Mark Zuckerberg’s Big Problem Has Been Obvious for 17 Years, But Nobody Wants to Admit It

Imagine if you only ever had one job since you were a teenager, and it went on to make you extraordinarily wealthy and powerful–far beyond most people’s wildest dreams.

In other words, imagine being Mark Zuckerberg. Now, imagine that you might be flat-out wrong about something that could ultimately mean the end of Facebook.

Here’s why this matters now. There are only a few forces on the planet powerful enough to take on Facebook. National governments might be among them, maybe. But otherwise, we’re looking at the other tech behemoths.

As it happens, one of those behemoths, Apple, has all-but declared war on Facebook, while another, Google, looks as if it’s gearing up to join the fight. My colleague Jason Aten has done a great job recently chronicling the battle:

  • Apple is set to change its privacy rules so that app developers will have to request permission before tracking most users. 
  • That runs squarely into Facebook, where the entire business model basically involves tracking users in order to sell “personalized ads.”

Who tells you ‘no?’

Apple’s move could be an existential threat; at least Facebook seems to think it is. I can’t predict how it will all turn out.

But, a lot of people could have predicted something like this would eventually happen. The reason? It’s simple, and it’s a byproduct of Zuckerberg’s meteoric success. 

In short, like every highly successful leader, Zuckerberg has always run the risk of surrounding himself with people who owe their success to him, and who therefore can’t effectively tell him, “no.”

Because of his background — again, having only really done one thing: built Facebook — he’s probably even more at risk of this phenomenon than many others. In retrospect, it was obvious from the beginning, 17 years ago this month. 

‘The whiz’

We can see what Facebook was like back in those early days, because Zuckerberg built the first iteration out of a Harvard dorm room, and the student newspaper wrote about it.

The stories are still online: “Hundreds Register for New Facebook Website” and “Mark E. Zuckerberg ’06: The whiz behind,” for example. Go back through them now, and it becomes clear that Zuckerberg never had a normal life.

He never had a boss. He never had to apply for a job. He never had to worry about making rent, or paying student loans. He never had to work anywhere that he didn’t want to, or under circumstances and in an environment that he didn’t create himself.

In other words, he never had to listen to anybody else. And, it always, always, always paid off. At least, until now.

For sake of argument, imagine that Zuckerberg is 100 percent wrong about how Facebook should be responding to Apple. How would he know? Who is there around him that he’d respect, that would object, and that he could turn to, trust, and respect?

I don’t pretend to know. I’ve imagined that somehow Bill Gates might fill the role in his life, given their strikingly similar backgrounds — and also that I think Gates recognizes how much Warren Buffett has been that kind of outside mentor for him. 

But if someone fills that role for Zuckerberg, it’s remained opaque to me.


 A colleague pointed out how he was on Clubhouse recently, and he reportedly described Facebook’s immersion in virtual reality and augmented reality, and how it might impact remote work. 

His idea was that before long, Facebook would allow people to appear virtually with one another, almost as if they were in the same physical room, instead of talking via screens like on Zoom. Nobody would ever really have to go anywhere. 

“We should be teleporting, not transporting ourselves,” he was quoted as saying.

I’m not really sure what the heck that actually means, but it sounds kind of dystopian, right out of Black Mirror–a technological solution that would suck the life out of what it means to have true, fulfilling relationships with other people.

Two competing ideas

Look, I’m not one of those people who hates on Facebook to the ends of the earth. I take the good with the bad: for one thing, my college girlfriend and I reconnected on the platform; we’re now married and have a daughter. 

I’m also very clear on the fact that I would not have done anywhere near as well as Zuckerberg if you’d taken the silly things I was into when I was 19 or 20, extrapolated them, and told me I’d still be doing them [censored] years later.

But, I also think it’s possible to hold two competing things in mind at the same time:

  • gratitude for all the positive things that social media has promoted, and
  • skepticism and even fear of what happens as the goals of the public, for-profit company behind it seem less and less aligned with what people really want.

People learn to hold those competing perspectives through hardship, failure, and seeing that good things come out of bad, while sometimes bad things come out of good.

They learn them by sometimes having to do things they don’t want to do, and by recognizing that no matter how successful they are, there are other people they can learn from.

Wouldn’t it be ironic, and frankly kind of devastating, if never having had to admit you’re wrong led to the biggest mistakes of all?

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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