Katherine Losse was Facebook's 51st employee. After earning a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University in 2005, she got a job as a Facebook customer service representative — tasked with answering questions like "What is a poke?" In the course of five years, she became the personal ghostwriter for founder Mark Zuckerberg.
"I witnessed over those five years this huge transformation in how we lead our lives," she tells NPR's Tom Gjelten.
Losse left the company in 2010, partly over concerns about the way social networks were affecting her real-life relationships. She moved to Marfa, Texas, shut down her Facebook profile, and documented her experiences with the company in a book called The Boy Kings: A Journey Into the Heart of the Social Network.
Losse talks about how, for better or for worse, Facebook is changing the way we interact.
On leaving Facebook and deciding to unplug
"I witnessed that so many things were happening over the phone or over the Internet that I felt I almost would prefer to do it in a face-to-face setting, that there were certain kinds of information and experiences that we have that we were losing by doing things always digitally.
"So I thought it was a good time to kind of think about that and think about that balance."
On Facebook posting as performance
"When we post something online, in a way we're sharing information, but we're doing it in a different way. It's a much more performative way because we have sort of an audience. We can't exactly see them. It's almost like we're in a theater, and we're doing things on a stage because they're somewhere else. ...
"It did make us all more self-conscious. So, you know, you always have this question of should I do this online, or should I just, you know, keep it private. It becomes this question that we have to have all the time, like should we take a picture of the thing, or should we just experience it as it is in front of us. I think we're all kind of facing that question now in our lives."
On whether social media are inherently good or bad
"It's the extent to which we invite these technologies into our lives that I think really determines that answer. I think that, obviously, it's a great utility; we can connect to things really quickly, we can find out things much more quickly than we used to. But I think that there are moments when we really want to step back and say I really want to have this experience in an analog way, with sort of the full range of my experiences available to me, as opposed to doing it through a screen."
On changes to Facebook design
"One thing people should understand about any kind of technology is that these are constantly evolving technologies. The products change all the time. And so I think that's one of the tricky things for users, is that the product can change. And so you might have put your — you know, posted information when ... the product looked one way, and then the product changes, and the user has to adjust.
"I think that's a difficult thing for users to deal with sometimes, because sometimes it means that the privacy settings end up being slightly different than what they anticipated. And that's just sort of the nature, I think, of how these things develop. And it's something that users should be really conscious of as they're contributing to the system."
TOM GJELTEN, HOST:
And now we're going to talk about Facebook. Katherine Losse is our guest. She was Facebook's 51st employee. She left the company and wrote a book called "The Boy Kings: A Journey Into the Heart of the Social Network." Katherine joins us by phone from San Antonio. Thanks for calling - thanks for joining us on TALK OF THE NATION, Katherine.
KATHERINE LOSSE: Thank you, it's great to be here.
GJELTEN: So you left Silicon Valley, and now you're home on the range. How is it going? Are you happier?
LOSSE: Yeah, I found that after working in technology for five years, I really wanted to be in a different kind of environment, and Marfa is a very artsy place where technology isn't so much the focus.
GJELTEN: So you spent five years at Facebook, rising from customer service representative to ghost writer for Mark Zuckerberg, the company founder. You know the Facebook world from the inside. But you came to have concerns about how technology and social networking are changing modern life and relationships.
LOSSE: Yes, I did. I witnessed over those five years this huge transformation in how we lead our lives. You know, we were very successful at enabling that transformation, but I also feel like at this point it's a good time to take stock of the changes and to think about how we want to balance our lives with technology.
GJELTEN: And tell us about what your - what experiences you had that led you to that.
LOSSE: You know, I witnessed that so many things were happening over the phone or over the Internet that I felt I almost would prefer to do in a face-to-face setting, that there were certain kinds of information and experiences that we have that we were losing by doing things always digitally.
So I thought it was a good time to kind of think about that and think about that balance.
GJELTEN: You know, I was struck by something that you told a reporter. You said that when you're living in the social media world, everyday activities become a performance that's visible to everyone. What did you mean by that?
