The Case for A Zuckberg-Free Facebook

The Case for A Zuckberg-Free Facebook

April 3, 2018 0 By admin


Mark Zuckerberg is the most powerful individual the corporate world has seen in decades. He doesn’t just lead an institution that touches almost every person on the planet; he also, thanks to financial engineering, has a majority of shareholder votes and controls the board, and is therefore answerable to no one. By design, he can’t be fired—he can only resign.

Which is exactly what he should now do.

Zuckerberg’s resignation would open up the possibility of a world-changing and reputation-enhancing second chapter, not only for him personally but also for Facebook the corporation. More important, those changes would clearly benefit the planet as a whole.

Felix Salmon (@felixsalmon) is an Ideas contributor for WIRED. He hosts the Slate Money podcast and the Cause & Effect blog. Previously he was a finance blogger at Reuters and at Condé Nast Portfolio. His WIRED cover story on the Gaussian copula function was later turned into a tattoo.

Facebook is in crisis mode, and all good CEOs approach crises as an opportunity to examine how their company got into its predicament and how their own leadership might have contributed to the problem. They ask themselves how they should best be held accountable for any mistakes they might have made, especially if they serve as chairman of the board as well as CEO. And they try hard to identify inflection points at which a new style of leadership is called for, where their own resignation would cause more good than harm.

This is one of those points. In the past, Zuckerberg has been a serial apologizer for corporate mistakes where Facebook moved too fast and broke too many things. His latest media tour, while following much the same template, has failed to have any kind of mollifying effect, neither externally nor internally. As Tim Cook says, it’s too late now to trust Zuckerberg to fix this problem.

Which doesn’t mean there’s nothing Zuckerberg can do. Quite the opposite: There’s something very specific he can and should do as a matter of urgency. First, he should sketch out a new path for Facebook, one that puts users first, rather than advertisers and developers. Second, he should identify the right CEO to implement those changes and lead the revamped organization. Third, he should resign to make way for that person—and do so gladly.

Zuckerberg’s resignation would hit the reset button on Facebook and allow for a pivot even more momentous than the post-IPO move from desktop to mobile. Facebook has gone way too far in terms of treating its users as eyeballs to be manipulated and monetized, and it needs to address the fact that its long-term future has to put the humans who use the service first. It must give its users what they want (news, updates, friendship, community) while respecting their privacy and not giving them what they don’t want (fake news, clickbait, creepy ad retargeting). Sell ads, by all means, but make it mass-audience brand advertising, rather than narrowly targeted direct marketing. Most important, the company’s leadership has to effectively communicate that change of heart and change of priorities, so that Facebook users start trusting the company, rather than mistrusting it.

Until now, Facebook’s success has come despite Zuckerberg’s stilted manner. In the company’s early days, it was the job of cofounder Chris Hughes to be “the empath”; Zuckerberg himself has never been good at showing emotion. That’s a problem, because it’s not enough to just put users first and tell them that you’re doing so; they also have to believe you. Insofar as this is a key skill needed to lead the new Facebook, someone else is going to have to do the job.

The company must also rethink its entire approach to regulation. In the past, Facebook has spent millions on lobbyists paid to fight it; in more recent interviews, Zuckerberg has begun to talk about how some regulation might be acceptable or even desirable. But the worldview remains us-and-them: we’re the corporation being regulated, they’re the government looking to tell us what to do. A user-centric Facebook, however, would be entirely comfortable with the hypothesis that many government actions genuinely reflect the will of the electorate; that an electorate tends to be an extremely good proxy for Facebook users in any given country, and that Facebook should do what its users in any given country want it to do. Obviously, not all governments have that kind of democratic legitimacy, but when they do there should be little, if any, pushback.

In any case, regardless of what governments request, Facebook should turn off not only its insidious Lookalike product but all narrowly targeted advertising altogether, with advertisers being forced to appeal broadly to large geographies.

