­ogy, Mcluhan wrote, is ini­tially greeted with anger and mis­trust.

That was com­fort­ing to Cox, be­cause it ex­plained some of the hos­til­ity that Face­book was en­coun­ter­ing. “We were in this pe­riod back then where peo­ple re­ally didn’t un­der­stand Face­book and didn’t be­lieve it could be­come any­thing,” he says. “Mcluhan helped tell that story in a broader con­text.”

Cox re­turned to en­gi­neer­ing in 2008, but he’s still the com­pany’s cul­tural am­bas­sador. He weaves Mcluhan’s les­son into his Mon­day morn­ing speeches to the new re­cruits. The talks usu­ally start with a ques­tion: “What is Face­book?” He lets the room hang in si­lence un­til some­one is brave enough to say, “It’s a so­cial net­work.” Wrong. Face­book is a medium, Cox says, re­fer­ring to Mcluhan’s fa­mous dic­tum, “The medium is the mes­sage.” In other words, how Face­book presents con­tent and the way in which it al­lows users to read, watch, com­ment on, and like that con­tent in­flu­ences how all 1.6 bil­lion mem­bers see the world around them.

Cox spends most of his days in the new Frank Gehry­de­signed Build­ing 20 on the Menlo Park cam­pus. The struc­ture is a huge, 430,000-square-foot rec­tan­gle. A grassy park is on the roof, with a hot dog stand on one side and a smoothie shop on the other. In­side the cav­ernous space, full of rus­tic art and chalk­board walls, Face­book em­ploy­ees tie sil­ver bal­loons to their mov­able stand­ing desks to mark their “Facev­er­sary,” cel­e­brat­ing how long they’ve worked there. Cox had his 10th Facev­er­sary last fall.

On a Wed­nes­day in Novem­ber, he en­ters a con­fer­ence room for the se­cond of five meet­ings and con­fesses that he’s break­ing the rules: Ex­ec­u­tives are dis­cour­aged from sched­ul­ing meet­ings on Wed­nes­days, which is sup­posed to be a day en­gi­neers and de­sign­ers can work with­out in­ter­rup­tion. Nev­er­the­less, Cox and his team need to talk about tai­lor­ing the Face­book smart­phone app for In­dia. On a screen at the front of the room, there’s a bar chart of In­dian users on An­droid phones, bro­ken down by the es­ti­mated speed of the cel­lu­lar net­work they use most of­ten—2g, 3G, and so forth.

“Can you just hang on that stat for a sec?” Cox asks, peer­ing at the chart with his el­bows on his knees. “4G is a whop­ping 0.2 per­cent.”

“It’s just one guy hang­ing out there,” says a prod­uct man­ager, Chris Struhar.

The team can’t af­ford to wait for In­dia to speed up its mo­bile net­works—frus­trated users will sim­ply stop us­ing Face­book. (Or worse. The com­pany re­cently faced street protests in the coun­try for its plan to of­fer Free Ba­sics, a stripped- down, free In­ter­net ser­vice that in­cludes Face­book and not much else.) Struhar

pro­poses to use less data in the app, in part by re­cy­cling older sto­ries that don’t have to be freshly down­loaded. Cox agrees. “My in­tu­ition, which we could prove wrong, is peo­ple just want more stuff,” he says. He imag­ines him­self as the user, look­ing for any hit of dig­i­tal nico­tine that will stave off bore­dom at, say, a bus stop. “That’s def­i­nitely what I want. I just want more sto­ries.” Cox then re­views a cou­ple of other ideas, like a spin­ning icon on pho­tos that will let users know the app is load­ing, po­ten­tially de­creas­ing what the com­pany calls “rage quits.”

Near the end of the meet­ing, he won­ders aloud how to get other Face­book em­ploy­ees to start think­ing about the par­tic­u­lar chal­lenge of build­ing fea­tures that will work on yes­ter­day’s mo­bile net­works, still in use around the world. Some­one pro­poses switch­ing ev­ery­one at the com­pany to a 2G con­nec­tion once a week. Cox loves the idea. “This is our tool for em­pa­thy,” he says. “Happy Wed­nes­day, you’re in Delhi!” Two weeks later, the com­pany im­ple­ments 2G Tues­days.

