When Facebook vice president of growth Javier Olivan started working at the company in 2007, it was a small startup in Palo Alto with “only” 50 million people active on the network. Fast forward ten years and it now has two billion users per month.
But Olivan isn’t content to rest on his laurels, and he sees plenty room left for expansion. “I mean, there are two billion people using the product. There are seven billion people in the world, so we still have many more people to connect,” he says, without a hint of hubris.
Speaking on a business trip to London, Olivan is sat beside London-based engineering manager Vlad Gorelik, whose team focuses on safety and security, including redesigning account security settings and building machine learning tools to help detect content that contravenes Facebook’s community standards.
Reaching new users
Growing Facebook, says Olivan, essentially boils down to two things: improving user experience and removing any remaining barriers to access. In the early days, this could be as simple as translating Facebook into different languages. Now, it could mean making sure Facebook works well on low-end phones and in areas with low connectivity.
For example, when considering new ways to authenticate users without requiring a conventional numbers-and-letters password, Gorelik’s team needs to make sure that alternatives will still work on a feature phone. “You need to figure out how to solve the problem of keeping someone secure at the same time as preventing difficulties they will encounter from accessing Facebook,” he says.
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One recent challenge came when engineers found that, in certain parts of the world, multiple people were using Facebook accounts on the same phone. “Then we realised ‘Oh, this is actually families sharing a device,’” says Olivan. “And we were making it really hard for those guys to use Facebook. You have to every time log out, then log back in again, remember your password…”
Focus on video
Growing the platform also means investing in new products. Recently, Facebook has started eyeing-up video, launching livestreaming service Facebook Live in 2015 and announcing Watch, a platform that will host regular TV shows. “Video is a natural evolution in the format – from text and photos, video is obviously the next medium, then you can keep going forward to virtual reality – things like that where we’re already investing,” says Olivan.
But new formats aren’t without difficulty, and Facebook Live in particular has been criticised for allowing users to broadcast objectionable content, including murders and sexual assaults. While tools like keyword analysis and image recognition can be used on text and still images to help proactively spot inappropriate content, videos pose a bigger challenge to automated tools, and moderating them still relies heavily on other users flagging things for review. As a result, some of these videos remained on the site for hours before being taken down. In other cases, Facebook has been criticised for not consistently applying its rules on what is and what isn’t allowed on the platform.
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Olivan admits that Facebook “needs to do better.”
New AI tools
Data collected from users flagging inappropriate content is also fed into machine learning algorithms to help develop and improve automated moderating capabilities. “Basically, we use that information to help the machines understand context, to understand what people’s preferences are, and to use that to help understand what other content that hasn’t been flagged directly we should be worried about on the site,” says Gorelik.
Tools Facebook has developed include using photo-matching technology aimed at preventing the non-consensual sharing of sexual images, or “revenge porn”, and a variety of tools for dealing with posts related to suicide and self-harm.
A lot of this work happens in the London office, which has Facebook’s biggest engineering team outside of the US. They work on a lot of different technologies, says Gorelik, but all come back to the same question: “How do you build user experiences for two billion people?”
The next billion
As for attracting the next billion users, Olivan says it’ll take a lot of effort. “It gets harder and harder, because the people coming online now are not as tech-savvy as the people who joined ten years ago,” he says.
Some may be new to the internet and unfamiliar with concepts like accounts and passwords, never mind how Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm works or how to report a problem. “I think even if it’s just going from two billion people to three billion people, the amount of effort required is really like tenfold.”