Mark Zuckerberg Is Going To Kill His Company
As I’ve written before, I do not think much of Mark Zuckerberg as a CEO.
In the most charitable interpretation of the events of the last ten or so years, he has overseen a company grow from “catch up with what your friends are up to!” to a discordant social network experience where algorithms constantly attempt to trick you into doing stuff. It’s fair to say that Instagram and Facebook have become platforms that use their users, with your feed feeling like some sifting through cat litter for whatever nuggets of whatever it is you logged on to see, a thing that is becoming increasingly hard to remember.
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And things are getting worse:
How do you increase active users yet decrease revenue? Very easily: by turning your previously-beloved social networks into social engineering traps. Meta has successfully taken two products that people liked (and the only two products that made them any real money) and, in their desperation, tried to wring more money out of them by annoying their users into submission. The obvious problem is the one they’re currently facing, which is that the only way to make more money is to make the products significantly worse, pissing off users old and new, which will, in turn, mean advertisers reach fewer people, which will make Meta more desperate, which will mean the algorithm will continue to pump irrelevant crap into your feed. This will, eventually, mean that many people will stop using these platforms entirely.
But really, what is the reason to go on Facebook or Instagram these days for the average person? These experiences were never transcendent other than the fact that almost everybody is on Instagram or Facebook. Meta has likely overestimated exactly how powerful the value proposition of these platforms is and underestimated how powerful the effect of interfering with it is too.
We then get to the inevitable conversation around Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse, one of the stupidest things I have ever seen a company pursue. Reality Labs (the metaverse department of Meta that is tasked with spending and losing as much money as humanly possible) lost $10 billion in 2021 and, “[anticipates] that [their] operating losses will grow significantly year-over-year.” This comes two days after Meta shareholder Altimeter Capital’s CEO Brad Gerstner said that Meta should cap spending on the metaverse at $5bn a year and that “people are confused by what the metaverse even means.”
As funny as it is that Zuckerberg responded to “don’t spend as much money on the metaverse” with “I will now spend more on the metaverse,” anybody with half a brain can see that he is burning his company to the ground. Zuckerberg is experiencing peak founder-brain - that previous success begets future success and that has had several good ideas means that every idea you’ll ever have is perfect.
And that’s the ultimate con of Mark Zuckerberg. He is a liar and has created very little. Every major product that Meta sells (other than Facebook itself, and even then…) was acquired - FriendFeed, Friendster, Beluga, Instagram, Oculus, Face.com, every part of this company is some taped-on acquisition. It worked for a while, but no part of this narrative suggests Zuckerberg is the true architect of this company’s success.
He is, however, clearly the architect of its destruction. Zuckerberg mishandled the entire Cambridge Analytica situation, which I would argue was the first real executive test. Facebook’s revenue has been stumbling, and now he has now invested $15 billion into “the metaverse” without it being immediately obvious where that money went or why it went there.
We do know where some of it went, though - into Horizon Worlds, a subpar virtual reality platform that barely anybody uses or likes. People with terminal startup brain - or Casey Newton, who I otherwise respect - may want to claim this is “early days,” but the truth is that they have had plenty of time and so much money to pull this off, and it completely and utterly sucks. It is bad. It is glitchy. It is not fun. The actual experience of VR on a Meta device is awful, and while it may be cool when it works, there is a few reasons to get a Meta product if you’re interested in VR over the Valve Index or HTC Vive.
I am being damning because Mark Zuckerberg has put $15 billion into the metaverse. There is simply no excuse for these products to be so awkward, bad and ugly when you are a company with such an abundance of resources, with so many “great minds,” with the ability to hire almost any engineer that you’d like. This is not a scrappy startup jostling for position - it’s a mismanaged corporate behemoth run by a clueless goon that has been running on empty for the best part of a decade, someone who either ignores the advice of his colleagues or has surrounded himself with so many yes men that even his bowel movements are considered exemplary.
Whatever or whoever Mark Zuckerberg is - a mixed martial artist, a dedicated wave-rider, a person that visited a store perhaps three times in the last decade - he is not a good CEO. He is the crazed, failed steward of a company that is hurtling toward becoming an also-ran with a massive amount of burned capital, acting based on magical thinking and desperation to save a series of business models that were predicated on conning users.
