Why is Facebook buying out a company run by an outspoken critic?

THIS POST HAS BEEN UPDATED WITH  NEW INFORMATION. SEE NOTE BELOW:

What does Mark Zuckerberg see in Josh Miller? Maybe it’s what Miller sees in Facebook’s future.

Facebook has made a deal that means Miller and the team behind Branch, a tiny social/messaging start-up backed by Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone, will now be working for the giant social network.  Miller, who founded and led the start-up, announced the deal on his Facebook page Monday and tech blogs are reporting the deal was worth about $15 million – a healthy price for a tiny company with just eight employees, but not exactly a headline-grabbing sum in this era of billion-dollar deals.

The quick take on the deal is that Facebook wants to enlist Branch and its sister service, the mobile conversation app Potluck, in its increasingly fierce competition with Twitter as a platform for talking about news and “real-time” events.  Miller wrote that his team will form a new “conversations group” within Facebook, “with the goal of helping people connect with others around their interests.”

But as several bloggers have noted, Miller drew attention in tech circles last year for publicly criticizing Facebook – and Zuckerberg – more than once.  A year ago, the 22-year-old Princeton dropout wrote a piece for Medium titled “Tenth Grade Tech Trends” in which he explored the reasons why his 15-year-old sister and her friends had grown tired of Facebook and were flocking to Instagram and Snapchat instead. Among other things, he concluded: “Facebook may have an irreversibly bad brand.”

Then last May, Miller wrote another piece that roundly condemned Zuckerberg’s political action group, FWD.us, because it was running ads in support of conservative politicians and their support of the controversial Keystone oil pipeline, in exchange for their support of immigration reform. FWD.us “effectively bribes politicians,” he wrote, comparing the group’s tactics to those of gun manufacturers and drug companies.  He added: “In service of noble causes, FWD.us is employing questionable lobbying techniques, misleading supporters, and not being transparent about the underlying values and long-term intentions of the organization.”

And in another essay last May, Miller argued that smartphones were making Facebook obsolete, in a sense, because they let people use mobile apps that interact with their phones’ contact lists – “allowing you to effortlessly connect with your friends on new social networks” – without going through Facebook. He suggested “the next Facebook” would help people have interesting conversations with strangers who share mutual interests.

It may be ironic, then, that just two weeks ago – a time when Miller was likely thinking about joining Facebook – he wrote another essay and gave it a title (“Why I’m bullish on Facebook”) that sounds like he was eager to appease. This time, Miller argued that Facebook and its vast social graph still has value, even if it has lost “coolness.” While many people are turning to single-purpose apps to share more intimately with their close friends, he added, Facebook still has utility because of its “scale and data.”

“…you can imagine the company building a standalone app (or evolving Newsfeed) to become your personalized television channel and newspaper,” he wrote, adding:

“What about finding a new job, or a date? Tracking down a place to crash, or travel advice? … For utilitarian needs Facebook’s more comprehensive social network, and access to a greater number of mutual connections, is a huge asset.”

Facebook has in recent months talked about delivering content that’s both higher quality and useful, while Zuckerberg has said he wants the news feed to be more like a personalized hometown newspaper. So despite Miller’s criticism, it sounds like he’s got some ideas that Zuckerberg wants to pursue.

UPDATE: A source familiar with the deal says Facebook is not acquiring the rights to Branch’s technology or services, but instead is “acqui-hiring” Miller and the Branch team. While that means they will become Facebook employees, it’s unclear what that means for the Branch and Potluck apps, although Miller said in his announcement that they “will live on outside Facebook.”

 (Photo of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg by John Green/Bay Area News Group)

Brandon Bailey Brandon Bailey (340 Posts)

Brandon Bailey covers Google, Facebook and Yahoo for the San Jose Mercury News, reporting on the business and culture of the Internet.