It would be hard for Zuckerberg (or Sheryl Sandberg, for that matter) to adopt such a stance, after spending so many years putting advertisers, developers, and revenue first. Is it conceivable that they could pull it off? Maybe. But the idea here is that instead of lurching repeatedly from scandal to apology, Facebook could make a strong claim to the moral high ground currently being claimed by Apple. And while Tim Cook can legitimately say that he would never have allowed himself to end up in this situation, Zuckerberg, clearly, can’t. It would be much better, both practically and symbolically, to hand over the reins to someone fresh.

There’s something genuinely exciting about the prospect of a Facebook without Zuckerberg at the helm, a Facebook that really understands the enormity of its global influence. Today’s Facebook is almost hilariously parochial, with Zuckerberg spending [more time in Blanchardville, Wisconsin],(https://www.facebook.com/zuck/posts/10103688679303901?pnref=story) than in the Philippines, where a murderous president has weaponized Facebook to chilling effect. With the right new leadership, Facebook could actively try to become a force for good, connecting people without violating their privacy or endangering their democracies.

There is a good chance that, were Zuckerberg to put such a plan in motion, Facebook’s market value would fall, but that’s OK. The long-term business case for getting onto the right side of history is easy to make, and indeed it’s a case Zuckerberg himself made when Facebook went public. The very first line of his letter to prospective investors was this: “Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission—to make the world more open and connected.”

Zuckerberg went on to proclaim that “we don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services,” and that focus on its social mission was always the way Facebook would operate over the long term. Shareholders can’t say they weren’t warned. Zuckerberg has already pledged to use his position of wealth, power, and privilege to improve the world; this is just the most obvious way for him to do so.

What’s more, once he leaves, he can focus on his other full-time job—running the multibillion-dollar Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. That’s no consolation prize. After all, if he’s remotely successful in terms of his stated goal of eradicating all disease by the end of the century, his post-Facebook career will handily eclipse Facebook itself in terms of importance. In just a year or two, Zuckerberg could easily reinvent himself as a cuddly philanthropist, someone akin to Bill Gates, rather than the person who singlehandedly dismantled a crucial pillar of liberal democracy. And as Gates (or, for that matter, Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskowitz) will tell him, giving away billions of dollars effectively really is a full-time job. If you’re serious about it, you can’t be running Facebook at the same time.

The only big question is: Who should take over from Zuckerberg as Facebook CEO? It should be someone deeply familiar with technology but who also has a truly global perspective; someone who understands the opportunities, and the pitfalls, inherent in a network of this size; someone who is an honest and natural communicator as well as an inspiring leader. Also, frankly, it should be a woman. Facebook still has a reputation as a home for tech bros, and putting a woman in charge would send a very important message both internally and externally that Zuckerberg is genuine in his pledge to promote equality.

That said, the new CEO should not be Sheryl Sandberg. She’s just as culpable as Zuckerberg, in terms of how Facebook got into its current predicament, and she’s far too associated with the ancien regime. What’s more, Zuckerberg has an enormous group to choose from: his voting control of Facebook means that he can hand-pick his successor without regard to her history of public-company leadership or her proven ability to maximize shareholder value. (After all, he himself had neither when he became CEO.)

Here’s one idea. Imagine if, tomorrow, Facebook’s board announced that Zuckerberg was resigning, to be replaced by Katherine Maher, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation. It’s impossible to think of a proven leader more mission-driven than Maher; hiring her would send an unmistakable message that, at the new Facebook, mission would always come first. It would also send a very welcome message to the world outside the US: While based in California, Maher has made it her priority to strengthen Wikipedia in other countries and in languages other than English. The result has been that she spends an enormous amount of her time abroad. Maher, for one, would never refuse to testify in front of the UK parliament.

If Zuckerberg were to install Maher as his successor, even Facebook’s most vocal critics would find themselves applauding the move, and the stage would be set for a brand new chapter in Facebook’s history. No one could force Zuckerberg to make such a decision. But were he to do so, the plaudits would be deafening.


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Photograph by WIRED/Getty Images





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