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Breaking Bad vs. Facebook: 10 things Walt’s meth lab and Zuck’s Facebook have in common

Some comparisons are simply too compelling to pass up, especially when they seem so unlikely, yet under the covers, turn out to be startling in their alignments. Such is the comparison between the creation and maintenance of Walter White’s successful meth lab business as depicted in the hit AMC Series “Breaking Bad” and the creation and maintenance of Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook. It turns out that Walt and Zuck are, for the most part, on the same page. For those who take offense to such a comparison, think again.

Common Factor 1: Both business models are based on the concept of the ultimate HACK.

At the core of Breaking Bad is the story of how a hapless high school chemistry teacher with terminal cancer emerges as a meth lord by cooking his own special form of crystal meth – all in the interest of leaving money for his family when he is gone. Walter White achieves this objective with amazing dramatic effect by employing a mind-bending combination of creativity, terrorizing behavior and constantly morphing meth production and distribution techniques where the only thing that really matters is getting his meth on the street and cash in hand. This is a story about makeshift chemistry, not about real chemistry. Walt is exceedingly capable at this form of makeshift mayhem.

breaking-bad-walt-jesse-cooking
Copyright AMC, All Rights Reserved

However, as any knowledgeable chemist will tell you, cooking meth is a chemical HACK whereby those with minimal working knowledge can produce a reasonable product by combining commonly available substances, ranging from cold medicine to base chemicals. In the real world, a meth cook cares only about one thing: is the product good enough to sell and if not, what needs to be changed to make the next batch acceptable to their clientele? Meth production is about doing not thinking. It is about trial and error, not science. How can this possibly be the same model employed by Zuck and crew in the “cooking” of Facebook? The parallel is startling. One can discern from 20,000 feet the obvious alignment.

hackcampus

A fly over of the new Facebook campus reveals the word “Hack” so large that all else seems meaningless, aside from Facebook’s sheer size, which rivals a mid-sized university campus. In the hundreds of building occupied by Facebook scattered over the planet, the word (and process of the) HACK is ever present, both typographically and, more important, conceptually. The idea of the HACK pushes the entire development culture of Facebook. How do we know? Look no further than the mission statement of Facebook, written by Zuck himself. Here it is in full quote:

The Hacker Way: “We have cultivated a unique culture and management approach that we call the Hacker Way…In reality, hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done. Like most things, it can be used for good or bad, but the vast majority of hackers I’ve met tend to be idealistic people who want to have a positive impact on the world. The Hacker Way is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration. Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it — often in the face of people who say it’s impossible or are content with the status quo…..Hacking is also an inherently hands-on and active discipline. Instead of debating for days whether a new idea is possible or what the best way to build something is, hackers would rather just prototype something and see what works. There’s a hacker mantra that you’ll hear a lot around Facebook offices: “Code wins arguments” (Facebook S-1, Page 69)

One might paraphrase this statement by simply saying, “Cook up the code and see if it sells. If not, try a new batch.” Ok, code is not meth but the way of thinking is exactly the same. The entire culture of Facebook is based on this same idea of the HACK, where teams of early life-stage programmers cobble together features by combining well understood and widely available base elements, including common programming languages, server infrastructure and Wall Street capital. These teams of 20-somethings dump their HACKS on a billion or so open-minded souls who either find the HACK useful or not, understandable or not, terrorizing or not (think privacy settings), or simply stupid or not. Success is determined by what sells on the street. In the same way that meth production is not about thinking but about doing, so is Zuck’s massive well-funded HACK. One can take the position that the concept of the HACK in Facebook software development is nothing more than an excuse for sloppy execution. However, as in meth production and Facebook development, it can be successful until it isn’t.

Common Factor 2: Both lack all manner of management theory and practice.

In Walter White’s world, his entire endeavor is constantly ready to implode around him, due to his inexperience as a meth lord, his holier-than-thou attitude, and the independent action and misdirected interests of his associates. To say that there is a lack of management in Walt’s world is an understatement. Walt’s assistant Jesse repeatedly ignores Walter’s directions and makes decisions that threaten the entire enterprise. He has a mind of his own that Walter cannot seem to manage. Mismanagement, by the way, is a major dramatic arc of Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad. Those who distribute for Walter also go in their own direction repeatedly, without regard for implications in terms of jail time or loss of life. Chaos reins, but still the product, Walter’s highly desirable Blue Meth, hits the street in prodigious quantities. In Bad, Walt runs a highly profitable business, not by management but by mismanagement. This is what one might expect to encounter in the meth biz.

