As we begin a new decade, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has published his predictions and priorities for the 2020s.
Zuckerberg effectively controls platforms used by billions of people around the world each month and is therefore one of the most influential if not powerful people in the world. As such, his predictions and priorities are worth paying attention to.
Here’s a look at them, what they might mean, and the questions they raise.
According to Zuckerberg, “In many ways, Facebook is a millennial company with the issues of this generation in mind.” This is an interesting statement given that Gen Z, the generation born between 1997 and 2012, is increasingly prominent and executives and marketers are already thinking about how they can prepare for Generation Alpha, the group that comes after Gen Z.
Millennials are no doubt still very important but the risk for Zuckerberg is that he and Facebook will increasingly struggle to stay connected to the younger generations that will drive the technology trends of the 2020s.
Here, the rise of TikTok looks particularly important. While Zuckerberg has publicly criticized TikTok, the social media giant is reportedly preparing to launch a TikTok copycat in India. Additionally, last year, news reports surfaced indicating that Facebook had tried but failed to acquire Musical.ly, a Chinese lip-syncing app that was the predecessor to TikTok.
To maintain its dominance in the 2020s, Facebook will realistically have to do more than copy, acquire or crush popular new services. Even Snapchat, which Facebook targeted and left for dead, is now resurgent.
Innovation is critical for Facebook in the 2020s and if it overestimates just how connected it is to the needs, desires and behaviors of younger consumers, its ability to deliver that innovation could be compromised.
A new private social platform
Individuals are sharing less publicly on social platforms and Facebook’s pivot-to-private is borne of this fact. Fortunately for Zuckerberg, his well-timed acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp mean that Facebook is theoretically well-positioned to make the pivot-to-private work.
But Facebook will face a number of challenges.
First, it will have to figure out how to monetize the more intimate social experiences consumers are seeking. Facebook can introduce ads in WhatsApp, for instance, but it’s not clear they’ll be as attractive to advertisers and it risks irking users who were previously promised no ads.
Second, Instagram will realistically need to be a key part of a successful pivot-to-private but the service’s growth has unexpectedly dropped into the single digits. If Instagram loses some of its appeal to TikTok, Snapchat and others, it will likely complicate and increase the risk associated with Zuckerberg’s desire to “reconstruct” his company’s social infrastructure.
According to Zuckerberg, 140m small businesses use Facebook-owned services but he also revealed that they do this “mostly for free.” That is both a problem and opportunity for Facebook.
Generating more revenue from small business is the most obvious way the company can drive future revenue growth and to this end, Zuckerberg says that “over the next decade, we hope to build the commerce and payments tools so that every small business has easy access to the same technology that previously only big companies have had.”
These tools could include storefronts for Instagram, business communication tools for Messenger, and WhatsApp payments. It’s worth noting, however, that many of these already exist.
What’s more, there are already large companies like Shopify and Square that have built billion-dollar businesses in the 2010s by offering tools that cater to small businesses. This raises the possibility that if Facebook is to succeed in courting small businesses to open their wallets, it will have to deliver totally new offerings.
The next computing platform
Zuckerberg believes that “While I expect phones to still be our primary devices through most of this decade, at some point in the 2020s, we will get breakthrough augmented reality glasses that will redefine our relationship with technology.”
The Facebook chief has put his money where his mouth is; his company has spent billions on VR/AR acquisitions and continues to make high-profile investments in these technologies. Yet the lack of mainstream consumer adoption of VR and AR raises a lot of questions about Zuckerberg’s vision for the future.
The fact that Zuckerberg’s prediction is predicated on expectation of a breakthrough involving AR glasses seems especially questionable. Existing products, namely Google Glass and Snap Spectacles, failed to catch on and there’s no indication that similar products address a real market need. If anything, the growing capabilities of smartphones arguably creates an even higher barrier for AR eyewear tech.
New forms of governance
Following Cambridge Analytica and foreign interference fears in the 2016 US presidential election, Facebook has been at the center of the firestorm over privacy, consumer data protections, free speech, censorship and state-sponsored disinformation. In writing that “I don’t think private companies should be making so many important decisions that touch on fundamental democratic values”, Zuckerberg is essentially punting on many of the most pressing issues facing his company. By inviting regulation, he is attempting to support the narrative that Facebook wants to do the right thing but needs governments to act first.
Cynically, Zuckerberg’s statement is a reflection of the fact that the regulation cat is out of the bag and he knows it. The only question is what regulation will look like and it’s already apparent that Facebook is not going to passively let regulators decide what should be done. Instead, Facebook is attempting to shape the regulation governing its empire and like any big business, it can be expected to seize the opportunity to promote legislation that actually benefits its business at the expense of others.
The big question: given that Big Tech has become a whipping boy for many political interests, even political parties that agree on few issues, just how successful will Facebook be in fighting off regulation that negatively impacts its business? The answer to this question will likely determine to a large extent whether the success Facebook experienced in the 2010s continues unabated in the 2020s.