LOSSE: You know, it's interesting because when we post something online, in a way we're sharing information, but we're doing it in a different way. It's a much more performative way because we have sort of an audience. We can't exactly see them. It's almost like we're in a theater, and we're doing things on a stage because they're somewhere else.
So I think that changes the nature of our relationships, in a sense, when that's the primary way that we interact.
GJELTEN: I want to invite our listeners now to join us. What about you? Have you dropped Facebook or Twitter? Are you thinking about it? Tell us at 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Or join the conversation on our website, npr.org. Our guest is Katherine Losse from San Antonio, Texas. She's the author of a new book on her experience in the Facebook company.
So when you have this experience, your own personal experience, spending so much of your life sort of in the middle of the social network world - and as you say, you feel like your activities become a performance that is visible to everyone - does it change the way that you live? Did it change the way that you lived?
LOSSE: I think it did make us all more self-conscious. So, you know, you always had this question of should I do this online, or should I just, you know, keep it private. It becomes this question that we have to have all the time, like should we take a picture of this thing, or should we just experience it as it is in front of us. I think we're all kind of facing that question now in our lives.
GJELTEN: And do you have a feeling about whether social media are inherently good, or do you have concerns about them, or is simply neutral, does it depend on how people use them, experience them, et cetera?
LOSSE: I really think it's the extent to which we invite these technologies into our lives that I think really determines that answer. I think that, obviously, it's a great utility; we can connect to things really quickly, we can find out things much more quickly than we used to. But I think that there are moments when we really want to step back and say I really want to have this experience in an analog way, with sort of the full range of my experiences available to me, as opposed to doing it through a screen.
GJELTEN: And tell us how you did that personally, Katherine, what you did when you moved to Texas, away from Silicon Valley. You settled, I understand, in a little town in Texas. Tell us about the ways that social media are - you know, play a role in your life now.
LOSSE: Yeah. Well, I find that I actually feel perfectly comfortable deactivating my accounts and then reactivating them when I feel like using them. I think that might sound weird to some people, but to me, it's more like I can - you know, I can deactivate a social media account and just sort of do everything without that constant stream of notifications and photos and all of that. Or I can turn it on and have that. So I - that's sort of one of the ways that I found balance, is to choose when I wanted to be available online and interacting that way, and when I wanted not to be.
GJELTEN: Now, you said in the Washington Post that your book, "The Boy Kings," was an act of resistance. What exactly are you resisting?
LOSSE: So, I think the way that these technologies kind of work is that they are most successful, in a way, and profitable when they have access to this huge range of everything that's happening in the world. And I think by writing the book and sort of calling some of these things into question, I was saying that it's not necessarily always in the interest of the individual to be giving up all of this information, or to be posting things publicly.
I think that the user, an individual, has a place in figuring out how they want to do that. And I think the companies that are making this stuff also have to recognize that.
GJELTEN: What was the environment like at Facebook when you went there? Presumably, it was - you were drawn to the company in the first place, and, presumably, you enjoyed being there in the early years of your...
LOSSE: Oh, yeah.
LOSSE: It was - I mean, it was great fun. It's sort of the start-up dream. I - like, you start - you're with - at this company with a very small group of people. Everyone's really smart. Everyone's really excited. And you build something that, you know, is enormously successful. And that's what happened. So it was a wonderful time.
It was also a really kind of - you know, this huge change that I was a part of, and I think some people might think that it's completely positive. I was more interested in just the human way that it all - it affected us, both positively and, I think, possibly not so positively.
GJELTEN: But you were on the inside of that company, and you know what the company - you learned what the company was doing with the data of Facebook users, and you came to have some concerns about the privacy of that data and whether - and what people knew or didn't know about what data - what uses were being made of the data that they shared on Facebook.
LOSSE: Yeah. I think that one thing people should understand about any kind of technology is that these are constantly evolving technologies. The products change all the time. And so I think that's one of the tricky things for users, is that the product can change. And so you might have put your - you know, posted information when it - the product looked one way, and then the product changes, and the user has to adjust.
