Imagine for a moment you woke up this morning and found yourself the founder and CEO of Facebook. You are one of the richest people in the history of humanity. You are world famous. You have absolute control of the most powerful social media company on the planet. The decisions you make impact billions of people around the world.
And, of course, you also are completely under siege. Every day there is another story in the press painting your company and its business practices in the worst possible light. You and your company are blamed for everything from destroying democracy to irrevocably warping our kids. You are in the crosshairs of politicians and regulators who want nothing more than to break up your company and force you out.
So, what would you do if you were Mark Zuckerberg today?
I know if it were me, the intense spotlight and scrutiny would be too much to handle. Years ago, I would have taken the money and removed myself from Facebook to focus on charitable efforts or other, lower profile projects.
Essentially, I’d follow the well-worn path blazed by the titans of capitalism since the dawn of the industrial age. Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Gates and Bezos, to name a few, spent their best years creating new businesses that reinvent the way we live and work. And when they had amassed unimaginable fortunes, they stepped aside to focus on giving it away – supporting the arts, the less fortunate, the sick, etc.
And while that’s all quite nice and noble, it’s a good thing I’m not Mark Zuckerberg.
I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with retiring from business to focus on charitable work. Not in the least. But if Mark Zuckerberg does what I would do, or what Gates and others have done, he would be missing a historic opportunity to redefine and reinvigorate capitalism and our culture.
Zuckerberg has been so successful because, like the others who have achieved at his level, he is a ruthless competitor with a single-minded obsession on beating his rivals. He eats and sleeps Facebook (or now Meta). Success is staying ahead of the competition, creating more value for shareholders, expanding market share, and growing revenue.
This continues to be his mindset. He is vigorously defending his company’s business practices. And he continues to relentlessly focus on fortifying Facebook’s future. The Information reported last week that his greatest fear is Facebook’s reliance on Apple’s platform to access customers. To overcome this Zuckerberg wants to control the metaverse (virtual/immersive tech driven experiences) which he believes will be the dominant tech platform of the future. Yesterday’s announcement of the rebranding of the company to “Meta” is a powerful signal to the world about how much he believes in this vision.
On one hand I say good for him. This is what we want and expect from entrepreneurs. Identify untapped business opportunities. Build sexy new products and services. Exploit the free flow of capital our system affords to create wealth for shareholders. And create more jobs for the rest of us.
But what if instead of worrying about controlling the metaverse, Zuckerberg turned his formidable talents, energy, and resources to fixing the chronic issues that plague social media? What if delivering for shareholders and advertisers took a back seat to dealing with the cultural and societal issues his company has unleashed? Rather than measuring himself and his company on the metrics that drive stock prices, how about creating a different set of KPIs that measured social media’s impact on our daily lives.
We can debate for hours about what’s wrong with social media. The press is having a field day with Facebook but in truth there’s plenty of blame to go around. It starts with us as individuals and the choices we make, mostly good but too often bad, about how we interact with one another on social media. Advertisers lament its negative impact but candidly this is mostly grandstanding for PR purposes. They vote with their ad budgets every day and they continue to spend aggressively on Facebook, just look at the company’s most recent quarterly earnings.
All of that is true. But it’s also true that history is the product of the actions of individuals. And it is undeniable that Mark Zuckerberg through hard work and good fortune is uniquely situated as the CEO of Facebook to do something about it, more so than any other individual on the planet.
I don’t pretend to have the answers to the complex problems posed by social media. But others with more knowledge than me have proposed some interesting ideas. Shelly Palmer suggested social media platforms could require photo ID to sign up and charge a small monthly fee for use of the service. Those two steps would eliminate most if not all the fraudulent activity.
Personally, I don’t see any upside to kids having access to social media before the age of 16. The dominant tech players have done a terrible job helping parents protect their kids from the dangers of the Internet and social media.
Google and Facebook have done tremendous damage to local news and the quality of our civic life is much worse for it. In the early days Zuckerberg liked to say he wanted to move fast and break things. Well, he was a kid back then, and kids break things. Now that he’s an adult he should take responsibility for the mess he helped create and figure out how to fix it.
I realize how pollyannish it sounds for a CEO to put societal good in front of shareholder value. In general, I am not a fan of asking CEOs or public companies to put aside their competitive instincts in favor of trying to be stewards of the common good. Of course, we want our companies to think about the common good, but if that supplants running their businesses creativity will diminish and our economy will stagnate. No one wins in that scenario.
However, if we’ve learned anything in recent years it is the corrosive effect unrestrained capitalism can have on our society. Sometimes delivering free cash flow is not enough. We need new role models who can restore people’s confidence in the capitalist system, one that has done so much good for the world but at the same time clearly has lost its way.
Mark Zuckerberg is standing at a unique crossroads. He can take the usual path and continue to relentlessly compete to ensure Facebook conquers the metaverse and retains its dominant position against all comers. And, perhaps 20 years from now, when he tires of the grind, he can turn his attention to running his foundation.
Or he can do what no massively successful tech entrepreneur before him has done, he can forgo waiting until he achieves “emeritus status” to make a difference and use his unmatched power and wealth now, while he’s CEO, to light a path for others to follow. No one is better positioned to help us address the challenges social media presents for the world. I hope he makes a better choice than I would.