Jesse talking to Walk on couch
Copyright AMC, All Rights Reserved

However, when this same management style shows up in a listed company with a 119 billion dollar market cap, one is struck by the similarities. Famous are the stories of new high-paid executives hired by Facebook to run development teams who meet with their new staff only to find that their entire team pays no attention to their direction. Their new charges simply go right back to HACKING on what personally interests them, disregarding any form of management direction or oversight. In this regard, when such management issues surface at Zuck’s FB, the institutionalized refrain refers back to the corporate motto; “Code settles arguments”. These executives either depart in a bewildered state, after top management refuses to intervene, or they convert to HACKING their own single-minded projects. This apparently runs top to bottom and is how Zuck “cooks” the code at Facebook. In terms of management style, apparently both Walt and Zuck suck.

However, sometimes development managers at FB apparently manage a team toward a common objective. This is only a rumor, not verified. There are parallels in the meth biz as portrayed in Bad. In the meth-scape there are the well-understood turf wars over who is selling Walter’s Blue Crystal Meth and in what area of Albuquerque. Middle-level distributors who work for Walter White routinely wreak all manner of exceedingly violent havoc on competitive meth distributors as they vie for the cash and power afforded by those who control what gets sold to whom. This same structural management problem is well understood at Facebook and has been the source of many articles and posts by internal and departed FB employees up and down the experience chain. Take, for example, this little gem from Business Insider, Facebook’s Recruiting Problem Explained:

“It’s not a tight close-knit team. They fight each other and the strain shows throughout the organization. If Facebook had a mature, seasoned CEO, it might be a very different environment. I have lot of respect for Mark, but he’s not a CEO. He doesn’t know how to groom a team. The execs just don’t trust each other. To the extent there’s mistrust in the organization that’s really toxic.”

This is just another way of saying that both Walt and Zuck create and curate in world of mismanagement and their troops feel the pain.

Common Factor 3: Both constantly change the rules for getting one’s hands on the product.

In Breaking Bad, Walt and his associate Jesse are constantly changing the rules of the Blue Meth game: first creating a mobile meth lab, then joining with a drug lord and cooking in a super high-tech lab, then killing the drug lord and setting up their own production and distribution channels. Changing the price of their product, changing who distributes the product, and forming and dissolving (literally) associates and partnerships is routine operating procedure in Bad. All this uncertainty leads to truly disturbing and seriously violent outcomes. In the meth biz, rules change everyday and Walter only reveals changes to the rules when they benefit his business model. This behavior has been characterized by the adage “Act now, beg forgiveness later (if caught).” It is no surprise that this motto goes hand-in-hand with living by the HACK. No company in modern business history has institutionalized this process more completely than Facebook, where the rules change so frequently and with such self-serving benefit that Facebook makes Walt’s meth business look positively stable by comparison.

There is a large body of research and commentary on Facebook’s constantly changing terms and conditions. For example, Electronic Frontier Foundation says in, Facebook’s Eroding Privacy Policy: A Timeline:

“During the last two years, Facebook has made a bewildering number of changes to its site – many of which can see personal data being laid open to advertisers, ‘friends of friends’ or the world. These changes often happen with no warning, and little explanation. In the last 18 months, Facebook has changed its privacy policies eight times – including changes that automatically tell people where you are, and a change that let third parties access users’ telephone numbers and addresses. In a survey, 48% of users agreed that, ‘I can’t keep up with the number of changes Facebook has made to its data security settings.’”

