Facebook’s Icarus needs to come down to earth before it’s too late

 
Michael Hayman
Mark Zuckerberg Discusses The Internet, Immigration, During Interview
What Mark Zuckerberg needs now is humility and to work on reconnecting with us mere mortals (Source: Getty)

Mark Zuckerberg is facing his Icarus moment.

The tale of the boy who flew too close to the sun would make uncomfortable reading for the Facebook founder.

“Move fast and break things” was the mantra that made Zuckerberg such a totem of sky-high success. But lax privacy controls and the leaking of the information of 50m users have cost him dearly. Facebook is falling back to earth.

The sense of recklessness in pursuit of growth has damaged Facebook’s standing. Since news of Facebook’s misdemeanors broke, $73bn has been wiped off its market capitalisation.

Read more: Facebook’s reign of unpunished rule-breaking is coming to an end

Last week, we watched the 33-year-old founder hold his hands up and take full responsibility for the scandal, refusing to throw other employees under the bus. It is a step in the right direction, but it is deeds, not words, that matter now.

Facebook’s worries have hit the other big technology brands – Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google’s parent Alphabet – the so-called FAANG firms, which are suffering too and baring their teeth.

The usually mild-mannered Apple chief Tim Cook made it very personal, slamming Facebook over its data privacy. When asked what he would do if he were Facebook chief executive he replied, “What would I do [if I were Zuckerberg]? I wouldn’t be in this situation.”

This story is all the more remarkable because of just how quickly the unassailable position of these Silicon Valley titans has suddenly begun to look assailable. Sensing blood in the water, US President Donald Trump is circling Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, accusing the company of not playing fair with taxes and of abusing the US postal service.

Tax is another Achilles’ heel for the big tech firms. The sense that their great and quickly amassed wealth plays by different rules to everyone else’s has cost much in the way of trust.

But it’s in our interest that these fallen angels find redemption.

To do this, they need to grow up – and fast.

In a world where the tech giants and their innovations affect just about every part of our lives, it is easy to forget how young these companies are.

But cast your mind back a decade – Facebook was in its infancy, Airbnb was on the verge of being founded, Uber was still a year away.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales suggested to me in an interview that these firms are akin to Henry Ford and the mass democratisation of travel through the Model T car. While Ford courted his own controversies, no one could doubt his commitment to using business as a force for positive change.

Is that a fair comparison with Facebook? The social media giant has brought change, but has it all been positive?

Its vast value is a direct reflection of its power as a transformational and revolutionary business and Zuckerberg’s own steps towards philanthropy hint at an ambition to do the right thing. But if Ford showed one thing, it was that the commitment to making a difference needs to last a lifetime, not just a season.

It is in the criticism of Facebook that Zuckerberg should find hope. His is a remarkable company, prompting many of us to question whether it and its ilk are the next chapter of capitalism. When the stakes are this high, there is little wonder that we expect more and better from a business that should be leading the way.

Hubris is one word that Zuckerberg should understand better than most. He cited ancient Greek as a language he spoke on his application to Harvard.

Remember, only last year Zuckerberg was seriously being tipped as the next President of the United States – embarking on a “listening tour” around the country. Yet at the time, Facebook was already listed as one of the top six “most hated brands in America”.

What Zuckerberg needs now is humility and to work on reconnecting with us mere mortals.

He has made a start with his recent statement of responsibility, but let’s not forget, he has also refused to testify to a parliamentary select committee on this side of the pond. Perhaps he should reconsider. If he can prove that he is answerable, even to this small island, he might show he has what it takes.

So far his response seems more of a sulk than a signal.

If Icarus had lived, then no doubt his would have been the tale of the boy who learned an invaluable lesson. For Zuckerberg, it’s time to do the same and show the world that young firms can fly high and still make it safely back to terra firma – learning from their mistakes as they land.

Read more: Should Mark Zuckerberg step down?

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