Let’s just cut to the chase: Who’s going to replace Mark Zuckerberg as C.E.O. of Facebook?
Before you go, “Whoa there, Kara,” let me just say that the horse is already out of the barn, whether the famed entrepreneur knows it yet or not.
He is not going to go in quite the same way that we’re used to seeing leaders exit the stage — up and then out. Because of his controlling stock, Zuckerberg will continue to wield all the real power at Facebook for as long as he wants. But the era of his being the adored dear leader and cultural touchstone at the company is effectively over.
Facebook staff members used to be considered the most docile in Silicon Valley; no one ever leaked. But the endless stream of internal employee communications contained in the many thousands of documents provided by the whistle-blower Frances Haugen makes clear that a number of rank-and-file Facebookers have had it. One wrote, “It’s not normal for a large number of people in the ‘make the site safe’ team to leave saying, ‘hey, we’re actively making the world worse FYI.’”
Haugen has managed the rollout of the revelations as if it were the invasion of Normandy. The effort has been highly coordinated, from the big reveal in a Wall Street Journal series to her plain-spoken “60 Minutes” interview and the recent creation of a consortium of news organizations, which includes The New York Times, to examine the documents.
She has also projected moral clarity. Testifying before a Senate subcommittee and British Parliament, she said enough to be devastating but not so much that she tarnished her sincere and pristine image. Telling a Times columnist that she’s not relying on any organization’s financial support because she made some well-timed cryptocurrency investments is the chef’s kiss of the whole affair.
But Haugen is not the point here. She has shown us that the management of Facebook has been tone-deaf and uncaring about the harm that its own research showed its products were doing, despite ensuing pleas from concerned employees.
While past accusations that Facebook and Zuckerberg care about profits and growth over safety sometimes fell flat — Wall Street certainly hasn’t had a problem with the company — it’s a message that’s less easily ignored now. It comes at a moment when there’s uncertainty about the future of democracy. Whether you are on the noisy right or left or just quietly miserable in the center, there is a sense that something is awry in this nation and this world and someone or something must be to blame.
It wouldn’t be fair to put the woes of humanity entirely on Facebook’s shoulders. But it is unquestionable that it is handing powerful tools to the obviously malevolent and not doing enough to mitigate the inevitable damage. That’s the parental equivalent of giving a knife to a toddler and hoping for the best. “History will not judge us kindly,” wrote one employee about Facebook’s handling of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
And as the documents show, the company is not just negligent; it is actively making things worse. For example, it removed safeguards it put in place before the U.S. elections that limited misinformation on the platform. So Facebook is not the hey-we’re-just-a-platform player it likes to pretend it is.
Zuckerberg’s belligerent attitude during the social media giant’s earnings call yesterday suggests that he’s facing a new level of pressure. This would normally be the time for the patented apology that he rolled out whenever times got tough before. No longer. He and the company’s P.R. machine are whirring and clicking with indignation and bile. “My view is that what we’re seeing is a coordinated effort to selectively use the leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company,” Zuckerberg said.
Which brings us back to the C.E.O. job. According to numerous sources, Facebook will move to shift its corporate structure this week, creating a holding company with a benign name and Zuckerberg at the top. (Meta has been suggested, but it might end up being even more anodyne.) As I wrote last week, this is what Google did when it morphed into Alphabet. Moving Zuckerberg out of harm’s way is perhaps the smartest strategy, since he has, like most founders, become the personification of the problem. We need time to forget his shortcomings (many) and rediscover his attributes (also many). A new C.E.O. would run the flagship Facebook division and take all the incoming.
The best move would be to bring in someone who is not part of the suffocating inner circle that Zuckerberg has created over the past decade. This group is made up of people who are in constant agreement. They have bragged to me about their longevity and how they could finish one another’s sentences. Can someone from this gang be counted on to make much-needed changes?
But I doubt Zuckerberg could tolerate a smooth outsider coming in — someone like Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith — who would move to distance himself or herself from the mess and declare that he or she was just there to clean up the wonderful land of Facebook. Instead, I imagine that Zuckerberg would pick someone from the inside whom he already trusts.
One possibility is Adam Bosworth, a longtime executive who was just elevated to chief technology officer. Or Chris Cox, the chief product officer, who is an exceedingly earnest techie who returned to Facebook after leaving for a year. He has a clean persona, despite having been along for most of the ride. One dark horse might be David Marcus, another quieter executive, who has been overseeing Facebook’s financial services products.
