I consider myself a professional-grade problem solver. It’s a big part of my identity and the way I see myself adding value to the world. Many designers and engineers I know share this mindset. Let’s be honest: It’s really satisfying to identify a problem, solve it, and check it off your to-do list! So it’s been a learning journey for me to distinguish between discrete problems— which often have equally discrete solutions — and dilemmas, which are much more complicated to navigate, because there is often no single right answer.
I’ve been thinking about this since a meetup I had with my friend Clay Shirky a few years ago. Clay is an NYU professor and someone I go to when I need advice. At the time, Facebook was facing controversy over our stance on political ads. I asked Clay what he thought of the ongoing debates and he said something that I’ve been chewing on ever since:
“Social settings,” he told me, “present dilemmas rather than problems; problems have solutions, whereas dilemmas only have optimizations.”
At the heart of many of the controversies Facebook finds itself in, there sits a dilemma. Not an obvious right vs. wrong dichotomy but a right vs. right dilemma. It’s a myth that there is always a single right answer to the many dilemmas facing platforms like Facebook. This is particularly true as we aim to serve a globally diverse community. We’re not optimizing for any single scenario, but rather for a myriad of perspectives shaped by different cultural and geopolitical contexts and lived experiences.
People around the world have been given a crash course in dilemmas over the past year. The COVID-19 pandemic has produced a host of incredibly complex challenges for communities to navigate, such as the tension between protecting the health of individuals — including teachers and retail workers — and the devastating impact that closing schools and businesses has on families and the economy as a whole.
In settings that involve large groups of people, it’s impossible to find the perfect answer for everyone, every time. Modern social media is no exception. As we strive to minimize potential harm and risk on our platforms, there aren’t always definitive or win-win solutions; we have to weigh the various competing equities and values at stake. The only way forward is to be open and intentional about the inevitable trade-offs and difficult choices that must be made, and what we ultimately decide to optimize for.
Earlier in my career, I wasn’t as attuned to the distinction between problems and dilemmas, in part because like many in our industry, I was a techno-optimist. I focused my gaze on the upside and didn’t spend enough time thinking about how things might go wrong. I still have a lot of optimism about technology creating good. But what’s changed over the arc of my career is that I no longer believe that good is inevitable or evenly experienced across all communities and contexts. Maximizing good and minimizing harm comes about through highly intentional foresight and proactive mitigation. It comes from each of us evolving from techno-optimist to techno-realist.