When changing the FB Terms and Conditions became too worrisome, what did Zuck and crew do? Here is the answer according to a Forbes article:

“The most striking change for many was that Facebook doesn’t actually have a ‘privacy policy’ anymore. It renamed its Privacy Policy a “Data Use Policy” last fall, which is probably what all companies should call their privacy policies. Most are dedicated to describing the extent to which companies will exploit the data they have on you, and calling it a “privacy policy” gives consumers (who rarely read these) the false sense that their privacy is protected on any site that has one” (Forbes (2012), Facebook Uses Boring Terms Of Service Change To Ding ‘Other’ Internet Companies)

Common Factor 4: Both are based on the concept of “Stay focused and keep shipping.”

In Walter White’s world, there is only one overriding business objective and that is to “keep shipping”, no matter what it takes. This theme runs through the entire 5/6 seasons of the show. Meeting this business imperative involves cooking meth in an RV camper, in Jesse’s basement, in an underground bunker below an industrial laundry, in peoples’ homes while their homes are being exterminated for pests…to name only a few.

Jesse_crate_of_blue
Copyright AMC, All Rights Reserved

 

In the world of Breaking Bad, nothing gets in the way of pushing the product to the street. For a drug biz, nothing else really makes sense.

However, in the context of Facebook, a reasonable question might be: Is this anyway to run a multi-billion dollar endeavor with thousands of software developers HACKING away to their hearts content without management oversight, product planning, user testing or even the smallest semblance of “thinking” before “doing”?

Facebook_Launch_Now

So important is the concept of “ship product now” at Facebook that it is conveyed in posters, media presentations, and in everyday dialogue as a key attribute of the Facebook development culture. This demand by Zuck to produce as fast as possible, without concern for what might get broken including the well-being of certain user profiles, is so pervasive that posters describing such behavior cover the walls of FB development labs the world over. It is no stretch to see that Walt’s meth biz and Zuck’s FB operated on essentially the same management theory and practice.

 

move fast and break things poster

 

For the most part, success at Facebook is determined by how frequently one can HACK and launch a feature or innovation that WORKS. Little else matters except get the product in the hands of the largest number of users possible and see what happens. A New York Magazine article, Bubble Boys, the writer makes the following related observation:

“This launch-now-iterate-later approach puts power in the hands of the doers rather than the thinkers. Business students with an idea but no tech background are often left twisting”

There is apparently another persistent refrain describing the conflict between thinking, planning and code pounding: “Code talks, planning walks.” However, there are other alignments worth noting. Some humorous and others less so.

Common Factor 5: Both subscribe to the concept: People sometimes die…so what?

In Vince Gilligan’s compelling narrative, those who come into contact with Walter White’s business model meet their demise in surprising numbers and in truly violent ways. This genre of adult cable TV, first plumbed by The Sopranos, employs prodigious levels of death and mayhem to make the point that Walter’s business has its upside and downside for those who engage with either Walter or the high-potency product he produces. Ok, people who use his product sometimes die…so what?

WaltShoots2
Copyright AMC, All Rights Reserved

Depending on your point of view, to characterize Facebook as adopting the same perspective is, not really a wild stretch. Billions of users interact with Facebook and some of those who make use of its amazing information delivery mechanism are driven to desperate acts, including suicide. While Walt makes the cost/benefit trade-off at almost every turn, arguably Facebook does much the same. FB opposes all manner of restraint with respect to moderating either access to or use of its massively potent social currency engine that sometimes drives users of FB over the edge, which means, yes, some die…so what?

So aggressive are both Walt and Zuck in running their businesses without either conscience or restraint, that it bends the mind. It is likely that younger and more impressionable group of users of FB are most at risk. It is even more surprising how FB deals with better child protection measures. Take Facebook’s recent highly aggressive stance opposing changes to the COPPA (Child Online Privacy Protection Act) (COPPA Rule Review, 16 CFR Part 312, Project No. P104503). Zuck and crew went to bat big time against changes that would have imperiled FB plug-in use and would have likely protected children with better privacy controls.  If you are so inclined, here is the link to Zucks’ FB response to the FCC COPPA review. (http://ftc.gov/os/comments/copparulereview2012/561789-00100-84302.pdf). Clearly, Zuck had better lawyers than Walt…not to take anything away from Saul, who could talk his way out of almost any dire situation. So apparently can Zuck’s counsel when it comes to updating COPPA in the interest of protecting the online privacy of kids.

