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- Dogged by a series of controversies and facing potential regulations, Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg could use some help getting ahead of the company’s problems.
- Facebook unveiled a reorganization Tuesday that could have been an opportunity for Zuckerberg to shake things up and bring in new blood.
- Instead, he’s just shuffling executives and empowering long-serving lieutenants – changes unlikely to help the company rethink how it interacts with society.
It’s pretty clear Mark Zuckerberg could use some fresh perspectives in running Facebook.
From fake news to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the social-networking giant has been embroiled in a seemingly endless string of controversies over the past two years. Zuckerberg’s lieutenants didn’t help the company avoid such problems or quickly get past them. And it seems dubious that they are forward-thinking enough to help Facebook avoid similar problems in the future.
Unfortunately, Zuckerberg indicated on Tuesday that we can expect more of the same. Facebook said it was undergoing a major reorganization at the top, but the changes are little more than cosmetic. A handful of executives are changing their job titles, but no one’s leaving, and no one new is coming aboard.
In other words, no one’s being held accountable for the company’s many missteps. And the same folks who advised Zuckerberg in the past will still be advising him going forward.
It’s a big missed opportunity for Zuckerberg and Facebook.
The changes won’t address Zuckerberg’s shortcomings
All leaders need lieutenants who can cover their blind spots and are strong enough to stand up to them and tell them when they’re wrong. But that’s especially the case at Facebook.
Thanks to Facebook’s stock structure, Zuckerberg controls the company. He can elect new directors, approve acquisitions, and change company policy by himself, without the votes of a single other shareholder. He dominates Facebook in a way few other CEOs could.
But Zuckerberg is also someone with limited life experience. He’s still relatively young and has spent his entire adult life running Facebook. He has consistently shown a tin ear for the concerns raised about his company, its services, and its power.
For years, none of that mattered. Facebook’s sales, profit, reach, and stock price grew unabated. Despite warnings from privacy advocates, more and more people signed onto the service and increasingly shared information with it.
It’s been a rocky road for Facebook of late
But the past two years have proved rocky for Facebook. First came reports that Russia-linked groups had hijacked Facebook to spread propaganda designed to influence the 2016 US presidential election. The problem turned out to be much bigger than the initial reports suggested, affecting numerous other elections.
The company has since dealt with a string of controversies. It has been accused of helping foment violence against the Rohingya people in Myanmar by providing a platform for vicious hate speech to spread. Its dominance – along with Google in the digital advertising business – has drawn scrutiny and calls for an antitrust investigation. It has come under fire from former employees who say it’s a socially malevolent force that encourages addiction among users.
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And it has had to contend with news about two huge leaks of user data – one to the political-research firm Cambridge Analytica involving up to 87 million users, and another to an assortment of hackers affecting most Facebook users.
In nearly all the cases, Zuckerberg and his company were caught flat-footed. Instead of anticipating problems and avoiding them, Facebook was reduced to reacting to them, over and over.
But the problems weren’t just bad public relations – they seem to have started to affect the company.
The amount of time people spend on Facebook nosedived in the fall after a series of changes the company made to its core social network – changes it made in reaction to the controversies. Facebook’s user growth has flatlined in North America and slowed markedly in Europe.
Regulatory changes could have even more dramatic effects. There are concerns a new privacy law in Europe will crimp Facebook’s business there. During Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress last month, even some Republicans were critical of the company, hinting at the need for regulations to rein it in. Such changes could limit Facebook’s growth and, theoretically at least, end in a breakup of the company.
Facebook’s changes haven’t and won’t go far enough
Yes, Zuckerberg and Facebook have been making changes. They’ve revamped the News Feed. They’re working on ways to identify and block hate speech. They’re hiring thousands of moderators.
But the company still frequently seems tone-deaf and reactive. The latest example? Last week, it announced a new online dating service, a move widely mocked because it came amid broad and growing concerns about the amount of data Facebook already has on its users and its ability to keep control of that data.
- Stephen Lam/Reuters
In other words, now would be a good time for Zuckerberg to get ahead of Facebook’s various problems. He has shown he can develop Facebook as a business and a product, but he has yet to show that he understands, can cope with, or can proactively address the way his service affects and interacts with society.
He could stand to have people who have thought deeply about those issues and who see Facebook from a more critical vantage point advising him and guiding him.
That could have happened with this reorganization. But it didn’t. Instead, Zuckerberg is just shuffling people around. David Marcus, for example, is moving from being head of Messenger to leading a new blockchain project. Adam Mosseri, who ran News Feed, is heading to Instagram to be a new vice president of product.
Meanwhile, instead of bringing in fresh faces, the reorganization will empower longtime Facebook hands. Will Cathcart, who will lead product development at Facebook’s core service, has been at the company since 2008. Chris Daniels, who will head up WhatsApp in place of Jan Koum – who recently left in an apparent dispute with Zuckerberg over the future of the messaging service – has been at the company since 2011.
The three men who will head the new divisions created by the reorganization – Chris Cox, Mike Schroepfer, and Javier Olivan – were already top lieutenants under Zuckerberg and have all been the company for nearly a decade or more.
Zuckerberg did bring on a new board member on Tuesday. But it’s unlikely he’ll have much influence on the CEO.
So don’t expect Facebook and Zuckerberg to suddenly be able to put the controversies behind them and move on. Despite all the changes, the company looks more or less the same.