“We’re Running Toward Something”: My Chat with Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg
Screenshot via Facebook
Dylan Byers
October 28, 2021

“We’re moving towards a vision for the future,” Mark Zuckerberg told me on Tuesday afternoon, from his home in Palo Alto. It was weeks after the leaked documents by a former Facebook employee, Frances Haugen, had manifested themselves into The Wall Street Journal’s epic, Pulitzer-hopeful series, The Facebook Files, accusing the social media giant of threatening democracy, endangering teen girls, and essentially laughing all the way to the bank as it ignored the societal ills left in its wake. And it was just days since a consortium of journalistic outlets had leveraged the remains of Haugen’s documents to publish a semi-coordinated series of articles, The Facebook Papers, castigating the company for not doing enough to rein in its platform.

Facebook’s stock had stumbled, and it faced one of the largest public outcries of its life as a public company—reminiscent of 2016, Cambridge Analytica, the Russian misinformation campaigns, and even the Myanmar crisis. And yet here was Zuckerberg, essentially floating above it all, articulating the course for his company’s future, coalescing around the next phase of the Internet: the post-web, post-mobile, virtual and augmented reality matrix known as the metaverse. “Facebook is going to continue to be the brand for what, I think, is the most-used app in the world, so that’s going to continue being an important brand for the company,” he said. “But for me on a personal level, this feels like we’re running toward something that we’re excited about.”

Facebook’s current scandal, which has triggered the outpouring of a long-held, wide-spread animosity toward the company, has led some to suspect that Zuckerberg, like Bill Gates a generation ago, would levitate out of the public eye toward a behind-the-scenes chairmanship. But as was evident during our conversation, Zuckerberg remains as in control of Facebook as ever, with no plans to change his title, and his control of its dual class stock ensures that he only has to listen to himself. And so amid the company’s latest crisis, he was very much focused on the future of Facebook rather than the past, or even the present.

During a keynote speech at Facebook’s annual AR/VR summit on Thursday, Zuckerberg presented his vision for that future—the metaverse, a world of shared virtual and augmented spaces that we will one day access through headsets and eyeglasses. The metaverse will be mainstream within a decade, he predicted. Zuckerberg wants to have a major stake in that future, and so he has rebranded his company as Meta and is devoting $10 billion a year toward writing this next chapter, potentially allowing the company to become the underlying operating system of this new generation of augmented reality innovation. (Facebook will now effectively be a portfolio company within Meta. In our interview, Zuckerberg likened it to how Larry Page and Sergey Brin had architected a similar corporate structure years ago when they moved Google, among their other businesses, underneath the umbrella of Alphabet.)

Mark Zuckerberg in the metaverse

Screenshot via Facebook

Zuckerberg unspooled this prophecy in an 80-minute video that showed him living in a virtual home, holding meetings with Facebook executives in virtual workspaces, and virtual foil-surfing with a virtual Kai Lenny, the big wave surfer and a personal friend. People were depicted in the video using virtual avatars to attend real concerts with real friends, and virtual after-parties with virtual friends; small business owners sold real and digital goods in virtual stores. The problems that beset Facebook in our world don’t appear to exist in this metaverse, though they were hinted at when Facebook global affairs chief Nick Clegg appeared in his very corporeal form, as though rousing Zuckerberg from a blissful dream, to talk about the importance of user safety and privacy. But nearly all 80 minutes of the video were dedicated to Zuckerberg’s vision. It was a powerful piece of theater that presaged a fascinating, tech-enabled future. It was also a not-so-subtle repositioning of the C.E.O. himself, from constant crisis-managing pariah to future-crafting visionary.

Speaking with Zuckerberg, it was clear that he prefers this tech-augmented version of reality to the more prosaic one in which he is condemned by lawmakers and critics, in which his nearly trillion-dollar social media behemoth is facing multiple government investigations. In the keynote, he was somewhere else, in the future, where social media had been replaced, or upgraded, by the metaverse. “While this may sound like science fiction, we’re starting to see a lot of these technologies coming together,” Zuckerberg says in the video. “In the next 5 or 10 years, a lot of this is going to be mainstream. And a lot of us will be creating or inhabiting worlds that are just as detailed and convincing as this one, on a daily basis.”

The metaverse may indeed be inevitable in the coming years, but Facebook’s role in this future state depends in large part on what happens to it in the more immediate present. Gates has famously said that Microsoft missed becoming the dominant player in mobile because “we were distracted during our antitrust trial” and “didn’t assign the best people to do the work.” He called it his “greatest mistake ever.”

Zuckerberg appears eager to avoid that fate. He has distanced himself from Facebook’s present-day controversies and directed his focus toward setting the company up for success in the internet’s next wave. Early this year, after aggressively monitoring Facebook’s handling of the 2020 election and its aftermath, Zuckerberg informed his deputies that he would delegate political and regulatory issues and instead focus on innovation, high-level sources at the company told me. Zuckerberg remains interested in, and informed about, the company’s various legal, political and public relations issues, but he has tasked the day-to-day handling of those matters to others, all of whom report to Sheryl Sandberg: Clegg, chief legal officer Jennifer Newstead, chief marketing officer Alex Schultz, and Molly Cutler, an associate general counsel and the director of Facebook’s Strategic Response team. Like Jeff Bezos, one of Zuckerberg’s competitive strengths is his ability to fiercely manage how he prioritizes his time and attention.

