2021 Prediction #2: Peak Facebook as Zuckerberg runs out of role models

If 2020 was a Trump- and Covid-inspired year of social media excess, 2021 can’t help but see some reversion. But it’s more than that, with big Internet companies coming under greater regulatory scrutiny worldwide, especially Facebook and Google. This year is going to be a tough one for Mark Zuckerberg, especially. And while I don’t expect Zuckerberg to abandon his CEO job this year, he eventually will, simply because it isn’t as much fun as it used to be and there will come a point (maybe in 2022) when leaving the top job will help Facebook’s stock.

At this moment there’s reportedly a bot operating on Telegram selling for $20 or less the personal info including phone numbers of 500 million individual Facebook users. What’s the logical corporate response to a gambit like that? Nobody knows because nobody has been in Facebook’s particular position before.

And in fact nobody knows a lot about managing companies as big as Facebook as the social network further invades our lives. Most managing, you see, is copying behaviors from a short list of role models and Zuckerberg no longer has any who have faced what he is facing today. He has outgrown his own psychological support system.

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No Internet company embodies its founder more than Facebook does Mark Zuckerberg. I’ve written about this before, but he literally owns the joint, so anything that happens -- good or bad -- can’t really be blamed on anybody else.

Zuckerberg’s primary role models have been Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Larry Page. Each modeled different ways to manage through dominance. Steve was a brilliant tyrant ("I know I’m an asshole," he told me more than once); Bill tried to technically dominate by claiming to identify bad code from across a room (he really can’t); Larry taught by example to hide behind the algorithm, blaming it for, well, everything from nonexistent customer service to employee income inequality. 

The only unique truly self-actualized character in this mentor group was Steve Jobs and Steve is dead. The others all got too rich and otherwise absorbed to stick with the corporate day-to-day and are gone. Maybe they are finally grown-up. And even they learned from others (again Steve being the exception). Bill Gates was taught to run a company by IBM and Jon Shirley while Larry Page followed a path blazed by Jerry Yang and guided by Eric Schmidt.

But none of those guys faced what Zuckerberg faces today, calling all the shots and making all the hard calls by himself. That has to be exhausting.

Yes, Sheryl Sandberg is also COO at Facebook and yes, she is a marvel (I’m a huge Sandberg fan), but Zuckerberg is the boss.

I’m not calling for the demise of Facebook, which has a good grip still on its audience through more than just the core service, but the social media market is in transition and none of my kids have Facebook accounts, which I think is telling. I predicted this years ago, by the way. Even Facebook has a shelf life.

And so 2021 will see Facebook poked and prodded and taxed and regulated and possibly even torn apart. Google will be, too, but Facebook is frankly less essential and more vulnerable. How Zuckerberg responds will be where he blazes his own managerial trail. However it goes will take a toll, though, and even Zuck will eventually decide it’s better to become a philanthropist and find some new way to change the world. Though probably not until 2022.

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