The Facebook co-founder has made enemies—very rich enemies—of many of his former partners, who are now speaking out. Chris Hughes and the others should put their money where their mouth is.
Over the past several years, Facebook has created a new species of technology skeptic with two common traits. Brian Acton, Sean Parker, Chamath Palihapitiya, Chris Hughes, Alex Stamos, Roger McNamee, Kevin Systrom, Mike Krieger: all are worth millions, and, in some cases, billions of dollars, thanks to Facebook and its cybernetic C.E.O., Mark Zuckerberg. And yet, publicly and privately, all have expressed concern or regret about working for the company that made them so affluent. Acton, the WhatsApp co-founder who sold his company to Zuckerberg for $19 billion, wrote on Twitter last year, “It is time. #deletefacebook.” Parker, who served as Facebook’s first president, has said, “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former head of growth, described social media as “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” In the most recent, and highest-profile, act of apostasy, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, Zuckerberg’s former Harvard roommate, announced this monththat Facebook should be broken up by the federal government.
It’s not just former executives who can afford the self-reflection. Privately, numerous former Facebook and Instagram employees have told me how much they hated working there toward the end of their tenure, and how they now regret ever being associated with Zuckerberg. One former employee even told me he had been suffering from major panic attacks every day he went to work. The pressure coming from high up within the company, where there was a constant drumbeat of paranoia surrounding internal and external enemies trying to destroy Facebook, eventually became too much, and he quit. Others have said they struggled with whether the good (connecting people all over the world, helping people share their vacation videos and photos of their first child, finding like-minded groups around specific topics) outweighs the bad (fake news, digital addiction, data-privacy breaches).
With Facebook leadership mired in yet another scandal this week—refusing to take down a doctored video of Nancy Pelosi, edited to make the Democratic House speaker look drunk or senile—it’s becoming ever clearer that real change will take both internal and external pressures. Many of the same people who are now feeling sick about Facebook would once have taken a bullet for the company. I recently heard a story about an employee who used to proudly wear his Facebook T-shirt and Facebook embroidered book bag around San Francisco, but took it off after being accosted by passersby about the role the company played in the 2016 election. How many more current and former employees feel the same way? More important, what can they do about it.
In business, great C.E.O.s are remembered not just for their management and leadership of mainstay companies, but for possessing a specific insight that moves society forward. Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Walt Disney came to the realization that he could turn cartoons into brands and “imagination” into a business model. Steve Jobs understood that the way to get hardware into the hands of billions of people was to make technology feel like “magic.” When it comes to Zuckerberg, people assume that his great insight was to gamify social networking. Or perhaps something more prosaic, like his ability to write code. But I have a different theory.
Zuckerberg’s brilliance isn’t programming or building a better mousetrap. His superpower is simpler, more elemental. Despite a sometimes robotic affect, Zuckerberg knows what people want and how to give it to them. In its original incarnation, Facebook was designed to address the fact that college kids just want to get laid. As the site grew, Zuckerberg tapped into other primal aspects of our psychology: the desire to be liked and to be connected, yes, but also to compete and promote ourselves, to get the most likes or have the most friends.
Zuckerberg understood that to have a monopoly on digital social capital, he also needed a monopoly on social networks. And he understood with single-minded purpose what he needed to do to get his competitors to sell. When Zuckerberg started negotiating with Kevin Systrom to buy Instagram, for example, Systrom had already been in similar talks with Twitter. From a financial standpoint, according to people involved in the deal, Twitter had been willing to match whatever number Facebook would offer, but Zuckerberg recognized that what Systrom cared about the most was remaining as “C.E.O.” of Instagram. Unlike Twitter, which would have folded Systrom’s brand into its existing app and product, Zuckerberg made Systrom feel like they would be equals. Systrom and co-founder Mike Krieger stayed at Facebook for six years—until Systrom and Zuckerberg began to clash, and Systrom and Krieger left.
The same pattern repeated with the WhatsApp founders, Jan Koum and Brian Acton. Zuck was as chummy as Putin with Trump, promising them complete autonomy in order to close the deal. But years later, when Koum and Acton disagreed with Zuckerberg’s efforts to strip away user privacy on WhatsApp, they were effectively ex-communicated. In an interview after he left Facebook (walking away from $850 million in unvested stock), Acton told Forbes that Zuckerberg told him, “This is probably the last time you’ll ever talk to me.”
Zuckerberg has reportedly had a similar falling-out with the founders of Instagram and the other former employees who are now speaking out against him. There’s an edge of wised-up anger in many of these critiques. One of Zuckerberg’s legacies will be that many of his former partners feel used. But to Zuckerberg, I doubt that really matters. After all, Facebook has always operated with a cold, preternatural instinct for eliminating competition. Back in the heyday of the company’s growth phase, when user privacy was still the Wild West, Facebook used all sorts of data mining and third-party apps to monitor what other services were being used online. A Facebook consultant once described this ability to detect new digital trends as Facebook’s “Spidey sense”, and said it was one of the reasons Zuckerberg tried to buy Snapchat. When Zuckerberg paid about $1 billion for Instagram, many people in the media figured he had overpaid—that such a massive acquisition must be a sign of another Internet bubble. In fact, Zuckerberg knew exactly what he was doing.
Of course, Systrom and Koum and other C.E.O.s who were assimilated into the Zuckerberg collective must have understood some part of what they were getting into when they sold their companies to Facebook. But, as Snapchat has discovered, most resistance is futile. Zuckerberg is a ruthless monopolist who will never be satisfied with the number of people on his platform until everyone on the planet is on Facebook. As the Silicon Valley saying goes, “Either you fuck me, or I’ll fuck you.” In other words: You better sell, or I’ll do everything in my power to make sure you regret it.
Washington had its chance to hold Mark Zuckerberg to account. Shortly after the election of Donald Trump, when it became clear that Facebook had played a pivotal role in spreading fake news and perverting our democracy, members of Congress began talking about asking him to testify on Capitol Hill. According to two Facebook executives who worked at the company at the time, Facebook was already spending millions of dollars on lobbying around privacy issues, knew its way around Washington, and had a sense of how the confrontation would play out. As one of the former Facebook executives told me, while Zuckerberg is a business genius, he isn’t the best public speaker, and being grilled by dozens of senators could set Facebook up for potentially more hearings. “If Facebook is seen as weak, then Congress would smell blood,” the executive told me.
But Zuckerberg came prepared. In April 2018, he sat for hours and expertly answered lawmakers’ questions, staving off—or at least delaying—the potential for any anti-trust action. He’s an immensely talented salesperson, whose skills have managed to grow with his company. And so while the media around Facebook has grown increasingly negative, Washington has lost momentum. Facebook’s stock is back up. And Zuckerberg is taking steps to further integrate Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp—ostensibly to safeguard user privacy, but also to make it harder for the three products to be broken up.
That’s why it’s crucial that the people who helped build those companies, who helped turn Facebook into an indomitable force, take responsibility for Facebook and speak out. Not just taking swipes at Zuckerberg, or expressing remorse when they’re invited to speak at panels, but coming out with guns blazing, like Hughes did with his widely shared and hugely impactful op-ed. Acton, Koum, Parker, Stamos, Palihapitiya, Systrom: these men and plenty of other people have seen firsthand how Facebook operates, how it stifles innovation, and why it needs to be regulated. If they want to effect real change, they should be standing up before Congress and telling the country why the company they helped build should be reformed, while funding an organization to support this goal. Facebook, after all, made them rich. It’s the least they could do.