What Mark Zuckerberg Must Do Next

What Mark Zuckerberg Must Do Next
Variety Intelligence Platform; AP Photo

The year is 2042. The giant conglomerate Meta Platforms has just successfully deployed an upgrade to its core product, Horizons 8.0, the world’s biggest virtual-reality playground for consumers to interact and transact via avatars navigating their way through a three-dimensional space experienced through lightweight goggles.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg is all smiles on the quarterly earnings call, as a combination of advertising and subscription revenue surpasses a record $1 trillion from Horizon, which launched as a negligible VR experiment back in 2020.

Now Horizon is so obscenely profitable, the app that first put Zuckerberg on the map — what was it called again … maybe Facebook? — is barely a blip on the balance sheet. Facebook’s many controversies are a dim memory to a public that moved on from old-fashioned two-dimensional Internet experiences ages ago.

Something like this scenario is the dream sequence that must be playing inside Zuckerberg’s head these days, coming off his annual Facebook Connect event last week. That’s where he made his boldest move yet to distance himself and his company from the current contretemps that seems to be reaching a high-water mark in the wake of the Facebook Files reports. And that’s really saying something when you’re talking about Facebook, which has been steeped up to its neck in hot water with extraordinary frequency in recent years.

And yet rather than address the criticism of his business practices, Zuckerberg attempted to turn the page by changing the name of his company and offering a vision not just for its future but perhaps the world’s.

There was something sadly transparent about the gambit of renaming his company Meta, a nod to the vague but ambitious notion of the metaverse as nothing less than the next major computing platform. Maybe Zuckerberg’s logic was that his vision of tomorrow would be so grand it would distract the world from the problems he faces today.

Still, the unfortunate truth is that Facebook’s controversies are of Trumpian proportions, and that’s actually a kind of backhanded compliment. People simply become numb to the sheer volume of negative headlines, and instead of it increasing their outrage, they simply tune out.

That’s why there’s a silver lining to Zuckerberg’s latest move. Its blatant desperation at least confirms that Facebook understands there is indeed a problem. He is, after all, a guy who likes to project a certain whistle-past-the-graveyard air about himself on his own social media account, as if he doesn’t have a care in the world when he must have plenty to worry about.

Just look at what he posted on his own Facebook account just hours before whistleblower Frances Haugen was set to break her silence last month.

Then again, when you run a company as obscenely profitable and ubiquitous as Facebook and face an avalanche of mounting evidence of the ethical shortcuts made to drive that success, it’s fair to ask whether the CEO truly groks, or even cares about, the implications of his choices.

If Zuckerberg manages to pull this off, it will be the greatest corporate pivot of all time. You could argue Netflix's DVD-to-streaming move was the previous record holder in this department.

But if he doesn't pull it off and Facebook doesn't end up cornering the metaverse market (Epic Games and Roblox are looking pretty well situated right now in that respect), this will be Zuckerberg's New Coke moment.

In the long term, Zuckerberg is going to have a challenge on his hand not unlike the one Hollywood confronted with respect to DVD and, in more recent years, pay TV. How do you manage the decline of something like Facebook, which is so massive that even in decline it will be incredibly valuable for decades to come, but still make a vision of the future a tangible enough reality for investors to have faith it will eventually come to fruition.

He could learn a lot from Jeff Bezos, who convinced Wall Street for a decade that its patience would be rewarded if the company plowed earnings back into investing in his company rather than beating the usual quarterly indicators. Worked out pretty well for him.

The flaw in Zuckerberg's plan is that even in the best-case scenario for Meta's future exploits in virtual reality, the efforts there won't bear fruit for a long time. It's going to be difficult to demonstrate a regular cadence of metaverse-related developments following Facebook Connect that underscores the company's shift.

If Zuckerberg is smart, he'll make sure Meta can get as close to seizing on even the smallest of progressions on the metaverse front as evidence of his company's refocus. If he doesn't, the Meta-morphosis will look even more shameless and futile in retrospect.

Don't underestimate Facebook, though. We've seen Zuckerberg successfully reorient the company before, as it did around mobile. Yes, there were turkeys along the way remember the Facebook phone? — but those mistakes recede in our collective memory when crowded out by the other wins along the way.