There has never been a self-immolation quite like Meta Platforms, the parent company of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg’s social-media company has lost more than half a trillion dollars in market value since its August peak — about half of that vaporized in a single day, the biggest drop ever — as it starts to weaken from the constant siege of competitors and dissenters without and within. The fallout is so bad that Meta, once the sixth-largest company in the world by market capitalization, has fallen out of the top ten, replaced by two computer-chip makers, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, and the Chinese e-commerce company Tencent. For a CEO who has openly courted comparisons to the Roman emperor Augustus, it’s an ignominious fall from a rarefied group of world-dominating companies.
We may be witnessing the early days of the fall of Zuckustus. Facebook’s once unbeatable ad-tracking system — the engine that made it a more than $1 trillion company — has effectively been neutralized by the likes of Apple, which allows users to block the company’s trackers. (Google is set to start phasing in similar protections to its users over the next two years.) Facebook’s user base has started to shrink after revelations by whistleblowers and leaks that showed how harmful social media could be to teen users, who are flocking to less toxic competitors like TikTok anyway. And Zuckerberg — clearly bored with the company he founded 18 years ago — has shifted his vision into an immersive version of the internet, complete with headsets and digital avatars, that he calls the metaverse, an ambition that sets up Facebook’s competition not with another Silicon Valley company but with reality itself.
The important piece of this is the ads. Essentially, there are two main channels for advertisers to sell digital ads: one based on what you search for and the other based on which sites you’ve visited and your other online behaviors. The latter was Facebook’s business model — and the reason you would get uncanny ads for goods before you even knew you needed them. Apple and Google have decided they’re going to allow their users to disable code that tracks people across the internet, which happens to be good for their business model. According to The Wall Street Journal, the fallout has been so severe that advertisers are shifting their entire ad budgets to Google since Facebook is no longer profitable. It’s a bitter irony for the company as its opaque rules about what would show up on users’ feeds once led to the rise of clickbait farms like ViralNova and the decimation of an untold number of local news sites across the world.
None of this is to say that Zuckerberg isn’t still rich or that Facebook isn’t a powerful company. According to Forbes, the 37-year-old tech executive is worth about $74 billion, just a hair above Michael Bloomberg. And Meta, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, still made $39 billion in profit in 2021 — though, according to its own projections, the company’s profits will shrink for the foreseeable future as it sinks more money into developing the metaverse. But this is kind of the whole point, isn’t it? Zuckerberg has made it clear, through teary-eyed meetings, that he plans to keep forging ahead with his vision despite the widening skepticism, even from other billionaire moguls like Elon Musk, that it’s anything more than a gimmick.
There’s always a chance that Zuckerberg will be proven right and we’ll be living in his version of the metaverse in the not-too-distant future. Musk has mused that dismissing the possibilities of the immersive internet may be akin to ignoring the power of the World Wide Web in 1995. It’s a common refrain from, well, anyone during the past 20-some years who has built a tech company based on experimental technology. What’s striking is that fewer people seem willing to take the opposite side of the bet on Zuckerberg. You’d think that after a $240 billion one-day drop in value, the stock would have bounced a bit, with investors thinking, Well, that was a bit much, wasn’t it? But it has only continued to slide. Clearly, Zuckerberg has plenty of money to burn on his ambitions, but what’s less clear is if he’ll be able to bring back the armies of people who once believed in his ability to conquer the world.