Mark Zuckerberg’s 20-Year Formula for Success Has Expired

The other day I did something I haven’t done for years. I browsed Facebook. By which I mean: I really took a look around. Good grief, what a mess! It’s like walking round an abandoned amusement park of badly executed ideas.

Can you name a single person who’s found love through Facebook Dating, which was meant to challenge Tinder? Is anyone viewing Facebook Watch, a supposed rival to Netflix? How about the Facebook Gaming portal, once billed as its foray into cloud gaming and an effort to take on streamer platforms Twitch and YouTube? Today it’s littered with low-rent titles offering little more to the player than your typical fruit machine. Even some of the more popular ideas must be shared with warning labels — scammers are everywhere on Facebook Marketplace.

Fortunately for Mark Zuckerberg, the barnstorming success of other parts of Meta Platforms Inc. — the rebranding of the business meant to reflect his vision of the future — means its duds can hide out within the comically cluttered navigation menu on the main Facebook app. Besides, for 20 years, use of the main Facebook service — known as the “blue” app internally — has remained remarkably resilient. It attracted 3.07 billion monthly active users as of last quarter, the company said. Though, tellingly, Meta said it would no longer break out the number in future reports.

The Blue app graveyard, and what it represents, is something worth thinking about as the company enters its 21st year with a record high valuation above $1 trillion. Investors see Zuckerberg as a weatherer of storms — bucking worries about the shift to mobile and, more recently, worries that Apple Inc.’s privacy changes would blast a hole in its targeted ads business model, which in 2023 accounted for 97.8% of its total revenue.

But the more cynical take on Zuckerberg has long been that he’s lacked any fresh ideas of his own since creating the app in the first place — and even that’s disputed, famously. When he saw that the promising image-sharing app Instagram was gaining traction, he bought it, saying in an email at the time that it would have been “really scary” if the company couldn’t. Later, when messaging app WhatsApp looked to be gaining a foothold in how young people, particularly outside the US, were communicating — he bought that, too. Even progress in the metaverse, long seen as Zuckerberg’s personal pet project, came in through the front door thanks to his acquisition of Oculus VR.

When he can’t acquire, he copies. This approach has relied on the existing network effect of Facebook or Instagram to make the duplicate product a success through sheer brute force. There’s no better example of this than Instagram Reels, Meta’s TikTok rip-off, which has offered little of any innovative value — it would fade without a trace as a standalone app — but in the past few quarters has been the key driver of Meta’s engagement growth thanks to the fact that billions of people already use Instagram.