“Em­pa­thy” is a word Cox throws around a lot, and which his col­leagues of­ten use about him. Face­book blun­dered in the past when it didn’t take the time to talk to and un­der­stand its users. In the old days, prod­uct teams tested fea­tures in New Zealand, which has the ad­van­tage of hav­ing an iso­lated, English- speak­ing pop­u­la­tion but is hardly an ac­cu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the world. Un­der Cox, Face­book’s prod­uct team is tack­ling more sen­si­tive sub­jects, such as de­sign­ing a way for ac­counts to be­come memo­ri­als af­ter some­one’s death, or help­ing users nav­i­gate the af­ter­math of a breakup by se­lec­tively block­ing pic­tures of the ex. His goal, which he ad­mits Face­book hasn’t reached, is to make the News Feed so per­son­al­ized that the top 10 sto­ries a user sees are the same they’d pick if they saw ev­ery pos­si­bil­ity and ranked it them­selves. A side ef­fect of mak­ing things eas­ier for users: happy ad­ver­tis­ers. Un­der Cox, Face­book found a way to make ad­ver­tis­ing work on its smart­phone app, and came up with video ads that play au­to­mat­i­cally.

Since Cox was el­e­vated to chief prod­uct of­fi­cer in 2014, his team has con­sulted with an out­side panel of about 1,000 Face­book users who rate ev­ery story in their feed and of­fer feed­back. There are also a hand­ful of prod­uct test sta­tions scat­tered around Face­book’s of­fices that look a lit­tle like in­ter­ro­ga­tion rooms—tiny spa­ces with brightly lit desks. A cam­era is at­tached to a test sub­ject’s smart­phone to film their ac­tions while Face­book em­ploy­ees watch through a one-way mir­ror. Ses­sions can go on for hours. Some­times they’re live-streamed to a larger au­di­ence of em­ploy­ees.

Cox ap­plied this test­ing reg­i­men to the re­vamp­ing of the like but­ton. He wasn’t part of the team that orig­i­nally de­vel­oped the but­ton from 2007 to 2009, but col­leagues have war sto­ries about how hard they had to work to get Zucker­berg on board. Ac­cord­ing to long­time ex­ec­u­tive An­drew Bos­worth, there were so many ques­tions about the but­ton—should likes be pub­lic or pri­vate? would they de­crease the num­ber of com­ments on sto­ries?—many thought the fea­ture was doomed. Even its cham­pi­ons had no idea of the im­pact it would have on the com­pany’s for­tunes. It was sim­ply meant to make in­ter­ac­tions eas­ier—just click like on some­one’s post about their new job, in­stead of be­ing the 15th per­son to say con­grat­u­la­tions.

Even­tu­ally the but­ton be­came a cru­cial part of how Face­book’s tech­nol­ogy de­cides what to show users. If you like beauty tips a friend shares from some Kar­dashian or other, the soft­ware cal­cu­lates that you should also see ads and ar­ti­cles from Peo­ple mag­a­zine and Sephora. “The value it has gen­er­ated for Face­book is price­less,” says Brian Blau, an an­a­lyst at Gart­ner.

It’s a way of cre­at­ing a con­nec­tion, even if it’s su­per­fi­cial. If users click like on a post about the Red Cross’s disas­ter re­lief ef­forts, they feel as if they’ve done some­thing to help. ( In Jan­uary, Sand­berg went so far as to sug­gest that likes could help de­feat Is­lamic State: By post­ing pos­i­tive mes­sages on the ter­ror group’s Face­book pages, users could some­how drown out the Yay

ted hate.) Lik­ing some­one’s photo Re­jec

is an awk­ward­ness- free way to make con­tact with some­one you haven’t seen in years. Al­ter­na­tives to like will let Face­book users be a lit­tle more thought­ful, or at least seem to be, with­out hav­ing to try very hard. Face­book re­searchers started the pro­ject by com­pil­ing the most fre­quent re­sponses peo­ple had to posts: “haha,” “LOL,” and “omg so funny” all went in the laugh­ter cat­e­gory, for in­stance. Emo­jis with eyes that trans­formed into hearts, GIF an­i­ma­tions with hearts beat­ing out of chests, and “luv u” went in the love cat­e­gory. Then they boiled those cat­e­gories into six com­mon re­sponses, which Face­book calls Re­ac­tions: an­gry, sad, wow, haha, yay, and love.

