The mouse that roared - why Facebook's faceless co-founder really called for its break-up
May 13, 2019
That was a big call. But wait, who the heck is this guy?
Chris Hughes. He looked like a cherub-faced boy band singer (top right in The Social Network) when he was one of five Facebook co-founders, including Mark Zuckerberg, 15 years ago. Hughes hasn't worked there for 10 years but in a devastating piece in the NY Times he writes: "Mark's power is unprecedented and un-American. It's time to break up Facebook."
"Un-American" - ouch. What did Zuck ever do to him?
He left him with a $430 million fortune and a massive guilt complex for co-founding an addictive monopoly that sells our data and is super slow to respond to infiltration by Russian agents, fake news and violent rhetoric.
Yeah, yeah, but everyone and their dog has been calling for Facebook's break-up over the last two years - what makes this so special?
It's a personal "Et tu Brutus?" situation. Ceasar-like, Zuck is being stabbed by one of his very own. Hughes is a guy thought to be a Facebook friend, who shared a Harvard dorm with him, who witnessed Zuck fall in love with his wife in the line for the bathroom at a party and who apparently knows him as a "good, kind person".
'Good' and 'kind'? Not the usual adjectives used to describe Zuckerberg. What about the words Hughes used in his subsequent verbal onslaught?
Less kind. He wrote this about his (former?) friend's power: "Mark’s influence is staggering, far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or in government" due to his massive 60% controlling share of three global communications platforms — Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. "The government must hold Mark accountable" he wrote.
Hm - sounds weirdly like he has a political agenda here - so what does he want the US government to do?
Because Zuck alone can rejig the algorithms to determine who sees what, and make or break rival companies or politicians, Hughes believes his old room mate needs to have The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which outlaws monopolies, thrown at him. “We already have the tools we need to check the domination of Facebook. We just seem to have forgotten about them.”
So he really wants to bring Zuck and Facebook down. Were they ever really close?
The NY Times piece paints quite an intimate portrait of their friendship. Hughes last saw Zuckerberg in the summer of 2017 at Zuck's home where they spent "an hour or two together while his toddler daughter cruised around. We talked politics mostly, a little about Facebook, a bit about our families."
Does he now really believe Zuck's a dangerous megalomaniac?
Not far off. He writes about Zuckerberg's obsession with world domination, that he should never have been allowed to buy Instagram and WhatsApp and the fact that he has never had a boss. In the summer of 2006, when Yahoo offered the co-founders $1 billion for Facebook, Hughes sidled up to Mark and said: “How are you feeling about Yahoo?” He got a shrug and a one-line answer: “I just don’t know if I want to work for Terry Semel,” Yahoo’s chief executive. Writes Hughes: "Mark may never have a boss, but he needs to have some check on his power."
Ok, we get the political message. So what does he think is the worst thing about Facebook?
Its zero lack of competition - without prospect of any change. As Hughes writes: "Investors realise that if a (competing) company gets traction, Facebook will copy its innovations, shut it down or acquire it for a relatively modest sum." So despite masses of venture capital and everyone claiming to hate Facebook, there hasn't been a major social networking company launched since September 2011 (Snapchat). Scary.
But why would he stab his old friend now?
Good question. The piece is heavily laden with a political bias and Hughes' husband of seven years just so happens to be Sean Eldridge who is - guess what? An American political activist, a failed congressional candidate, and the founder and president of the anti-Trump Stand Up America. Just saying.
I knew it! Everything is either about money or power or sex. Usually all three.
So what happened to the three other Facebook co-founders? Andrew McCollum bailed in 2007 and is now an angel investor worth a mere $20m, Dustin Moskovitz was named by Forbes as the world's youngest billionaire in 2012 (he's eight days younger than Zuckerberg) and is now a big philanthropist worth $11.6bn due to owning just 2.34% share of Facebook, and Eduardo Saverin is a Brazilian-born entrepreneur and angel investor worth $10.8bn, despite being betrayed by Zuck who tried to cut him out of Facebook early on. Greed apparently. Twas ever thus.