Mark Zuckerberg’s Big Problem Has Been Obvious for 17 Years, But Nobody Wants to Admit It

Imagine if you only ever had one job since you were a teenager, and it went on to make you extraordinarily wealthy and powerful–far beyond most people’s wildest dreams.

In other words, imagine being Mark Zuckerberg. Now, imagine that you might be flat-out wrong about something that could ultimately mean the end of Facebook.

Here’s why this matters now. There are only a few forces on the planet powerful enough to take on Facebook. National governments might be among them, maybe. But otherwise, we’re looking at the other tech behemoths.

As it happens, one of those behemoths, Apple, has all-but declared war on Facebook, while another, Google, looks as if it’s gearing up to join the fight. My colleague Jason Aten has done a great job recently chronicling the battle:

  • Apple is set to change its privacy rules so that app developers will have to request permission before tracking most users. 
  • That runs squarely into Facebook, where the entire business model basically involves tracking users in order to sell “personalized ads.”

Who tells you ‘no?’

Apple’s move could be an existential threat; at least Facebook seems to think it is. I can’t predict how it will all turn out.

But, a lot of people could have predicted something like this would eventually happen. The reason? It’s simple, and it’s a byproduct of Zuckerberg’s meteoric success. 

In short, like every highly successful leader, Zuckerberg has always run the risk of surrounding himself with people who owe their success to him, and who therefore can’t effectively tell him, “no.”

Because of his background — again, having only really done one thing: built Facebook — he’s probably even more at risk of this phenomenon than many others. In retrospect, it was obvious from the beginning, 17 years ago this month. 

‘The whiz’

We can see what Facebook was like back in those early days, because Zuckerberg built the first iteration out of a Harvard dorm room, and the student newspaper wrote about it.

The stories are still online: “Hundreds Register for New Facebook Website” and “Mark E. Zuckerberg ’06: The whiz behind,” for example. Go back through them now, and it becomes clear that Zuckerberg never had a normal life.