Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, turns 30 on Wednesday. But as its founder notches up another decade, is the social networking site he has been running for 10 years maturing with him?
Few publicly traded companies are as strongly influenced by one leader as Facebook. Zuckerberg still owns 29% of the company, constituting a hefty chunk of his estimated $26.6bn net worth. But his voting rights in Facebook, thanks to possession of a special class of shares, stand at 57%; even after all these years, what Zuckerberg says, goes.
For at least a time, according to Facebook data scientist Dean Eckles, product managers at the company were required to read Snow Crash, a science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson published in 1992, when Zuckerberg was eight. That novel posits a world in which the internet is replaced with the Metaverse, a shared virtual reality where business is done, socialising occurs and games are played.
It’s not hard to see the direct connection between that and Facebook’s plans for Oculus, the virtual reality company it bought for $3bn in March. “This is going to be a massively multiplayer online game where we want to put one billion people in VR,” Oculus’s chief executive told TechCrunch Disrupt in New York a month after the deal was finalised.
But as Zuckerberg ages, so too will his reference points. He still lists one science fiction work among his favourite books: Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel about child soldiers preparing to battle alien invaders. His favourite TV shows now include The West Wing and Game of Thrones. And, intriguingly, the Greek philosopher Plato and Roman poet Virgil have appeared among his favourite authors.
We may already be seeing the effect of that maturation. Zuckerberg has thrown himself into his Internet.org project, devoting his time to making affordable internet access available to the two thirds of the world not yet connected.
His efforts are not entirely selfless. Facebook is now so big that the population of the earth is a limiting factor in its future expansion plans. With 1.23 billion monthly active users, more than half of the connected population of the world is online.
But Zuckerberg does have a point: internet access is good for things besides being able to get on Facebook. “They’re going to use it to decide what kind of government they want. Get access to healthcare for the first time ever. Connect with family hundreds of miles away. Getting access to the internet is a really big deal.”
Rather than looking through his media library, though, there’s a better explanation for where the Facebook founder is heading: he will be aware of the brevity of the period in the limelight most tech CEOs enjoy, so at 30 he’s entitled to have a mid-life crisis. Perhaps we are seeing signs of this: after all, he’s gone on a spending spree; had a sudden realisation about his need to give back to the world; and got married. Admittedly that last event wasn’t a company thing, but the timing was linked to the his company’s maturation: Zuckerberg married Priscilla Chan, his girlfriend of nearly a decade, the day after Facebook went public.
As the CEO settles down into the rhythm of married life, will his company follow? It’s already possible to see the trappings of a mature, blue-chip company in what Facebook has become over the past year. With the purchase of WhatsApp, Moves and Oculus, Facebook seems well on its way to becoming a GE-style conglomerate, with Zuckerberg happily at its head, steering it to a prosperous future.
Or maybe he’s just waiting for another sci-fi story to catch his eye, and guide the next 10 years of Facebook. In which case, I can recommend Brian Vaughan and Marcos Martin’s comic The Private Eye, about a future which has sworn off the internet after a catastrophic release of personal information showed everyone’s secrets to the world. It could be enlightening indeed.
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