Common Factor 6: Both are focused on constantly changing the customer experience for their own benefit, not the customers’.

A central theme of Whites’ business model is the creation of a constantly changing relationship between the user’s stuff (Blue Meth on the street) and where to find it. In Bad, addicts are repeatedly left to search out White’s highly desirable product, based on Walter’s changing distribution channels and production processes. No one would deny that Facebook employs exactly this thinking, as it consistently changes-up the user experience design to alter access to the user’s stuff (personal information and updates). It is no accident that managing one’s privacy settings, when faced with such persistent changes to the FB customer experience is not without its challenges. Updating the Facebook UX benefits Facebook by pushing open the sharing engine and related social currency on which the Facebook business model is based. This leads to the ultimate question: What is the real psychological and physiological link between Walt’s Blue Meth and Zuck’s Facebook?

Common Factor 7: Both are likely scientifically valid forms of addiction.

No one except a meth addict will deny that meth is an addictive and hideous drug. Highly damaging addictive behaviors are created in those who engage with the substance. Meth addiction leads to very serious, life-threatening health problems and devastating social consequences. What does this have to do with Zuck’s Facebook?

The most recent research dealing with addiction as a personal and social disease has begun investigating the question of whether or not our new devices and related interactive new media experiences have the physiological and psychological influence on our behavior that suggests or actually defines the impact as formal addiction. These new media experiences can and do become addictions in much the same way chemical substances do. Research on whether or not Facebook can and does become an addiction is not formally recognized in the DSM, but it is likely to be in the near future. There are now formal tests for both Internet and Facebook addictions. These are addictions in some of the ways that meth is an addiction. The stimulus that leads to Facebook addiction is not the same as a chemical substance like Walt’s Blue Meth. The FB addiction is more likely based on other base traits of the human psychosocial mind that we know crave information about our social group and our own social status within that group. There has never been anything like Facebook’s ability to deliver such high levels of social currency exchange. This makes it much like Walter White’s Blue Meth. We cannot really help ourselves; some of us are just addicted. Of course crystal meth is far harder to acquire than logging onto Zuck’s massive social currency generator. What does it mean when accessing technology that is known to create highly addicted behavior in some users is basically frictionless? At least Walt’s drug of choice required a pocket full of cash, a ride to the bad part of town, and possible jail time. In terms of accessibility, Zuck trumps Walt every time. (See the citations list at the end of the piece for more on Facebook addiction)

Common Factor 8: Both can make piles of cash without working that hard.

In Breaking Bad, early on Walt thinks success is determined by how much meth he can cook. The more he can cook, the more money he can make. In the context of the Gilligan narrative, this theme weaves in and out of the series in a very compelling manner. However, it turns out that solving the meth production problem is not really the major gating function to success. What White discovers is that he can scale production but he cannot scale distribution without a massive set of new problems. Much to Walt’s surprise, those who distribute meth are a seriously deranged bunch – violent and unreliable in the extreme. Therefore, more meth only means more money if one can get it to those who are users. In the end, Breaking Bad is not about cooking meth, but about distributing meth. When Walter White solves the distribution problem (partially), he makes so much money that in relatively short order, cash fills a storage locker.

breakingbad_skylerwaltmoney
Copyright AMC, All Rights Reserved

This leads to an interesting parallel with the success of Facebook. What exactly is Zuck’s magic?

From the beginning, Zuck’s Facebook has never been an innovative user experience. In fact it was and remains today fundamentally an amateurish and poorly designed user experience, full of unnecessary complexity, tacky graphic design, and mystifying navigational structure. Facebook is not the equivalent of Walter White’s highly potent Blue Meth, famous on the streets of Albuquerque for its quality and strength. However, what both Walt and Zuck figured out early on was that the ability to scale their distribution system was all that really mattered in terms of cash in hand. In that regard, the genius of Facebook is its scaling infrastructure, not its user experience. With massive scale, partial pennies turn into billions of dollars without that much work. Indeed, Walt and Zuck were on the same page.

Common Factor 9: Both adopt the same identifying wardrobe theme.

