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Mark Zuckerberg was afforded yet another opportunity to clarify Facebook’s “raison d’être” when he appeared before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday. It was no easy task for the CEO, as all evidence points to Facebook having lost sight of its purpose over the years.
Zuckerberg is not alone — these are questions that every organization faces — but his experience is a telling example of the challenge for businesses today. Facebook’s troubles were well publicized over the summer, thanks to the #Stophateforprofit boycott by its advertisers. Now, those troubles have been compounded by Zuckerberg’s unique position as the target of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
When, as a firm or a public figure, you find yourself politically bruised from both the left and the right, it tends to suggest one of two things. The first possibility is that you have effectively held to the ideological centre and are thus bound to displease many on both sides — especially the extremes of both wings. The other potential reason is that you have lost sight of your purpose and become so transactional that neither side can be satisfied. When it comes to Facebook, the latter charge seems closest to the truth.
To be clear, when we talk about “purpose” in this context, it is distinct from our understanding of function, in this case whatever benefit a digital platform’s products are intended to provide. Purpose is more fundamental. It is driven by values and focused on a company’s ultimate impact on its stakeholders and the world in which it operates.
If you asked Zuckerberg to define Facebook’s purpose, he would likely offer some version of the company’s stated mission: “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” But how can he reconcile this purpose with Facebook’s decisive role in sowing division around the world today?
The lack of a defined purpose over 16 years has been detrimental in Facebook’s transition from a small, upstart social network to a multibillion-dollar advertising platform. Initially, the company had no real business model beyond amassing users and connecting them to the targeted content relevant to their profile.
Everything changed as Zuckerberg came to realize that Facebook’s revenues would need to come from advertising. Facebook mined profiles to begin targeting users so precisely that it essentially erected silos to support its revenue model, ensuring maximum utility for advertisers while building an online echo chamber. As a result, Facebook’s profit model prioritized outrage and reinforced our narrow biases.
Once this switch was flipped, Facebook’s initial purpose collided with the revenue model it had moved toward, and the company has never properly reconciled these conflicting pressures. The closest it has come to doing so was when it established an independent content oversight board to address concerns over hate speech and digital manipulation. Two weeks before the presidential election, that board has still not met.
A perfect storm of wider changes has brought Facebook to this point. Our society is more divided than ever, traditional journalism is dying, and political commentary is fixated on polarization and a determined suspension of our collective reality. Zuckerberg may point to these issues as the real problem, claiming that Facebook’s initial mission was derailed by changes in our social fabric. This abdication of responsibility overlooks the simple fact that Facebook helped create this social fabric through its revenue model and dogged resistance to proactive content moderation.
The reality is that Facebook has never adequately articulated or lived its purpose. Consequently, it has been left rudderless to address the changes of the past decade and has been unaccountable to its stakeholders — relying only on self-interest wrapped in an amorphous commitment to free speech. This vacuum of purpose has created an irresistible opening for government, as we are seeing today.
When lawmakers, courts and regulators see the erosion of the fourth estate, the threat to free and fair elections, and practical challenges like anti-vaccine sentiment spreading online, of course they will develop an appetite to change a company that has otherwise eschewed any responsibility for creating or addressing these problems. It is only a matter of time.
Redefining your purpose and instituting it across your organization is an investment in a better future for our world and for your business. For Zuckerberg, the question is simple: will Facebook realign its purpose today and amortize the immediate shock over the long term? Or will it remain purposeless, making ad hoc shifts as the wind changes direction, allowing regulation and litigation to shock its stock price and viability at every turn?
For all our sakes, I hope the right answer is obvious.