Though the fines levied on Meta Platforms Inc. over the past few years have reached into the billions of dollars, I’ve long felt the greater punishment for Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg was the paralysis his company endured. A dorky engineer at heart, Zuckerberg appeared ill equipped and disinterested in playing the diplomatic role needed to pull the social network’s reputation up from the gutter.
It meant efforts to innovate collapsed under the weight of Meta’s lousy reputation. Consider the company’s Portal video chat device. Released in 2018, it was a well-priced, extremely user-friendly product. It was met with howls of laughter: Facebook wants to put a camera in my house now? Are they serious?
Later, Meta’s efforts to launch a cryptocurrency, with protections far exceeding similar projects out there in the digital Wild West, were essentially dead on arrival with US regulators. The message quite clear: After what you’ve done? Forget it.
Watch clips of Zuckerberg from around that time and you’ll see the pressure etched into his face. People called him a robot, owing to his stilted performances in front of Congress and in various TV interviews. As he tried to please everyone, he floundered — such as when he argued Holocaust denial had a place on Meta properties like Facebook. People started to wonder whether Zuckerberg was the engaged, capable leader Meta needed. Maybe, like some other young tech founders, the company and its pressures had outgrown him. The voices would have been louder were it not for the fact that Zuckerberg’s control of the company makes any ousting impossible. Nobody has the power to do it.
The pandemic era bought more woe. In October 2021, the Wall Street Journal published “The Facebook Files,” an embarrassing leak of company documents by whistleblower Frances Haugen. In early 2022, and for much of the year, Meta felt the pain of recent privacy changes made by Apple that made it harder to gather data for targeted advertising; Wall Street worried Meta’s business model might be damaged irreparably. Meta was one of several big tech companies forced to shed thousands of workers, admitting that it had become complacent and overstaffed. With investors getting antsy at the company’s spending, particularly on the fanciful “metaverse,” Zuckerberg promised a “year of efficiency.”