Facebook execs could use some adult supervision

Facebooks' executive team is incredibly young and inexperienced. Is Silicon Valley ageism contributing to flawed product design?

I know that being a parent has got to be the uncoolest perspective in Silicon Valley. After all, it's much more cutting edge to be libertarian, 23 years old, working 24/7 and sleeping on a futon in your cube.

But no one stays that way forever (thank goodness), and I'd like to think that those of us who have moved down the road a few years have a lot to add to technology design. With Facebook's Beacon plansblowing up this week, you can really see what happens when new "features" are added by twentysomethings who are coding and rolling out products as fast as they can.

I'm proposing a new job title to add to Facebook's Executive Team: VP of Adult Supervision.

My suggestion is only half-joking. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg was called out for ageism earlier this year after he stressed the importance of "only [hiring] young people with technical expertise."

The problem is that Facebook's users aren't only people like their mind-blowingly young executives and programmers. A large proportion of their users are over 35. We don't appreciate having our privacy stomped on, and just because we want to participate in social networks, we don't necessarily want to live our lives in an exhibitionist fishbowl. Product design suffers when a grown-up perspective is not taken into account.

Those of us who are parents are are also concerned about our kids interacting with the online world. I can't emphasize strongly enough how much extra stress and responsibility this has added to the already challenging task of raising children. I was in a group of six women yesterday, all of us mothers with kids ages 7 to 13. We were meeting for a business networking lunch but we ended up having a lively discussion about our internet concerns. It would have made an excellent focus group for any product design team. Two people in the group had dealt with the problem of their eight-year-old sons being exposed to violent pornography while visiting someone else's house. The parents of the kids who showed their sons the porn were not aware of the problem. Talking about sex with an eight-year-old is already difficult enough. No parent wants to have to explain pornography and rape to their third grader.

Another Mom in the group had a situation that was less traumatic but still instructive. She found out that her seven-year-old was surfing YouTube on the elementary school library computer. The kids are barely old enough to read the safety message on the school computer that says that they are only allowed to go online with adult supervision, yet they can find YouTube on their own. I am not blaming any one company for these incidents, but as we wade through the implications of technology, it is frustrating to know that the products are often created by teams who do have access to a parent's point of view. I find it ironic that many programmers are incredibly concerned about network security but do not consider online safety to be part of their responsibility, and I've heard more than one programmer admit that his point of view changed dramatically once he had children of his own.

So while Facebook has been in the hot seat this week (see Kara Swisher's brilliant "decoding" of Zuckerberg's apology), this problem is endemic in fast-moving tech companies. Within the torrent of venture capital funding, code, and media glare, there needs to be more room for executives who are looking at the big picture, not just trying to be the next big thing.

 

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