By pinning the idea of the metaverse on cumbersome, early-generation hardware, Zuckerberg has shown that he has little understanding of how people use computers. He lacks Steve Jobs’ vision or charm, and, ironically, Elon Musk’s understanding of even the basics of social media. He’s charmless, yet believes he’s an electric genius that people should aspire to. His arrogance will choke the life from Meta, forcing them to burn capital until the advertising-based revenue from the real part of the company dwindles to the point that there’s no possible way to justify Reality Labs’ existence.
The irony is that there are profitable metaverses - they’re just called video games. Had Zuckerberg, say, acquired Second Life, and then used billions of dollars to turn it into a rich, customizable world run either in a browser or on a computer, that would have made a great deal more sense. Except I do not believe Zuckerberg has the humility, awareness or experience of the world he’s creating products for to reliably know what people want, or might want, or will ever want.
Zuckerberg is currently participating in the single-most expensive attempt to manifest reality and painfully failing. He is a nakedly awful ruler that can never actually be fired, meaning that he can burn this company to the ground if he sees fit. He is so wrapped up in his own fantasies of being the next great inventor that he hasn’t taken the time to actually invent anything, or think about what needs inventing, or consider the real world and what happens within it. He is the perfect startup bro, disconnected from humanity through an abundance of resources and power, a man who wants for nothing yet wants everything.
The net result will be the death of this company. Eventually, the internal frustration with Zuckerberg’s endless cash burn will lead to a brain drain in the company, and similarly a problem in hiring. Why would you want to work for Mark Zuckerberg other than money? What are you going to create, and do you think that people will like it? What mission would you be working toward, and can you rely on it staying consistent, considering it’s been less than a year since the company randomly changed its name and entire purpose?
Sidenote: Elon Musk’s potential acquisition of Twitter is worrying (and I’d argue more socially worrying than anything else), but I cannot imagine he will arbitrarily use Twitter’s funds to buy, say, a gaming company because “he believes people like to tweet while they game.” In fact, that sentence feels weird to write because people like to tweet while they game, and that statement has more validity than any justification that Zuckerberg has made for Reality Labs bleeding money.
I am not saying that Facebook or Instagram will die, but I believe they will become significantly more painful products to use as Zuckerberg gets more desperate. He wants to beat TikTok, but lacks the understanding that TikTok works in part due to an extremely aggressive algorithm, but also because it’s a quick and easy content creation tool that anybody can use, unlike Facebook and Instagram, which are clunky and annoying. They will likely become unpopular, forgotten products - unimaginable even a year ago - that are so desperate to try and trick you into consuming content that they’ve forgotten that real people even use the app.
The likely death spiral will be a slow decline in advertising revenue as people flee these platforms, with investors continually calling for Zuckerberg’s head as he burns $15+ billion a year trying to prove that the world wants to chat to Wii avatars “in the metaverse.” And once investors begin to lose confidence, perhaps the board will too, and Zuckerberg will gracefully leave.
But not before he burns another $50 billion or more.
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As someone who bought a Quest back in the day and has mostly thoroughly enjoyed the experience, I can't help but notice that the main reason I stopped using it was Meta's involvement. It soured the experience and made it more fiddly, too. For a company so dedicated to VR and the Metaverse, that's not a great end result.
I'm still interested in VR, and if Valve make something affordable I'll be right back there. But I've no interest in Meta VR products.
And that's before you get into the social ickiness of Meta's overall offering. The idea of the people behind Facebook being in control of a metaverse and me voluntarily putting a thing on my head to be in a space controlled by them is laughable. VR inherently requires a huge amount of trust from the user, just from a practical sense if nothing else ("I hope I don't walk into my wall"), and Meta don't really have any trust from people.
The other aspect that has struck me is how disposable all of Meta's products are. Facebook was great for connecting with family and distant friends, but it's now easier to do that via chat groups (or even email). Instagram was fun for sharing pics, but that's now a faff, and it was hardly essential in the first place.
Compare it to another tech mega-corp, like Google, who have deliberately built services that are genuinely useful and hard to do without. Maps, email, search. Relying on one company for all of that isn't great, of course, but they've been far more sensible about creating an essential foundation for their business. I'd find it practically very difficult to stop using Google products; stopping using Meta products is easy and I don't miss them in the slightest. In fact, it feels like an improvement.
In all fairness to the Titanic, there is speculation that it would have survived had it run into the iceberg head-on, as it was the long, slow gash along its side as it tried to change course that compromised enough watertight compartments to doom the ship.
What does this have to do with Mark Zuckerberg? Well, I’m not sure that flooding all of the ship’s compartments one at a time rather than all at once is going to help the HMS Meta complete its voyage through the chilly Atlantic night.