The person who I think is unlikely to take over is the current C.O.O., Sheryl Sandberg, who, after a stellar upward trajectory for most of her career, has also become tainted. As Zuckerberg’s longtime No. 2, she’s the Icarus of Facebook. Putting her in the main seat will not fix what’s broken at the company or signal to a now impatient line of regulators that Facebook is ready to change. A restructuring would be an opportunity for her to exit quietly with some grace.
Of course, Zuckerberg could also stand pat and hope for the best, as he has before. Wall Street still loves him. His financial results shine. And his curiously silent board — not one member has made a peep since this whole mess got started — is a willing accomplice to whatever he wants. Most of all, he is a very stubborn man.
There is surely more to be revealed from Haugen’s documents, and perhaps there will be more investigations. At this point, there is already blood in the social media waters, which can only mean sharks. And the thing about sharks, which Zuckerberg knows well from his love of surfing, is that you never see them coming until it is too late.
4 questions for …
Jessica Powell, a co-founder of Audioshake, a start-up that uses artificial intelligence to break songs up into parts.
1. So you have been a big-deal communications person at Google, an author and even an Opinion contributor to The Times on tech. Now you’re doing a start-up. Explain.
I’ve always loved creating things, but all of that fell to the wayside when I was working at a big company. When I left Google, I wanted to get back into music. My co-founder and I wanted to see if we could use A.I. to create karaoke songs for old punk records by removing the vocals from the songs. We soon realized that the opportunities were much greater. Imagine if there was an authorized, scalable way to allow an artist to sample any song from any point in time? Or if a social media user could pull apart any kind of audio content and interact with it as easily as they do today with video effects and image filters?
2. At Audioshake, you are breaking up songs into “stems” in order to create more content. This has been done before, so explain why this is different and why A.I. changes the idea.
Historically, there was no easy way to break apart a song if all you had was the final mix. You couldn’t just separate Nina Simone from her backing band. It’d be like trying to extract a sunflower from a van Gogh painting.
A.I. — and, specifically, deep learning — has made significant advances in the past few years. We teach our A.I. how to recognize different instruments, then it can successfully separate them from the original song.
3. How does tech help creators get paid with this, or is it the same repurposing of content that leaves the same powers in control? Should songs be made into further investment schemes by owners? In other words, how is Taylor Swift going to feel about this?
We follow copyright law, so we’re not upending all the economics of the music business by suddenly giving content away. That might solve one problem but, of course, creates an entirely new one.
There are two big ways Audioshake and A.I. stems can help artists. First, independent music is the fastest-growing segment of the music industry. If artists have their stems, they will have even more opportunities for their music in the future. Second, there are going to be so many more opportunities for artists of all types. In digital terms, it’s no longer going to be just about how many times your song has been streamed on a music player. As an artist, if you want your song to be used all the way down to the most atomic level, there are going to be so many more places and revenue streams for your music.
4. You raised $2 million in a short period, but other women have not been so lucky. Have things changed for female entrepreneurs?
The statistics remain abysmal. Less than five percent of venture capital goes to female founders. There are some V.C.s who have better track records at funding women, but I think the biggest driver of change will be when we have more women on capitalization tables, participating in investment decisions.
Bonus: Explain the concept behind spatial music. You may mention the new Apple iPods.
In the simplest terms, spatial audio is a much more immersive experience, like in a movie theater, where the sound is coming from all around — from above, the side, etc.
Apple’s new AirPods feature spatial audio. Amazon and Tidal also support that format. V.R./A.R. and gaming are growing areas for spatial audio, too. Of course, to create a spatial mix, you need to be able to break the song apart so that you can place different sounds in different places. When labels started coming to us to create stems for spatial mixes, we thought it was going to be for older music. But the greatest demand has been for contemporary hip-hop and pop.
Ask the parents
While a lot of focus has been on China’s moves to rein in use of digital services by young people, which is essentially being done by fiat, the democratic version is gaining steam, too. This week Australia introduced legislation that would compel social media companies to get parental consent for users under 16 years old or suffer fines. The law, called the Online Privacy Bill, would affect the big companies like Facebook and would also apply to Reddit, dating apps and others. It is a harbinger of more government action when it comes to minors and the internet. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? You could argue both sides, but it is a thing, for sure, and a winning move with consumers.