Processing Life as a Tech Worker
We don’t talk enough about the mental health challenges that come with working in high pressure situations
Before I get to the topic of this week’s newsletter I want to say welcome to my new subscribers. Thanks to Substack’s new recommendations feature and the generosity of Big Technology, FWIW, 7 Bridges, and Real Best Life I’ve jumped to nearly 1,300 people reading every week. I hope you enjoy it and please send feedback! Also, check out those other newsletters. They are fantastic reads.
Ok on to this week’s topic.
Every week a conversation keeps popping up more and more between myself, those I worked with at Facebook, and with folks at the Integrity Institute - the challenges we’re having processing everything we’ve gone through over the years.
People are lonely. They’re missing the community that we had. They’re reliving tough times over and over as documents are leaked, hearings happen or they’re asked to talk to the January 6th commission. It can feel like they are being blamed for everything that happened, that no one understands what it was like on the inside and that they’re being mocked for the work they did.
I have struggled with this myself not just after leaving Facebook but ever since Election Day 2016. Over the course of those years, I had to deal with all sorts of things from public attacks on Twitter and cable from the right and the left when I was the public face of a decision - including having Rachel Maddow do a segment on me. I had to save my teams from being dismantled or broken apart until the time came in 2019 when I couldn’t stop it and I lost the job and team I loved the most.
Every day my colleagues and I sat in front of people who rightfully had a lot of things to say to us. It was our job to defend the company. I’ll never forget the day when I went straight from one meeting with folks on the left to one with folks on the right. It was like whiplash.
For my colleagues on civic integrity, every day was a struggle to not only figure out all the bad things happening on the platform but come up with ways to try to solve them and fight to get those solutions launched. We faced impossible tradeoffs numerous times a day where reasonable people could disagree on what the solutions should be. You worked day in and day out to do what you could but you always knew there was so much more to do and you couldn’t stop the elections that just kept happening. In addition to the immense pressure you put on yourself, you faced daily criticism from your colleagues and from the outside world.
All the while the crises never stopped. There’s always an election happening around the world. Then COVID hit, the racial justice protests, the 2020 election, January 6th, more teams broken up, no chance to support one another in person, and people started going their separate ways.
Then you have reams of documents that you wrote or worked on dropped without your knowledge and you were right back in those moments. Those endless nights of putting together a slide deck for a meeting with leadership the next day where you had no idea what direction they would choose. You’re asked to do the impossible in a short period of time and then you face even more pressure when what you built doesn’t work perfectly. That pit in your stomach returns just as if you had been transported back in time to that chair in the operations center.
I’ve been trying to work on a book about how tech has impacted democracy over the last twenty years and what we can learn from that for the next twenty. As part of that, I started reading some of my journals from the 2017-2019 time period. I could only do a little bit at a time as re-reading it all spiked my anxiety all over again.
Now, I’m sure some of you are sitting there being like give me a break. You chose to work and stay at the company for ten years. You were very well compensated to deal with all of that. You were a part of the problem and you should be held accountable for what the company did or didn’t do. So stop whining.
Those things are all very true and fair. I should be held accountable for my role in all of this and I’m trying to hold myself accountable too. But, it doesn’t change that it’s hard and it’s taken a toll.
If you are someone who worked or works in tech on these issues know that you aren’t alone. More and more people I know are burnt out and considering just getting out of the integrity/trust and safety field altogether. The detox process of leaving a company like Facebook is real and something that takes time. If this is you and you want a community of folks who know what it’s like please do reach out to me or the Integrity Institute. We’re here for you in whatever way is the most helpful.
For those who work or write on these issues outside of the tech companies. We’re not asking you to be any less harsh on us when looking back at what worked or didn’t work, but we’re just asking that you remember these are real people whose work you are talking about. People who often were in varying positions of decision-making power and were doing their best to enact change from the inside.
Programming note: Next week I’ll be in Greece for a friend’s wedding. I likely will skip doing a newsletter unless something huge breaks. Also, happy Mother’s Day to all the moms, aunties, godmothers, and grandmothers out there - especially mine!
What I’m Reading
New York Times: How Tucker Carlson Reshaped Fox News — and Became Trump's Heir
Wall Street Journal: Former Facebook, WhatsApp Employees Lead New Push to Fix Social Media
Washington Examiner: Conservatives eager to see return of political ads on Twitter under Musk
Echelon Insights: Mapping TV Viewership by Party and Turnout
Bipartisan Policy Center: US Midterm Primaries and the War in Ukraine
Center for an Informed Public: The rise of “trafficking” language in ballot collection narratives
National Democratic Institute: FOSStering Democracy - Threats and Successes in Counter-Authoritarian Software Development
Other Interesting Stuff
In Lieu of Fun, Episode 629: Del Harvey Talks Twitter (for real this time)
Book Launch by Roseann Cheng: Portable Magic, How to Write and Publish a Great Book
President Obama: Speaking at Copenhagen Democracy Summit
Topics to keep an eye on that have a general timeframe of the first half of the year:
EU Passage of DSA and DMA
Facebook 2020 election research
Oversight Board opinion on cross-check
Senate & House hearings, markups, and potential votes
May 9 - Philippines elections
May 17 - North Carolina and Pennsylvania Primaries (Open Senate races)
May 20 - All Tech is Human: Responsible Tech Summit: Improving Digital Spaces
May 21 (On or before) - Australia elections
May 23 (tentative): World Economic Forum, Davos
May 24 - Alabama and Georgia Primaries (AL open Senate race, GA Warnock defending seat)
May 29 - Colombia elections
June 6 (week of): Summit of the Americas, Los Angeles, CA
June 6-10: RightsCon, Online
June 6 - 7: Atlantic Council 360/Open Summit
June 9 - 10: Copenhagen Democracy Summit, Copenhagen, Denmark
June 25 - July 1: Aspen Ideas Festival, Aspen, Colorado
June 14 - Nevada Primary (Cortez Masto defending Senate seat)
August: Angola elections
August 2 - Arizona and Missouri Primaries (AZ Kelly defending Senate seat, MO open Senate race)
August 9 - Wisconsin Primary (Ron Johnson defending Senate seat)
August 9 - Kenya elections
September 11 - Sweden elections
September 13 - New Hampshire Primary (Hassan defending Senate seat)
September 13 - 27: UN General Assembly
Sept 20 - High-level general debate begins
September 28 - 30: Athens Democracy Forum
October 2 and 30 - Brazil
November 8 - United States Midterms