Former Facebook president Sean Parker on consumer internet: 'You're spending a lot of time trying to make your products as addictive as possible'

  • Sean Parker, who founded Napster and was the first president of Facebook, said "it feels somewhat unsatisfying to constantly make products for teenage girls" and was especially worried about the impact of his consumer internet products on society.
  • In 2016, he started the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy (PICI) to develop better cancer treatments.
  • He now prefers working with scientists because they work trying to make products that were "great for the world."
Sean Parker speaks onstage at WIRED25 Summit: WIRED Celebrates 25th Anniversary With Tech Icons Of The Past & Future on October 15, 2018 in San Francisco, California.
Matt Winkelmeyer | Getty Images
Sean Parker speaks onstage at WIRED25 Summit: WIRED Celebrates 25th Anniversary With Tech Icons Of The Past & Future on October 15, 2018 in San Francisco, California.

Sean Parker, founder of Napster and the first president of Facebook, pivoted to medical technology because he worried about how his social media and consumer internet products were impacting society.

"You're not 100 percent sure if you're having a totally positive or totally negative impact in the world when you're working in consumer internet," Parker explained at the Wired25 conference in San Francisco on Monday.

"You're spending a lot of time trying to make your products as addictive as possible. Transitioning to life sciences is incredibly refreshing, because you really feel as though the energy and time you are putting into it are helping people. It's about saving lives, really changing people's lives, advancing medicine."

Parker said he could never have predicted the impact Facebook would have on today's world, pointing out the move to mobile made it "ubiquitous" and "rewire(d) the fabric of society." In 2016, he started the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy (PICI) to develop better cancer treatments.

"I, at some point, got a little bit frustrated with the monoculture of the consumer internet world," Parker said. "It feels somewhat unsatisfying to constantly make products for teenage girls.... You worry about what this effect may be having on their development and on society."

It was refreshing to work with scientists instead of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, he said.

"Every 22-year- old shows up at your doorstep with this sort of belief that they are going to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, and they deserve to be a billionaire, and their company deserves an absolutely obscene valuation," Parker said.

Scientists find the work itself "the true reward," Parker said. His new work reminds Parker of the early days working on the Internet when people like him were more interested in making products that were "great for the world."

"Scientists have a level of humility where they have quite a bit of pride in their work, and being published is important, and being recognized by your peers is important, and having an impact on patients is important - but scientists aren't running around trying to get rich and don't have the same distorted expectations about how rich they are going to become," he pointed out.