Right person, wrong place, wrong time

Above: Maxine Williams, Facebook’s Global Director of Diversity, delivers a Distinguished Open Lecture at the St Augustine campus last week. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

BitDepth#1089 for April 18, 2017

It must have seemed like a slam dunk of an idea. Inviting Maxine Williams, the Global Director of Diversity at Facebook to speak on a topic that’s on the front burner for that company and of growing relevance to an evolving world of modern communications.

And Williams is an excellent speaker. Intelligent and articulate, media experienced and savvy, very Trinidadian when the moment calls for it and cute as a button to boot.

But she also has a job to do, and when it comes to scale, representing a social media company with two billion active users – more than two-thirds of the people in the world with access to the Internet – rather unsurprisingly trumps offering up any of the insider information on technology development that attendees at UWI’s recent lecture might have hoped to hear.

So despite the rather excited quips and verbal bon mots reported up by the local lady Twitterati as evidence of an inspiring speech, this was not the stuff of a university-level Distinguished Open Lecture.

Williams offered a great opener, talking about her life growing up in Woodbrook, “between Luis and French streets,” and her appreciation of the sense of close community she was born into.

“When you come from a small space you grow up with a sense of identity,” Williams said.

“I come from this place where I know where I am. When you come from a small space, and more than that, an island, you knew that there was something else, somewhere else.”

She alluded often to the power of otherness, the value of diversity in the workplace, and particularly in a company that’s active in 85 different countries.

“Diversity,” she explained, “is the antidote to groupthink.”

“The more diversity you have on teams the better the solutions can be. I want the diversity in the company to reflect the diversity of the users we reach.”

Unfortunately, after setting the scene of a lil’ brown girl from a small island ascending to an elite decision-making position within a global Internet company whose scale and reach compete with the web itself, the talk descended rather rapidly into an extended advertisement for the awesomeness of Facebook itself.

Williams read long tracts from Mark Zuckerberg’s recent troublesome screed (http://ow.ly/WEWc30aMA9V) on forming, curating and managing global communities and ran three videos touting the wonders of the company’s Internet.org and Free Basics initiatives, both of which have raised serious Net Neutrality concerns.

There’s no question that Facebook firmly believes it is doing good things in the world and for the most part, that assessment is true, but expecting anything other than a sales pitch from a Global Director of the company at this point in her career is simply being unnecessarily hopeful.

There’s no question that a Williams’ talk was a useful one and it certainly provided significant inspiration to a generation of young women coming into their own with the tools of the Internet at their disposal.

Maxine Williams in riposte…

As disappointing as her formal talk turned out to be, Maxine Williams flourished in the extended question and answer period that followed.

This was an opportunity to enjoy a tour-de-force demonstration of an unassailable blend of deep media preparation and Trini charm.

After one extended and frankly rambling discourse masquerading as a question seeking her opinion about national technology development, Williams responded with a drop-the-mic sally, “The whole country?”

She never faltered in offering spirited, levelheaded responses to a range of questions about her company with practised ease.

On fake news: “News will spread. Just think of all the people who will pick up the phone and spread false news. Is it the phone’s fault?”

“We are putting things in place, but now that people are talking about it, that empowers people to do something about it for themselves.”

On Facebook’s spare design and after quietly dissing the business of former competitor MySpace: “We felt if we said less, you can say more.”

On the algorithms managing Facebook’s NewsFeed: “When we ask people what they want on this platform they say information about their family and friends. We don’t want to get on the way of that and say you should be seeing this or that.”