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In a nutshell:
Jane, what would you as a Silicon Valley insider say: Has Facebook's reign just begun – or is it about to end?
Well, the brand has been damaged for about ten years, long before the recent whistleblower revelations and the name change. I think monopolies can be bullies for quite a long time before they lose their power. But I have to believe that there is going to be some kind of disruption. We see Facebook scrambling, they are losing audience, people are migrating off as more and more privacy concerns are coming to light. Actually, Facebook’s story reminds me of a book called “Barbarians to Bureaucrats”.
What is it about?
It’s about the life cycle of a company. To get started, you have to be a barbarian. You do things that nobody expects, you upset people and challenge the status quo. You are all elbows and bad manners. Facebook was like that, Apple was, Uber was certainly like that. But as the company matures, you bring in experts with specific skill sets. Instead of having a bunch of people run around who are all doing everything, like a first-grade soccer team, you now have specialists. That’s the glory period. It’s all about execution. But these technocrats eventually impose rules and then the rules become rigid and ultimately become bureaucracies. That’s typically when the decay sets in.
And Facebook is in the third phase now?
Yes. They don’t have the same brand appeal they had before. They have become a necessary part of our infrastructure as opposed to something aspirational. Even worse, Facebook has become something that makes us feel bad. So yes, I would say this is the beginning of their decline.
In light of that, what do you think of Mark Zuckerberg's metaverse plans?
I don’t think Facebook is the right platform to build the metaverse. They have a hard time recruiting talent and that’s the most important thing Silicon Valley does: recruiting and retaining the best people. There are many more opportunities for the best of the best than joining a company that’s tainted, that they would feel embarrassed to be working for.
Facebook’s unofficial motto is: “Move fast and break things.” Has this motto become obsolete?
Well, I personally find it to be incredibly juvenile and irresponsible. And arrogant, just so arrogant. I may be saying this with the benefit of hindsight though – many years back, I was going: “YEAH! Whatever is good for the internet is good for humanity!”
What changed your mind?
My attraction to Silicon Valley was initially that the technology was so empowering. The internet was so compelling and created such enormous opportunities that my attitude at that time was: “Old institutions, old people, naysayers, existing power structures – just all step aside, make place for something much, much better!” Coming to Silicon Valley, meeting the people there and understanding how passionate they were – you got their sense of mission. We really were all working to make the world a better place. But then years later, I had a friend whose company made these dopey games. They would advertise them on National Public Radio by saying: “Making the world a better place with games like X and Z.”
Illustration by Ekaterina Kachavina, senior designer LOOPING GROUP, Ha My Le Thi, junior designer LOOPING GROUP
But they weren’t?
Of course they weren’t. They were producing shoot-‘em-up-games.
Yeah. It was absurd. And then came the rise of social media, of selfie culture and the narcissi-stick, and that’s when I really got disillusioned. Maybe I sound like a cranky old person now. But I have struggled with social media, and I have struggled with seeing Silicon Valley get taken over by this absurd wealth. There is so much money out there. You could hold up a piece of cardboard instead of a business plan, put your brand name on there, and someone will give you a million dollars. It’s insane.
If you look at tech leaders that you know – do they share your experience? Do you see a similar shift in mindset in them?
Well, certainly not in all of them. But there is an emerging consciousness in Silicon Valley that things are broken. It starts with the already established venture capital community. Today, it’s easier for good and smart people to reject deals.
Because there is so much technological innovation happening right now that you don’t have to be in on the next social platform or on the next dating app. You probably do have to be in crypto, though – if you are not, you are missing one of the biggest drivers in the last five to ten years.
Aside from the money, what is driving this change?
Climate change, the social impact, inequalities – these developments are all coming together. We are going to see new narratives all over the planet, driven by the planetary challenges and opportunities. The pandemic has shown us what is possible when scientists from all over the world come together. Climate change could be such a driver as well. We need to buckle down and find new directions. Living here in California and witnessing wildfires and extraordinary drought, it is hard not to imagine us working on collective solutions.
Can this shift in mindset happen from the inside or do companies need to be regulated more strongly by governments?
The rise of tech monopolies shows that we probably should have started thinking about regulation sooner than we did. We still haven’t effectively regulated them. But I don’t think this can be done solely with regulations. We need incentives. We need to ask ourselves: What needs to happen – and who is going to be motivated by what incentive to make this happen? We can encourage tech innovators to think about the key question: How do we want to live on this planet?
Jane Metcalfe is the creator and original publisher of the magazine Wired, the “Rolling Stone of technology”. She is a renowned insider expert on Silicon Valley and on how emerging tech affects our culture. In 2017, Jane Metcalfe founded NEO.LIFE, a digital magazine and newsletter, that focuses on the people, companies, and biological technologies that are improving, repairing, and extending life.