There aren't too many people on earth who can relate to Mark Zuckerberg's problems, but Bill Gates is one of them.
So, a few months ago, when Facebook's founder, chairman, and CEO was struggling to cope with the spiraling scandals and controversies threatening to consume his company, he called the Microsoft founder to ask for help.
Gates's advice, according to the Wall Street Journal, was to delegate. He told Zuckerberg to consolidate responsibility for corporate, legal, and external affairs into one role. (This job would be similar to the one Brad Smith holds at Microsoft.)
Zuckerberg explored the idea but ultimately didn't follow through with it. Which is fine. It's hard to imagine that more redrawing of the org chart would turn around Facebook's current trajectory. Zuckerberg already has shuffled his management a good deal this year, and assigned his No. 2, Sheryl Sandberg, with the paramount task of getting ahead of Facebook's political and PR problems. None of it has helped.
Indeed, Sandberg's efforts at containment corkscrewed into yet another scandal, with a New York Times expose detailing the unseemly measures Facebook has taken to shore up support in Washington. While Elliot Schrage, Facebook's departing head of public policy, took the blame publicly for the most embarrassing revelation -- the company's hiring of a political opposition-research firm to tarnish Facebook's competitors and critics -- internally, Sandberg said it was her responsibility. (Although she has also denied knowledge of it.)
When you think about it, Gates is an odd choice of mentor for Zuckerberg. While the younger man clearly aspires to Gates's current image as a farsighted, heroic philanthropist, that wasn't always how Gates was perceived.
Twenty years ago, when he was just a few years older than Zuckerberg is now, Microsoft was taking heavy fire for being the corporate goliath that used its monopoly power to crush startups and dominate people's lives. When the company found itself in the crosshairs of the Department of Justice for its attempt to leverage its position as the No. 1 operating system into control of the burgeoning browser market, Gates responded with a show of arrogance that made Zuckerberg's blithe dismissal of Facebook's impact on the 2016 presidential election seem humbly introspective in comparison. (Thanks in no small part to Gates's self-immolating deposition, Microsoft lost its antitrust case.)
Now Facebook is the giant that's sweating the calls for it to be broken up, or otherwise regulated into submission. "How long will it be before Facebook uses its own data and platform against critics?" writes Robert Reich, the U.S. Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, in a Guardian op-ed calling for the biggest tech companies to be broken up. "As the New York Times investigation makes clear, political power can't be separated from economic power. Both are prone to abuse."
Reich has a point: Breaking up Facebook and its peers would probably be beneficial for the economy as a whole, just as shackling Microsoft turned out to be. But, in the meantime, Zuckerberg should start shopping for a better mentor.
I suggest Jeff Bezos.
Amazon, if anything, is even more of a competition-killing behemoth than Facebook, but Bezos has been far more deft in how he wields its power, as evidenced by a recent survey showing Americans of both political parties trust it more than the other big tech companies -- and even more than most major civic institutions.
Why? Here's a guess: For all its hydra-headed complexity, it's an easy company to understand and judge on its own terms. Bezos's aim is to sell things to people in every way it can be done, more efficiently than anyone else is doing it. That's it. Amazon's mercenary orientation gets it intro trouble sometimes -- when it's selling face-recognition software to law enforcement agencies, or strong-arming cities into giving it tax breaks -- but we're comfortable with Amazon because, in the end, it's a reality-based organization whose claim to be "the most customer-centric company on earth" is empirically checkable (even if it doesn't always check out).
Facebook, on the other hand, asks us to join Zuckerberg in his belief that Facebook is not just something many people like and find useful, but is a force for good in the world. In his view, that fundamental goodness outweighs all the ills it has wrought, from political polarization and privacy violations to enabling ethnic cleansing. All that stuff is just so much dust in the chicken, as Zuckerberg once memorably, if bizarrely, put it. And while Zuckerberg has copped to being too idealistic and optimistic, nothing that has come out in the last two years has dented his basement-level assumption that Facebook benefits the people who use it, net-net. "I think it's a positive force because it gives more people a voice," he told CNN's Laurie Segall in yet another damage-control interview that aired Tuesday night.
Even more than the average Silicon Valley startup, Facebook is obsessed with improving metrics like engagement and time spent, which it uses, in concert with user surveys, to tune its underlying algorithms. It's only in the last two years, as public sentiment has turned against his creation and employee morale has plunged, that Zuckerberg has earnestly wrestled with question of whether those metrics might not be indicators of Facebook's goodness but obstacles to it. In designing a system to grow as fast as possible and capture as much of users' time as possible, he has built a machine that reinforces people's worst behaviors and invites abuse.
An ability to stay clear-eyed and unsentimental is one trait that sets Bezos apart from other entrepreneurs. In a 2017 memo extrapolating from his famous "Day 1" mantra, Bezos highlighted the way a pattern of "managing to proxies" can cause companies to fall into stasis or lose focus. Facebook is a crystal-clear case of a company that fell into the proxy trap. It claimed to care about one thing -- while optimizing for something else entirely.
But there are signs Zuckerberg is adopting a more Day 1 mindset. Just last week, he made a remarkable admission: Engagement is less an accurate measure of how much people like a piece of content than of how harmful it can be. "What we see is that as content gets closer to the line of what is prohibited by our community standards, people seem to engage with it more," he told reporters. Henceforth, Facebook will use A.I. to identify viral content that stops just short of violating its content policies and suppress its distribution.
That's an interesting idea. Even better would be if Zuckerberg follows the thought all the way back to its origin to question to question why engagement is something Facebook cares about in the first place. It's obvious how boosting viral content serves the advertising model; it's not at all clear how it serves the stated missions of connecting people and giving them a voice.
Conviction is essential for any founder, but so is the ability to reevaluate your assumptions. For Mark Zuckerberg, that means the assumption that Facebook is a force for good. Right now, it's not.
But maybe it could be.