Jesse-in-Hoodie-2
Copyright AMC, All Rights Reserved

In Breaking Bad, the primary and consistent wardrobe theme for one of the main characters (Jessie) is what you would expect of a crystal meth dealer, the hoody, the obvious choice by Bad’s costume designers to convey who the participants are such drug transactions. How meth dealers dress has meaning in their retail environment of choice – the back alleys and doorways of Albuquerque. Of all the participants in the show, Jessie, as Walter’s much younger partner, is defined by his smiling face, hoody, and enterprising approach to HACKING his way through the meth business. He deals with everything from how to dispose of dead associates to designing a mobile meth lab stored and transported in music concert speaker crates. This is one very clever and enterprising young man, defined by his hoody and his attitude.

Zuck’s masterful use of the hoody as the primary fashion signifier for the world’s largest Hacking Machine is either an unfortunate choice or a charming attempt to adopt some of the fashion messaging of other disciplines with sometimes sketchy behavior profiles.

Mark in Hoody 2a
Image BusinessInsider.Com / Copyright

This is not to say that either Jessie, the meth dealer, or Zuck, the billionaire, popularized the hoody as a wardrobe of choice aimed at defining the wearer as one prone to sometimes questionable behavior, if not outright terrorizing actions. The wardrobe of choice for Zuck and Jessie has perhaps more to say about their business models than their fashion sense. The question is will Zuck still be wearing his hoody when he is Walter White’s age (50)? If Facebook’s PR department has anything to say about it, you can count on it.

Common Factor 10: Both business concerns are run by personalities with the most forgiving backstories and we give them wide berth as a result.

As a viewer who became addicted (probably a bad word choice) to Breaking Bad, I was constantly wondering “what exactly is it about the series that made it so compelling?” To be sure, there are vast message boards dealing with the thematic structure of Breaking Bad – all committed to answering this question in ways ranging from simple to wildly erudite. In my opinion, when taken from the perspective of narrative flow and context development, one factor is that no matter how ruthless and brutal Walter White became as he morphed into a meth lord, one could still see him as the hapless high school chemistry teacher with cancer who started his foray into meth production to leave his family enough cash to live on when cancer took it’s course. It was Walter’s backstory that put the hard/soft contrast of his character into every scene. Behind a huge amount of truly violent behavior, there was just this nice simple guy cooking up some meth to save his family. This was the true genius of Vince Gilligan’s main narrative arc. It kept coming back week after week, for 6 years. So what does this have to do with Facebook? Well, a lot actually.

Facebook has a face. That face is Zuck and it is his backstory that keeps us thinking day after day that – hey, this is just a shy Harvard dropout in a gray hoody pounding out source code in his dorm room and launching amateurish web sites with sometimes sketchy values. The world just loves this guy, and it is his backstory that we love the most. This is the “Face” of Facebook and the backstory that keeps the world from objectively viewing Facebook as the world-altering behemoth that goes along its merry way HACKING into the lives of billions of users. To be clear, we mostly welcome this HACK as it is compelling on many levels. However, it is hard to imagine that a corporation with a less warm and fuzzy backstory (say IBM or Apple or Google) would be able to run a hundred billion dollar business like a meth lab and get away with it.

To comment on this post, go to the comment field at the end of the references.

Other posts on PulseUX you might find interesting

Additional references on FB addiction:
1. Medical News Today, Facebook Addiction – New Psychological Scale
2. Medical Daily, Facebook Addiction: Social Media Use Linked To Reward Center In Brain, Scientists Conclude
Social Times, Facebook Addiction Disorder — The 6 Symptoms of F.A.D.
3. The American Journal of Psychiatry, Issues for DSM-V: Internet Addiction
4. Psychology Today, Facebook Addiction?: Is Facebook harder to quit than smoking?
5. PRWeb, Is Facebook Addiction Similar to Alcohol & Drug Addiction?
6. The Telegraph, Student ‘addiction’ to technology ‘similar to drug cravings’, study finds
7. WebMD, Internet Addiction May Be As Hard to Kick as Drugs

On Facebook quitters:
8. Stefan Stieger, Christoph Burger, Manuel Bohn, and Martin Voracek, Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking
9. TIME, Behind the “Unlikes:” Understanding Why People Quit Facebook

 

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