Saturday, October 26, 2019

A Facebook story

There’s a story I’ve been shy about telling lately because it may be too garishly pro-Facebook and cause unnecessary ruckus. But it’s a good story, and being on the cusp of 30 feels weirdly existential, like “I better not die with these stories.”

I joined Facebook full-time in March 2013. The following month I was in the engineering spinup program called Bootcamp when the Boston Marathon bombing happened. Marathon Monday. I don’t remember how I first found out: probably by seeing stories about it in newsfeed.

But, I do clearly remember the moment—I was sitting in one of those living-room-esque couch areas after getting help from office hours—when I saw the Facebook post from my then-boyfriend’s cofounder (let’s call him R).

The post was simple: it had attached to it a news article about the bombing, and the preview photo showed a middle-aged man, his head and legs covered in blood, in a wheelchair. The post said: my parents were at the finish line, and the way I found out is my brother just sent me this news article and that’s my dad in the wheelchair. We don’t know where they are. They’re not picking up our calls. We don’t know what to do.

Many factors came together in that moment. R happened to have a number of college friends who were then in medical schools in the Boston area. They happened to be on Facebook, probably following the news, and saw R’s post. And they started piling in to help, each person commenting: “I have connections at Boston Medical. I’ll check there.” “I’ll check Mass General.” I sat glued to the screen, refreshing the page.

In 12 minutes, someone located his dad, and in 24 minutes, his mom. They were at different hospitals.

The whole time, I sat stunned. The situation was horrible—I couldn’t imagine being in R’s shoes, finding out the news in that way. As the comments played out, another part of me was enraptured. Magic was happening. What was the alternative? How much time calling hospitals on busy phone lines?

R’s parents ended up being not among the luckiest nor the unluckiest. Two days later, he shared a link on Facebook to raise money for their recovery. I had contributed to causes like this before, but this time it felt viscerally, deeply personal. It happened so close to home, in a city I loved, and I very much believed: it could have been me.

In those days, Facebook’s weekly Q&A on Fridays would end with a story. That Friday featured a video from a group of Facebookers who had been running the marathon. They were lucky to have been far from the finish line, and they talked about how they used Facebook to let their friends and family know they were safe. When they finished, I immediately I thought, “That’s cool, but R’s story is way better. I should have said something.”

As fate would have it, moments later I approached the dinner line, and right at the end of the line, browsing his phone, evidently there by himself, was Mark Zuckerberg. In my next two and three-quarters years at Facebook, a setup like this would never happen again. And in that moment something deep inside me spoke: “I have to tell Mark. The product did an amazing thing. He should know!”

To this day I don’t have what you’d call “executive presence,” but back then let’s just say I wasn’t even aware of the concept. I was emotional due to the nature of the story and extra nervous because it was Mark. I went up to him and tapped him on the arm, and he looked up. Some words, very stilted blubbering, came out of my mouth. It was pretty bad, folks—I had a hard time even understanding myself, because my tongue was not working. But Mark got the gist and said, “That sounds awful!” [0] And I felt like I had done what I set out to do, although I hoped to be forgotten. [1]

Anyway. This story is one of the reasons why I remain optimistic about Facebook as a thing. It reminds me of the great good that Facebook has enabled, and will continue to enable, in a time when we mostly shine light on the bad. We need to talk about both. There is no single purely good thing in the world: medicine can cure your loved ones, as well as people you’d rather have dead; a knife can be used to make a sandwich, or stab someone.

This is the messy human condition: we perpetually try to create good and mitigate bad, while perpetually disagreeing on what’s good and bad… all the while each of us seeing only the slice of the world we can see.

[0] He then asked who I was and what I worked on, and when I said “Public Content,” he said, “the eng side or the business side?” and I was relieved to be able to answer, “the eng side.”

[1] Months later this hope was dashed. A story for another time.

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