I thought about that for a minute, then prompted him, “If you could say, ‘Facebook is…’ just fill in the blank.”
“‘Facebook is growing up’ is probably what I’d say,” Stamos replied. Then he continued with a sigh, “There’s something about being faced with your impact in the world in a real black and white way that I think changes the way people address their work, right? I mean, every individual is thinking differently about that now.”
“They haven’t painted it yet,” he said. “It’s a bit of a reminder that companies come and go right? Like, what was one of the most powerful companies in the Valley — disappeared.”
At 15 years old, Facebook sits at a pivotal moment in its history. For many years, the company operated with a self-assurance that’s shaped many Silicon Valley companies over the last decade, a “trust us, we know what’s best” attitude. It’s an arrogance that led to innovation — Facebook arguably could not have become what it has without it — but also a hubris that has landed the company in the center of a debate about tech’s complicated role in shaping humanity. And the question always hangs: Will Facebook remain a giant of the Valley, dominating social networking? Or will its sign, too, get taken over one day?
Much of Facebook’s history has been shaped by bets that founder Mark Zuckerberg made which paid off, and by the company’s own faith in itself and what it is doing. Facebook and Zuckerberg launched News Feed over protests; it has now become central to the company. Zuckerberg turned down a billion dollar acquisition offer from Yahoo; the company is now worth almost 500 times that. People scoffed when Facebook bought Instagram; now that deal looks like a steal.
“One thing I always admired about Mark is his ability to think forward in games.” Dave Morin, an early employee at Facebook, told me recently. “They say this about great chess masters, that they’re able to see, you know, three steps ahead, or the best chess masters can see like five games ahead of you, right? And I always viewed Mark that way.”
At the same time, though, there was always a tremendous blindspot. A company that connected billions lacked a basic understanding of human beings, and of all the potential complications, consequences — and actual casualties — that would come along with connecting the world.
An inflection point, and the next 15 years
It’s funny, how the smallest things can seem to be what matters most at the biggest moments, and how they can be the things you remember later.
And yet just before we started the interview, the talk was about the set-up. The subtext: What’s a comfortable setting for one of the most uncomfortable moments in Facebook history — are the chairs we’ll each sit in right? Is the room a good temperature?
It might sound ridiculous to some, but it was understandable. This was a hugely important moment for Zuckerberg. The smallest detail, like whether the room was cold enough so that Zuckerberg — who has previously been mocked for how much he’s sweated in a public setting — wouldn’t overheat, or what kind of set up would be conducive to a high stakes interview, could make a difference.
To make these bets pay off again, and to face all the competitors it may come up against, Facebook will likely need to keep some of that old arrogance. But if it is to avoid Sun Microsystems’ fate, it will need some humility too.
“Facebook is a living, breathing map of society,” Morin observed to me. “It’s literally a map of every single person and all of the relationships and all of the interactions between all those relationships And so, in a way, it’s as messy and human as we all are.”
There’s something to that. All over the world, Facebook has woven itself into the fabric of society. It had promised to connect us, and in doing so to bring us closer together. But the same platform that did that, the one many credited for a role in the Arab Spring and cheered for the part it played in raising millions through things like the Ice Bucket Challenge, has been weaponized by trolls and nation states, has gotten our data stolen, has spread conspiracy theories and fake stories. It has even been used to fuel violence in places like Myanmar.
At 15, the company has its own filter bubble to burst. The challenges ahead can’t be solved with the same old attitude, and without Facebook realizing that it needs to listen to outsiders, and be transparent with them. It’s made that a priority, but it still has a ways to go. There’s no telling how many new issues it will face over the next 15 years, and its reaction to those things will determine whether it remains dominant or loses its position as one of the most powerful tech companies in the world.
“I think the company is lasting,” Stamos told me on his last day. “But I think also that the 101 is littered with the old headquarters of companies that thought they would be around forever. That is a constant part of Silicon Valley, the death and the rebirth of these products and and these organizations. … [N]obody can get too comfortable and too arrogant about how long anybody can be around, and how long you can be on top.”