Commentary: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced his annual personal challenge Tuesday, this time pledging to hold a series of public talks about the role of technology in society. In his Facebook post, he acknowledges, “I’m an engineer, and I used to just build out my ideas and hope they’d mostly speak for themselves. But given the importance of what we do, that doesn’t cut it anymore.”
Facebook, investors, and lawmakers appear to be on the same page in the wake of a steady stream of scandals and reports about the company’s mismanagement. Facebook lost $120 billion in market capitalization last summer after reporting flatlined user growth in the U.S. and Canada and a decline in Europe. There’s also growing support for a federal privacy law to rein in tech companies with big appetites for data.
But while Zuckerberg says the status quo won’t cut it anymore, the rest of his pledge shows that he’s not willing to walk the walk.
“There are so many big questions about the world we want to live in and technology’s place in it,” he writes. “Do we want technology to keep giving more people a voice, or will traditional gatekeepers control what ideas can be expressed? Should we decentralize authority through encryption or other means to put more power in people’s hands? In a world where many physical communities are weakening, what role can the internet play in strengthening our social fabric?”
As TechCrunch’s Josh Constantine notes, “the implied answers there are ‘people should have a voice through Facebook,’ ‘people should use Facebook’s encrypted chat app WhatsApp,’ and ‘people should collaborate through Facebook Groups.'” In other words, the answer to society’s tech-related problems is more Facebook.
The dissonance is telling. It shows that Facebook will have a hard time implementing meaningful changes with its founding CEO at the helm. Facebook’s Very Bad Year evokes memories of another embroiled tech company that just couldn’t quit its leader — until it did.
Last summer, Uber’s investors finally put enough pressure on then-CEO Travis Kalanick to resign. He stepped down after a year fielding one controversy after another — from a culture of sexual harassment to a data breach cover-up.
In his place, Uber hired Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, a veteran tech executive with a reputation for diplomacy and a track record of successful leadership. Before he left Expedia, shares of the company were up more than 34 percent over the previous year, and revenue was climbing. He also oversaw a slew of acquisitions, including the landmark purchase of HomeAway for $3.9 billion. Khosrowshahi emerged as a leader well-position to take Uber public, the company’s main objective for 2019.
But perhaps more important than his track record was the respectability he brought to Uber, the sense that there was finally a grown-up in the room who could right the troubled ship. Khosrowshahi immediately embarked on an apology tour, making amends with regulators in cities where Uber had previously taken an adversarial posture. He made safety a top priority under his leadership and ended mandatory arbitration for sexual harassment claims among employees.
Under his leadership, Uber has made far fewer headlines. As Wired’s Jessi Hempel puts it, “Khosrowshahi has been perfecting his brand of boring.” It’s an enviable position for Facebook executives, who are reportedly exasperated by what they see as overly antagonistic coverage from the New York Times. Perhaps if the company handed the reins over to a more “boring” and diplomatic leader it could avoid some of the scrutiny.
Facebook, like Uber, was once a scrappy startup hellbent on breaking things and shaking up the status quo. But Facebook has grown into arguably the most influential company in the world and it’s still tightly controlled by the young man who built it in his dorm room.
It’s time for Facebook to hand over control to someone who doesn’t just know how to make a world-changing company, but knows how to lead a company to change the world for good.