Facebook, meanwhile, is already seen as a leading player in metaverse technology. The new $META exchange-traded fund places Facebook just behind industry leaders Nvidia, Microsoft, and Roblox in terms of companies that are, according to the index’s methodology, poised to “enable the Metaverse, and benefit from its generated revenues and profits.” Matthew Ball, a metaverse soothsayer and the co-creator of the index behind the ETF, told me, “No one owns the current Internet, nor will. … Does Facebook have an opportunity to very meaningfully participate? For sure.”

The question is whether Facebook, or Meta, will be able to overcome its current problems and seize that opportunity. Naturally, this presents a narrative tension in Zuckerberg’s story: He is not merely trying to fend off critics in order to maintain his dominant position; he is trying to outrun those critics and, like the Millennium Falcon jumping into hyperspace, enter an entirely new sphere. He is aware of this friction. “In terms of all the scrutiny we get … will [that] get in the way of this?” Zuckerberg asked rhetorically during our interview. “I think trust matters. I think there are definitely a number of folks who are going to really care to see that we’re taking all the issues that we’ve faced into account. That’s why I try in the to just be so clear that we need to build in principles like privacy and safety and interoperability and open standards, and a lot of these basic things from day one. I think that’s important. But, ultimately, I think it’s our actions that are going to end up mattering, and I know that we’re entering this next chapter with some people thinking that we really need to prove it.”

Zuckerberg was circumspect enough to acknowledge his company’s troubles, but he was also very stoic and single-minded about them, lacking some of the empathy that many have called upon him to express. This is consistent with his dismissal of the recent leaks, which he described earlier this week as “a coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture” of Facebook. As he put it to me, “At some level, I do think that scrutiny and having challenges with the brand—that definitely can make new things that you want to do harder.” He continued: “I also think, to some degree, that when you’re running a company like this, a lot of this is also your focus and discipline to keep the ship heading in the direction that it needs to go in.”

The metaverse presents massive business opportunities for Facebook, most notably by giving it the ability to create its own operating system, and thus influence what the internet looks like. Since its inception, Facebook and its family of apps have been subject to rules and limitations set in place by Apple and Alphabet, which share near-duopolistic control over the smartphone market. “We didn’t play a role in defining mobile phones because they grew up contemporaneously with us,” Zuckerberg told me. “We built apps for phones, but we weren’t really involved in shaping the platforms.” 

Recent updates to Apple’s privacy features have had negative effects on Facebook’s ad business, and Zuckerberg has been very public about his frustrations in that regard. In the video, he says that “living under [Apple and Alphabet’s] rules has profoundly shaped my views on the tech industry. Most of all, I’ve come to believe that the lack of choice and high fees are stifling innovation, stopping people from building new things and holding back the entire internet economy.”

In the metaverse era, Zuckerberg told me, “we’ll be able to help shape the next platform.” His goal is to ensure that the metaverse is more open and interoperable than mobile phones. “The atomic unit of the phone is an app, whereas what I think the atomic unit of the metaverse should be is, like, your person and your avatar and your digital goods. The actual app experiences should just be spaces that you take all your stuff to. The walls should be a lot thinner between all these things, and you and your stuff and your connections should actually be the primary thing that the platform is built around.”

He continued: “It’s a pretty different way of looking at the world, and I just hope to influence the platform to go in that direction, because I think it’s a lot more natural. I think that’s actually how people process the world and think about stuff and interact when we’re not using technology. So I kind of think our technology should work like that too.”

If you are Facebook-tolerant, and excited about these new technological advances, then all of this can be quite exciting to think about. If you are among the growing chorus of Facebook critics, or merely someone who fears that the internet is making us all more alienated, polarized and sedentary, then Zuckerberg’s ambition to shape and influence the metaverse may be terrifying. What becomes clear when talking to him, and while watching his 80-minute presentation, is that he doesn’t really care. It’s not that he isn’t committed to issues like privacy and safety and so on; it’s just that he’s not so bothered by the unrelenting criticism, and near-term and collateral damage, that he’s going to check his ambitions or think twice about whether or not he’s the right person to help usher in the next phase of the internet. 

And he has reasons not to care. While Facebook may be taking a beating in the court of public opinion, and while it has long struggled to remain interesting to younger audiences, the company is less vulnerable to damaging regulation or legal action than some recent media headlines might have you believe. Most lawmakers are ignorant about how Facebook’s business actually works, disagree about what its problems are, and have insufficient legislative muscle to check the company’s power. Meanwhile, regulators face an uphill battle in terms of demonstrating any punishable wrongdoing by the company or its executives.

As for public perception, Zuckerberg has long learned to live with being scrutinized and vilified. He’s also learned to ignore it. “There are going to be people who criticize it from a number of different directions,” Zuckerberg told me. “I think these social challenges that we face are important and I certainly care about them. I also care a lot about innovation and building new things.”