Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Ben Smith Profiles CrowdTangle Founder Brandon Silverman

Ben Smith, in his column for the New York Times this weekend, profiled CrowdTangle’s founder Brandon Silverman. CrowdTangle was acquired by Facebook in 2016, but its team was effectively dismantled in 2021 after information surfaced by the software became embarrassing to the company. Facebook’s spokespeople have disputed any connection.

Anyway, Smith’s column covers some proposed legislation that Silverman helped write, which is intended to increase transparency around algorithmic platform decisions. Smith:

Much of what Americans know about what happens inside companies like Google and Facebook these days comes from employees who tire of the corporate spin and leak internal documents. Congress is responding to documents leaked first to The Wall Street Journal by a former Facebook product manager, Frances Haugen. The revelations in those documents confirmed and deepened the perception of an out-of-control information wasteland hinted at by CrowdTangle’s data.

Mr. Silverman isn’t a leaker or a whistle-blower, and he declined to discuss details of his time at Facebook. But his defection from Silicon Valley to Capitol Hill is significant. He arrived with detailed knowledge of perhaps the most effective transparency tool in the history of social media, and he has helped write it into a piece of legislation that is notable for its technical savvy.

“Defection” is an interesting choice of word, given Silverman’s history later disclosed by Smith:

For Mr. Silverman, the legislation is a return to politics. He came to the tech industry through an unusual path, which began in 2005 at the Center for Progressive Leadership, a nonprofit organization aimed at training a new generation of political leaders. He became interested in building online communities as a way to keep the program’s alumni connected. In 2011, he helped found a company then called OpenPage Labs, aimed at building social networks for progressive nonprofits using Facebook’s “open graph,” a short-lived program that allowed software developers to integrate their applications with Facebook.

The Center for Progressive Leadership was based in Washington D.C., while OpenPage Labs was founded and run out of Baltimore, which is economically and politically tied with D.C. through its close proximity. I do not see this as a story of “defection” as much as it is about Silverman continuing a career.