Mark Zuckerberg Manages to Turn His Frown Upside Down

A salvaged public image, strong new products and a recovered stock price have pulled the Meta founder out of the doldrums.

| Updated on: Sep 29 2023, 21:20 IST
Mark Zuckerberg
Meta founder's stock price has recovered. (AP)
Mark Zuckerberg
Meta founder's stock price has recovered. (AP)

Though the fines levied on Meta Platforms Inc. over the past few years have reached into the billions of dollars, I've long felt the greater punishment for Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg was the paralysis his company endured. A dorky engineer at heart, Zuckerberg appeared ill equipped and disinterested in playing the diplomatic role needed to pull the social network's reputation up from the gutter.

It meant efforts to innovate collapsed under the weight of Meta's lousy reputation. Consider the company's Portal video chat device. Released in 2018, it was a well-priced, extremely user-friendly product. It was met with howls of laughter: Facebook wants to put a camera in my house now? Are they serious?

Later, Meta's efforts to launch a cryptocurrency, with protections far exceeding similar projects out there in the digital Wild West, were essentially dead on arrival with US regulators. The message quite clear: After what you've done? Forget it.

Watch clips of Zuckerberg from around that time and you'll see the pressure etched into his face. People called him a robot, owing to his stilted performances in front of Congress and in various TV interviews. As he tried to please everyone, he floundered — such as when he argued Holocaust denial had a place on Meta properties like Facebook. People started to wonder whether Zuckerberg was the engaged, capable leader Meta needed. Maybe, like some other young tech founders, the company and its pressures had outgrown him. The voices would have been louder were it not for the fact that Zuckerberg's control of the company makes any ousting impossible. Nobody has the power to do it.

The pandemic era bought more woe. In October 2021, the Wall Street Journal published “The Facebook Files,” an embarrassing leak of company documents by whistleblower Frances Haugen. In early 2022, and for much of the year, Meta felt the pain of recent privacy changes made by Apple that made it harder to gather data for targeted advertising; Wall Street worried Meta's business model might be damaged irreparably. Meta was one of several big tech companies forced to shed thousands of workers, admitting that it had become complacent and overstaffed. With investors getting antsy at the company's spending, particularly on the fanciful “metaverse,” Zuckerberg promised a “year of efficiency.”

So far, it's working. Meta's stock price has risen almost 150% over the past 12 months. Advertising returned; spending levels were moderated; and AI presented new avenues for experimentation. With Threads — a competitor to Elon Musk's X, formerly known as Twitter — the company has an unexpected new growth opportunity. Even the much-maligned metaverse ambitions received a boost when Apple announced its Vision Pro headset — validating, to some extent, that Meta's vision of the next big platform was on the right track.

Something else happened to Zuckerberg during the pandemic. He got a life. “It was an opportunity for a lot of people to just reassess what they found meaningful in their lives,” he told The Verge's Alex Heath this week. “The silver lining is I got to spend a lot more time with my family, and we got to spend more time out in nature because I wasn't coming into the office quite as much.”

Even viewed with a skeptical eye, the result seems to be a more mature, relaxed CEO who doesn't take the job so seriously — and has therefore become much better at it. His public image has improved drastically now that he appears to care less about it and has doubled down on his hobbies, such as cage fighting. While talk of a bout with Musk reflected poorly on both of them, Zuckerberg managed to look the moderately more dignified of the two when said enough was enough.

Zuckerberg's turnaround was abundantly clear during this week's keynote speech at Meta Connect, the company's yearly developer conference for its mixed-reality efforts. The presentation was among the most relaxed I have seen from a tech CEO in recent years. He joked with the audience, went off script and mentioned his children almost as much as he mentioned the products. Those products look strong: a mixed-reality headset at a price well below what Apple is promising months from now, and a raft of practical AI features that it can roll out almost immediately. While investors have previously grimaced at Meta's huge R&D bill, these new products have changed the mood. “Meta in position to bring AI tools to billions,” one analyst wrote in a note.

But Zuckerberg can't rest on his laurels. Instagram's popularity has held up well, but TikTok is an imposing threat that — unless US lawmakers intervene — stands ready to capture the new generation of social media users. Threads had a blistering start but is suffering a drop of engagement in part because of its overly cautious approach. Zuckerberg promised the new Quest 3 headset was a “game changer” — if it isn't, investors might want the year of efficiency to get a little more efficient still. And while early fears about the impact of Apple's privacy changes seem to have subsided, a question remains about the long-term viability of the ad-driven model — it seems unlikely Meta will be able to charge for its core apps and features.

And despite the drastic improvement, Zuckerberg is still not out of the woods politically. Censorship claims will no doubt resurface with a US presidential election coming up. In Canada, the company is fighting an ugly war over linking to news coverage. And, after Zuckerberg announced its AI chatbots, the company received a letter from Democratic Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts, strongly urging the rollout be paused over privacy fears. Scrutiny will always linger — as it should.

But Zuckerberg seems up to the game now. His revived public persona — in which he looks like a stable guy versus the reckless Musk, and his company a safer bet when set next to the suspicious TikTok — paves the way to get new products moving. By his side, Meta's global affairs chief, Nick Clegg, has shown he can woo regulators as deftly as he once wooed a generation of British voters. When attention is squarely on the dangers of AI, Meta's slightly more open approach to the technology's development, compared with others like OpenAI, could help it find at least some degree of political favor.

No wonder there was a pep in Zuckerberg's step this week; the time when he seemed to be distant from Meta's day-to-day operations was firmly in the rearview mirror. Few are suggesting he step down now. In what has been a hugely disruptive year for social media, Zuckerberg seems to be coming out on top — and enjoying it.

Dave Lee is Bloomberg Opinion's US technology columnist. He was previously a correspondent for the Financial Times and BBC News.

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First Published Date: 29 Sep, 18:49 IST