I think that's a difficult thing for users to deal with sometimes, because sometimes it means that the privacy settings end up being slightly different than what they anticipated. And that's just sort of the nature, I think, of how these things develop. And it's something that users should be really conscious of as they're contributing to the system.
GJELTEN: It really - it seems to me that what you're saying is that people need to kind of take charge of their own social media experience, be more aware of what the privacy settings are, how to use them and think twice about what they share and what they don't share.
LOSSE: Absolutely. And I think users should feel comfortable raising their voice to companies and saying, you know, we're important, and our needs are important and we want those to be considered.
GJELTEN: And have you reactivated your Facebook experience?
LOSSE: Yes. I mean, I kind of - I sort of go in and out, depending - so - yeah. So I use my Facebook account. I definitely get value out of it. But I also feel comfortable sometimes turning it off.
GJELTEN: OK. Let's go to some callers now to hear about - let's hear about your experiences with Facebook. Alex is on the line from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Good afternoon, Alex. Thanks for calling TALK OF THE NATION.
ALEX: Good afternoon. Thanks for having me. I actually just graduated from the University of Michigan, but I left Facebook after my sophomore year. It just became something that was kind of eating up a lot of extra time in my life, and it was also something where I thought my personal information was being bought and sold. And I didn't really like the idea that I was spending a lot of time on something where my personal information was just being bought and sold. And I don't know. I was kind of questioning why I was spending so much time on there anymore and not interacting with people in real life, especially - and I think that buying and selling the information has added, you know, a little more sinister, in some way.
GJELTEN: Well, Katherine, to what extent - I mean, Facebook is a profit-making company. It's not as profitable now as investors thought it might be a few weeks ago, but it is a profit-seeking company. And what about Alex's concerns about the way that they are selling that information?
LOSSE: Yeah. I mean, it's - that's a tricky thing. You know, the company has to make money to run the servers and grow, but also, it needs to keep in mind that users want their experience to be, you know, protected and respected. So I think that's something that is going to be really tricky for any of these companies as they become, you know, big and seek out profits.
GJELTEN: You know, Katherine, one of the questions that you raise in your book is you write: What kind of a world is Facebook trying to build, and is it the world we want to live in? Now, because Facebook is a profit-seeking organization, does it really think in terms of what kind of world it wants to build, or is it much more bottom-line oriented, that - you said in the beginning that, you know, a lot of idealistic, creative people at Facebook - particularly in the beginning - do they have this kind of vision of building a different kind of world? Or are they just interested in making money?
LOSSE: I actually think that the global vision is really important to the company. I think this idea of making the world open and connected is something that a lot of people really believe who work at Facebook. And I think what's interesting about that is just sort of, what does that mean to all of us, and what does it mean to the company? And how can we align that so that everyone, you know, feels that it is a positive?
GJELTEN: Let's go now to Carla, who's on the line from Columbus, Ohio. Carla's one of the callers who's sharing her Facebook experiences. Thanks for the call, Carla.
CARLA: Hi. Yes. I was just calling to say I don't personally have a Facebook account, but I have four children in high school and college who do. And what I've observed is that the kids just interact - it seems to me that they interact a lot to create poses and to create pictures to put on Facebook to show everyone else what they're missing out on and what they've done, versus actually having fun with their friends just for the sake of having fun and going out to do things. It's all a performance, like your guest said.
GJELTEN: Yeah. Well, in fact, kids use Facebook for some totally innocent purposes, and other purposes, as well. Right, Katherine?
LOSSE: Yeah. And I think that's why people need to be really conscious of how they're feeling when they're using these technologies and how much they want to be using them, and also that feel comfortable not using them at some points and saying, you know, I want to just enjoy this moment with my friends, and that there's benefits to that that I might not get if I am worrying about what all the other people I know think about what I'm doing right now.
