The “hero's journey” is a classic story structure. Coined by literature professor Joseph Campbell in 1949, it refers to a tale in which a character ventures out to get what he or she needs or desires, faces conflict and adversity, and ultimately triumphs. Renowned tech journalist Steven Levy’s balanced and compelling new book, Facebook: The Inside Story, and his discussion with CEO Dan’l Lewin at CHM on March 4, 2020, provides all the details we need to write the story of Mark Zuckerberg’s hero’s journey—complete with a cliff-hanger ending.
“Exeter.” That’s Steven Levy’s shorthand for the many times over his three years of research when he encountered a situation in which Mark Zuckerberg got exactly what he wanted. It refers to a moment when a teenage Zuckerberg, in search of a more challenging high school, overruled his mother’s wishes to attend a local school in favor of going away to the exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy. His need or desire (it may not be an important distinction) from an early age was, quite literally, world domination. He enjoyed playing games like Risk and Civilization, and his admiration for Roman conqueror Augustus Caesar led him to study Latin at school, and perhaps to cut his hair in the same style before a recent Congressional hearing. At Exeter and later at Harvard, Zuckerberg pursued his own coding projects for much of his time, his academic classes relegated to the sidelines.
According to Levy, Zuckerberg is Facebook, and “Exeter” is the key to understanding why the company was set up the way it was (with Zuckerberg controlling 54 percent), why it functions the way it does (monetizing users and their contacts, often without their knowledge), and also why trust in the platform today is low.
In the hero’s journey, a supporting cast of characters helps the hero to meet his needs and obtain his desires. In the early days of launching Facebook as a startup, Zuckerberg seemed to lead a charmed life, with key people serendipitously appearing as mentors and funders. One of these, Sean Parker, the cofounder of file-sharing pioneer Napster, helped him structure the company in a way that allowed Zuckerberg to keep outsized control, and he also connected him with funders. Another, Don Graham of the Washington Post, released Zuckerberg from his commitment to allow him to invest, graciously relieving the young founder of his moral dilemma so Zuckerberg could take venture capital money instead.
Even when he didn’t know it, Zuckerberg’s path appeared to be smoothed by circumstance. Levy tells the story of how a patent for early social media company SixDegrees, which could have killed Facebook before it even got off the ground, was bought by PayPal alums Reid Hoffman and Max Pincus in 2006 to keep it from being “weaponized” by aggressive startups. Ultimately, Facebook was the beneficiary.
Levy notes that Zuckerberg evaluated new features for Facebook based on whether or not he wanted them for himself. That usually meant they supported his goal to conquer the world by connecting everyone, which in turn led to a laser-focus on growth at all costs. The company mantra “Move fast and break things” promoted pushing out code quickly no matter how functionally or ethically flawed and then fixing it—or not—later. When Sheryl Sandberg joined as COO in 2008, she professionalized operations and put a stop to the “dorm room” culture, but certain areas like product, engineering, and growth remained under Zuckerberg’s control. This division of power at the top meant the company could not respond quickly when problems arose, resulting in lawsuits, regulatory issues, and scandals. In many, if not all cases, the hero’s single-minded desire for growth was the culprit.
Growing internationally created its own problems. Facebook sometimes did not even have any employees who spoke the language in new countries where the platform was expanding. This meant they were slow to respond to serious issues, as happened in Myanmar in 2012 when the military incited a genocide by stirring up hatred of the Muslim minority on Facebook. But perhaps the best-known scandal involved the “Facebook effect” on the 2016 US presidential election, when a company called Cambridge Analytica used personal data from users to micro target and attempt to influence voters. Levy says the structure of the platform and its business model, which elevates sensational stories (or even fake news), allowed the Trump campaign to “play the platform like a Stradivarius” violin while the Clinton campaign largely failed to engage.
Facebook is struggling to regain trust amid what seems like daily negative news that calls out the company’s misuse of data, privacy violations, and ongoing refusal to take full responsibility for the false and misleading content that continues to proliferate on the platform. Certainly, the hero of our story faces serious conflict and adversity. But . . .
Facebook has a valuation of more than $576 billion and almost 3 billion users, including those on its fully owned subsidiaries Instagram and WhatsApp. Since so many people use it, they must feel they are getting some benefit. But there are tradeoffs, and Facebook’s users are subjected to fake news, bullying, violent and hateful speech and images, as well as the systematic mining of their personal data. True to his charmed life, Zuckerberg himself doesn’t seem to have suffered from the consequences of the toxic environment he has created and enjoys unprecedented power and influence. Does this mean the hero has triumphed?
We haven’t yet reached the end of this story. Zuckerberg has switched his rhetoric about Facebook’s mission from connecting everyone in the world in a public forum to connecting everyone in secure virtual “living rooms.” He told Levy recently that he’s in “war-general mode,” opening the way to unilateral decision-making. Just as he’s made a practice of buying up competitors or driving them out of business by copying their products, Zuckerberg now intends to continue to take over the world through messaging apps. Given how slowly regulators move, and the portrait Levy paints of Zuckerberg’s relentless desire for growth at any cost, chances are he’ll succeed.