The team con­sulted with out­side so­ci­ol­o­gists about the range of hu­man emo­tion, just to be safe. Cox knows from ex­pe­ri­ence that he doesn’t have all the an­swers: When the com­pany re­designed the News Feed in 2013, it looked great on the imacs in Face­book’s head­quar­ters but made the prod­uct harder to use ev­ery­where else. “There are a mil­lion pot­holes to trip over,” Cox said.

Face­book Re­ac­tions won’t get rid of like—it will be an ex­ten­sion. Within

the com­pany, there was some de­bate on how to add the op­tions with­out mak­ing ev­ery post look crowded with things to click. The sim­pler Face­book is to use, the more peo­ple will use it. Zucker­berg had a so­lu­tion: Just dis­play the usual thumbs-up but­ton un­der each post, but if some­one on her smart­phone presses down on it a lit­tle longer, the other op­tions will re­veal them­selves. Cox’s team went with that and added an­i­ma­tion to clar­ify their mean­ing, mak­ing the yel­low emo­jis bounce and change ex­pres­sion. The an­gry one turns red, look­ing down­ward in rage, for ex­am­ple. Once peo­ple click their re­sponses, the posts in News Feed show a tally of how many wows, ha­has, and loves each gen­er­ated.

This up­date may seem triv­ial. All it’s do­ing is in­creas­ing the num­ber of click­able re­sponses. Peo­ple al­ready com­ment on posts with emo­jis or, in some cases, ac­tual words. But the fea­ture will prob­a­bly make Face­book even more ad­dic­tive. And it will cer­tainly give Cox’s team a lot more in­for­ma­tion to throw into the News Feed al­go­rithm, thereby mak­ing the con­tent more rel­e­vant to users—and, of course, to ad­ver­tis­ers.

In Oc­to­ber the team got close enough to a fi­nal de­sign that Zucker­berg felt com­fort­able men­tion­ing the pro­ject in a pub­lic in­ter­view, giv­ing no de­tails ex­cept that there wouldn’t be a dis­like but­ton. Cox wor­ried it was too soon to talk about the emo­tions Face­book picked. (Yay was ul­ti­mately re­jected be­cause “it was not uni­ver­sally un­der­stood,” says a Face­book spokesper­son.) Cox says he spent the next morn­ing pars­ing through re­sponses to the an­nounce­ment, read­ing what users thought the so­cial net­work needed and pre­par­ing to start over if nec­es­sary.

A few weeks later, the team be­gan test­ing Re­ac­tions in Spain and Ire­land, then Chile, the Philip­pines, Por­tu­gal, and Colom­bia. In early Jan­uary, Cox flew to Tokyo to sell Re­ac­tions to Ja­pan. “You can love some­thing, you can be sad about some­thing, you can laugh out loud at some­thing,” he said to a crowd of re­porters at Face­book’s of­fices in the Rop­pongi district. “We know on phones peo­ple don’t like to use key­boards, and we also know that the like but­ton does not al­ways let you say what you want.” He ex­plained Face­book’s goal: a uni­ver­sal vo­cab­u­lary that lets peo­ple ex­press emo­tion as they scroll through their feed. In a sense, Re­ac­tions is an adap­ta­tion of dig­i­tal cul­ture in Asia, where mes­sag­ing apps such as Line and Wechat have al­ready es­tab­lished a com­plex lan­guage of emo­jis and even more elab­o­rate “stickers.”

Cox says Re­ac­tions’ big­gest test so far was dur­ing the Novem­ber ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Paris. Users in the test coun­tries had op­tions other than like, and used them. “It just felt dif­fer­ent to use Face­book that day,” he says.

Face­book won’t give a spe­cific date for when Re­ac­tions will be in­tro­duced in the U.S. and around the world, just that it’ll be “in the next few weeks.” Cox says the data he has looks good and that users will take to Re­ac­tions, though he takes pains not to sound in any way tri­umphant. “We roll things out very care­fully,” he says. “And that comes from a lot of lessons learned.” <BW> �With Brad Stone and Hiroyuki Nak­a­gawa

Team Cox: Julie Zhou, Adam Mosseri, Cox, Fidji Simo, and Will Cath­cart

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