GJELTEN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And I have a tweet, here. As a musician, I want to drop Facebook. We've got a lot of callers and writers who're saying they want to drop Facebook. Marion Call(ph) says: They've made the pages impossible to work with. But he can't drop Facebook, because all his customers are there. Of course, Facebook and you - do you have a Facebook page for your book, by the way, Katherine?
LOSSE: Actually, I haven't made one. It wasn't even a conscious decision, as so much as I've been so busy. So it's true. I think, actually, for distribution and promotion of any product, it's a wonderful thing, because you get - you know, people can become fans and then they can receive updates. And that's a great method of distribution. So I think that's one challenge that a lot of people face is, you know, I might not necessarily want to put my whole personal life online, but I also need to distribute, you know, my products to the world. And this is a good way to do it.
GJELTEN: Let's hear now from Eric, who's on the line from Des Moines, Iowa. Good afternoon, Eric.
ERIC: Good afternoon. Yeah, I'm looking - I've had it for a few years. I'm 50, and I've had it for a few years, just because there were some family things that I wanted to see. But I'm, you know, very cognizant of the fact that everybody - you know, that it's a wide audience out there. So I always script what I put on there to make sure that I know exactly it's presenting a position that I'm looking to present.
And - but I just think it's one of those things that - I go there two or three times a week, look at a few people that I like and interested in what they're posting. And most of it, I find kind of silly.
GJELTEN: Yeah. Well, better silly than worse.
GJELTEN: All right. Let's go now. Thanks, Eric. And I want to get another call in here. Randy's on the line from - Randy's on the line from McCall, Idaho. Good afternoon, Randy.
RANDY: Good afternoon. Enjoy the show (unintelligible).
GJELTEN: Thank you very much.
RANDY: The comment I wanted to make is I both love and hate Facebook, and I don't even use it. Honestly, it's - I couldn't get on Facebook if I tried, because my wife has tried to put me there. But it's one of those situations where, first of all, I think it's here to stay. The people who enjoy it enjoy it, but I refer to myself as a Facebook widower. My wife - she's so much on Facebook, and that's fine. It's entertaining.
But where I hate it is people do things on Facebook they just would never do with each other. They would never say the things they say. They would never have the comments available. And so that removes the human element, and it becomes this other entity. But the reason that I really dislike it is the information that can be there that you didn't intend. I had a situation where my wife was life-flighted. I live in a rural community. It's not unusual to be life-flighted to a hospital, because that's the way we get there the quickest. We're in the mountains.
And, unfortunately, before I could contact my own children and let them know - they're grown children - her brother had posted on Facebook: Please pray for my sister. She's being life-flighted. So my two kids who are on Facebook, unbeknownst to me, see this long before I can say anything to them, and they have to contact me to find out what's happening with their mother. So it was one of those - just a - not a careless mishap, just business as usual for the people who use Facebook, but passed right by me.
GJELTEN: Well, thank you very much for sharing that, Randy. But this goes exactly to your point, Katherine, about how Facebook and other social media have really changed the way we communicate, what we say about each other, And it's changed the - sort of the limits of what we say. We say things in writing that we would never say in person. And that's one of the reasons that you have concerns about it, isn't it?
LOSSE: Yeah. And I guess that's a great example of the complicatedness of this, that we're so used now to posting things to the public that something that really should be communicated privately first, it's just hard to even remember to do that now. So I think I'm - I guess that's one of the things I'm trying to say, is that if we're - if we become more conscious of what we're doing, perhaps we can develop some techniques, maybe, to manage or perhaps do things in a way that both preserves our human relationships the way we want them, and also allows for the kind of public statements that, you know, sometimes are perfectly harmless.
GJELTEN: Well, Katherine Losse is the author of "The Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network." You can read about what happened to her when she got a friend request from Mark Zuckerberg in an excerpt of the book on our website, npr.org. Katherine joined us today from San Antonio, Texas. Thanks very much for being with us, Katherine.
LOSSE: Thank you.
GJELTEN: And, tomorrow, a new effort to plug the leaks in Washington. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Tom Gjelten, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.