The whole thing —it’s just north of 15,000 words— is worth your time, but the final section, detailing how the traits that made Facebook popular are now liabilities, is particularly solid:
At a certain point, the habits of mind that served Zuckerberg well on his ascent will start to work against him. To avoid further crises, he will have to embrace the fact that he’s now a protector of the peace, not a disrupter of it. Facebook’s colossal power of persuasion has delivered fortune but also peril. Like it or not, Zuckerberg is a gatekeeper. The era when Facebook could learn by doing, and fix the mistakes later, is over. The costs are too high, and idealism is not a defense against negligence.
Of course, Facebook’s near-boundless optimism is par for the course in Silicon Valley. There’s a lot of debate whether it’s an asset or a liability, but you’d be hard pressed to find a serious thinker who doesn’t believe that it’s an ingredient of the area’s stratospheric success. What Osnos manages to capture is just how inexorably linked Zuckerberg’s cavalier attitude is to the headwinds Facebook currently finds itself facing.
Zuckerberg is still one of the most interesting people in the Valley today, and for a long time I wasn’t convinced he enjoyed running Facebook.
My thinking went something like this:
- Facebook has deep countercultural and hacker-ish roots that it doesn’t —and can't— have now. Think about his early I’m CEO… bitch business cards or the “graffiti mural of a scantily clad woman riding a Rottweiler” in their first office. Zuckerberg has had to abandon those roots, and even actively repudiate them, to be a respected executive.
- Washington DC has turned against tech —and Facebook in particular— to an extent that I think people are underestimating. (Required reading: Tyler Cowen’s list of tech’s political problems.)
- Running Facebook in 2018 is not Zuckerberg’s natural habitat. He’s dependent on other people, the adults in the room (mostly Sheryl Sandberg), to not fuck up. (Facebook remains his first job, and running it is the only one he’s ever had.)
- Facebook has enormous cultural, social, and political responsibilities. I’m not convinced they want them, but they couldn’t abdicate them if they tried.
Osnos shines a light on a lot of these aspects of Facebook. His linkage of Zuckerberg’s leadership decisions to the CEO’s love of the Classics, and Emperor Augustus in particular, feels believable to me. The way Zuckerberg runs Facebook and takes (or rather, doesn’t take) criticism starts to make sense.
Zuckerberg really does believe that you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. The tagline of The Social Network was “you don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies,” and it captures the essence of Zuckerberg: you’ll lose a few battles, but you’ll win the war. It’s clearer to me than ever that Zuckerberg’s “connecting the world” routine isn’t just pablum or Valleyspeak. He genuinely believes it, and everything that’s happened in the last 12 months (Cambridge Analytica, Russian meddling, and so on) are just bumps in the road.
As always, I welcome your feedback, and I’d love to hear your suggestions for what you’d like to see covered in this newsletter. I’m @tommycollison on Twitter, or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please get in touch! 📩📬