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Why Working at Facebook Is Like Playing Chess With an Alien, According to Leaked Documents

Over the last several weeks, a cache of internal Facebook documents leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen has revealed the company knew about—but did little to act on—a range of societal harms, from the destabilization of democracies around the world to its impact on teenagers’ mental health.

The documents paint an interesting picture of Facebook’s internal culture. The only employees have access to Workplace, an in-house Facebook version. This provides insight into the culture. Any Facebook employee can post on Workplace about issues they believe are important, comment on others’ work, and collaborate. Many posts made on Workplace point out a company that has been plagued by continual restructuring, resource shortages, shifting priorities and left employees feeling frustrated.
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According to one Workplace post by a self-described manager on the eve of their 13th work anniversary at Facebook in September 2020, the way to succeed within that internal culture could be summarized in one metaphor: imagine you’re playing “Alien Chess.”

This story is based on Haugen’s disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which were also provided to Congress in redacted form by her legal team. A consortium of news agencies, including TIME, obtained the redacted versions that Congress received. Some publications have described them as the “Facebook Papers.”

DANIEL LEAL OLIVAS/AFP via Getty ImagesFrances Haugen was the whistleblower at Facebook on October 25, 2021, in London. The former Facebook employee leaked a trove of internal documents alleging Facebook knew its products were fueling hate and harming children’s mental health.

The employee who authored the “Alien Chess” memo, whose name and title are redacted in the documents seen by TIME, described a painful process of coming to terms with Facebook’s eternally-shifting internal structure. “In my time I’ve experienced the company grow 160 [times], people coming and going, infinite re-orgs, failed projects, tech shifts, criticism, regulation, societal issues,” the employee wrote.

Initial thoughts of working for Facebook were that it was like playing chess with a grandmaster, and later, as the metaphor failed to work, they compared it to four-dimensional chess. The true experience was not captured in this analogy. “After some sulking, I had a realization,” the person wrote. “You’re not playing chess: you’re playing Alien Chess.”

“This is how the game actually works: you sit at a table with a chess board, making your fancy chess moves. Then, suddenly, an invisible green Alien appears. The Alien takes your board away and swaps in a new one—where stuff is changed. Sometimes, you’re the opposite color pieces. Sometimes, it’s all the same but your single most key piece is missing (argh). Sometimes, it’s just a totally new board. So you hunker down and play that one for a while, and then the Alien whisks it away and gives you a new board again.”

Learn more The 5 Most Important Revelations From the ‘Facebook Papers’

This is the internal post. Alien Chess’s Resilience, An ink-pen illustration depicting a little green guy flipping over a piece of chessboard was included with the order.

In the article, the author says that they were able to see their mistakes and become better managers. To make Facebook work more enjoyable, they offered their advice to other employees.

“Once I got it and accepted what game I was in, it completely changed my mindset,” they wrote. “I realized that the little green Alien, while so frustrating, is the magic of what makes this place (and tech more broadly) so special and so impactful. I understood that when the new, messy boards pop up — that’s when my leadership is needed the most.”

Facebook has not yet responded to the request for comment.

Katie Harbath, a former director of public policy who worked at Facebook’s Washington, D.C., office for a decade, told TIME she came to a similar realization. “I always said that working at Facebook was like drinking from a firehose,” she says. “It took me a few years, but I eventually learned to embrace the chaos. Instead of getting comfortable, I planned to have to change my plans. Once I baked it into how I did my job I found I could handle the massive amounts of information and stress much better.”

Employee discomfort

The author was not the only one who wasn’t as positive as his employees. Alien Chess memo, according to another post in Haugen’s disclosures. Several employees complained in internal posts and comments about their struggles with what they described as “attrition” on Facebook’s integrity teams, which are responsible for keeping people safe on the platform.

Facebook’s latest company restructuring was announced in December 2020. In the midst of the reorganization it was made public that Haugen was part of the civic-integrity committee, and the employees were being spread across the company. TIME Previous reportsMany team members saw it as betrayal, which made their job more challenging. TIME heard from a former employee that the move made it difficult for Facebook’s response to the January 6 rebellion. Facebook refuted this claim and stated that the team had been reorganized to expand its reach.

Learn more The Reconciling of Facebook: Shutting down the team that put people ahead of profits

New details are revealed in the documents about how Facebook employees criticised this decision. The employees’ names are redacted in the documents seen by TIME.

“The last few weeks have seen a number of high-level departures from integrity teams,” one employee posted to a Workplace group called “Let’s Fix Facebook (the company),The reorganization announcement was made on December 10, just one week later. Samidh Chkrabarti (leader of the civic-integrity group), was among those who have departed. In his six years of service, he had encouraged his staff to work for the common good, before Facebook. “Each [of the high-level departures] have expressed specific criticisms about limitations on the impact of integrity work at FB,” the unnamed employee’s post said.

The employee also questioned the comments of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO, about employee turnover and integrity teams. “In a previous Q and A, Mark [Zuckerberg]When asked about the attrition rate, he replied that he was not aware of it. 1.2) Attrition rates are currently much lower than usual, If you disagree with FB, it’s time for you to move on,” the post said. “This response didn’t sit well with me … I want to believe there is opportunity for us to build a better Facebook from within.”

Although some employees questioned whether there were more staff leaving than normal, another person said it was the tone in which the messages left them worried the most. “It’s not normal for a large number of people in the ‘make the site safe’ team to leave saying ‘hey, we’re actively making the world worse FYI,” the employee wrote. “Every time this gets raised, it gets shrugged off with ‘hey people change jobs all the time,’ but this is NOT normal.”

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