Mashable’s series Tech in 2025 explores how the challenges of today will dramatically change the near future.
In 2020, Facebook is a greater force than ever.
As of June 30, a record 2.7 billion people — exactly a third of the population of Earth — enter the social network at least once a month. Some 1.8 billion of us, another record, use Facebook at least once a day. Just counting these devotees, Facebook has a population larger than the U.S. and China combined. Add the roughly 600 million who don’t frequent Facebook but do visit one of its conquests (Instagram and WhatsApp) daily, and we’re talking an empire the size of the U.S., China, Russia, and all of Europe.
If Facebook is an empire, Mark Zuckerberg is Dictator for Life. The founder’s stock gives him control over 58 percent of all shareholder votes. His allies control a further 12 percent. Zuckerberg can’t stop other shareholders tabling votes to curb his power, but he can win every vote at the click of a button. Let the likes of Snapchat or TikTok gain all the teen users they can muster; neither can affect his power any time soon. Even a major advertiser boycott sparked by Facebook’s inability to clamp down on hate speech did not make a dent. Quarterly revenue, announced July 30, was up nearly 12 percent year-on-year.
So if he can achieve results like this in the midst of a pandemic, will anything stop Zuckerberg on the road to world domination? By 2025, is there anything that can prevent Facebook gobbling up ever larger shares of the planet’s attention and the internet’s advertising dollars?
In the following four scenarios for Facebook’s future, there most definitely is. We saw it on display on July 29, when Zuckerberg was made to sweat before the U.S. Congress (not for long enough, but still). A majority of the House’s antitrust committee is clearly primed for regulatory action, as are other governments around the world. Receipts have been brought. Zuckerberg has condemned himself by his own words. Even in business-friendly America, recent polls show a clear bipartisan majority of voters favor breaking up tech giants like Facebook by undoing their acquisitions.
How to see the future
You don’t have to be a historian to know that fortune can be fickle. The future often hides surprises, especially from leaders with a lot of hubris. Scenario planning has been used to uncover potential surprises ever since it helped Shell Oil prepare for the energy crisis of the 1970s ahead of time.
Here’s how it works: You draw two intersecting lines representing things that matter to a company (in Facebook’s case, let’s go with “popularity” and “government regulation”). One end of the line is “more,” the other is “less.” Like so:
That gives us four squares, corresponding to four very different futures. What’s down the road for Facebook in each one? Let the informed speculation begin!
1. A temporary breakup
More regulation, more popularity
Democrats regain the presidency and the Senate in 2021; they are keen to take action against a CEO who boosted conservative voices and repeatedly refused to refute Trump’s lies. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s plan to break up big tech becomes a legislative priority for the new majority, with Facebook’s acquisitions seen as the lowest hanging fruit. The FTC and DOJ investigations into Facebook’s monopoly power, begun under Donald Trump, gather steam under new President Joe Biden.
Zuckerberg reads the writing on the wall. Forestalling the kind of antitrust courtroom drama that led to the break up of Standard Oil and AT&T, he negotiates a consent decree. This forces him to spin off Instagram and WhatsApp as separate companies, incidentally allowing each firm to reunite with its disgruntled founders.
It’s a financial windfall for Facebook, which reaps multiples on the $20 billion it paid for the two companies a decade earlier. But more importantly, it’s a PR coup. Millions of people who feared Facebook’s power are now convinced that Zuckerberg has now learned his lesson. Opinion writers turn to the potential for government overreach. The GOP gains the House in the 2022 midterm elections, in part by stoking fears that “Biden’s PC police” is now going to tell you what you can and can’t write on Facebook — a message subtly amplified by Zuckerberg’s algorithm.
With Washington gridlocked again, Facebook is free to resume acquisitions. Presuming TikTok isn’t available, Zuckerberg goes after the next wave of hot Chinese startups. He can sell this as a series of patriotic purchases that help make sure American teens are using American products.
The chatter that Zuckerberg could run for president himself picks up where it left off in 2017 — only this time, he’s rumored to be a contender on the GOP side. He doesn’t throw his hat into the ring in 2024, but in 2028, who knows?
Whether or not Zuckerberg runs, Facebook has at least learned to stay sweet with both sides in Congress. Zuckerberg’s wealth spreads around in massive super PAC donations. Years later, Facebook reacquires Instagram and WhatsApp in government-approved deals. Commentators note that the same thing happened with AT&T: After being broken up in 1984, Ma Bell reconstituted herself and came back more powerful than ever. Future historians debate whether this was Zuckerberg’s plan for Facebook all along.
2. Decline and Fall
More regulation, less popularity
Government oversight doesn’t stop at antitrust. In a move watched closely around the world, Australia follows through on its July 2020 threat to make Facebook and Google pay media organizations for any journalism they host on their platforms. The EU follows suit, extracting the maximum penalty from Facebook in its pending GDPR fine; some of the multibillion-Euro proceeds are donated to media entities hit hard by the coronavirus.
A wave of Biden-style post-populist governments around the world realize that a strong media is the best defense against both Facebook’s predatory practices and the lies that spread on its platforms. So the Fourth Estate is flush again, and it does not forget how Facebook brought it to the brink of destruction. Neither do the disgruntled engineers that quit Zuckerberg’s company over his approach to Trump, and brought receipts.
Millions of journalists were laid off in the great “pivot to video” scandal of the late 2010s, where Zuckerberg inflated viewership and offered subsidies for video content from companies that could ill afford to produce it. They return to newsrooms now, many of them vowing to spend their days investigating any Facebook outrage they can find. Eventually, just in time for the presidential election of 2024, a new Facebook manipulation scandal is uncovered — one that makes Cambridge Analytica look like a storm in a teacup.
The candidate who vows to clip Facebook’s wings even further wins the election. Meanwhile, nudged on by the media, a “Boycott Facebook” group takes to the streets around the world — led by Generation Z, which long ago abandoned the old-school social network for Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat and the newly independent Instagram. They lean on advertisers to do the same; this time, the boycott works.
Facebook is not killed off entirely; the popularity of Messenger alone should keep it running for decades. But it fails to get traction in the race for the next big consumer platforms, such as AR glasses. Once its monthly active users dip below the one billion mark, it has become officially uncool and the trend seems irreversible. Zuckerberg washes his hands of the company, stepping down as CEO and selling enough shares to make its managed decline the problem of a flailing board of directors, while he moves on to his next big thing.
Eventually Facebook finds its niche in the developing world, just as Friendster did after it was knocked off its perch as the most popular U.S. social network. Outside one or two countries it is little remembered; there are plenty of newer, scarier social media giants to occupy our attention.
3. Facebook is the Devil
Less regulation, less popularity
As in 2016, a Democratic candidate wins the popular vote in 2020 — but after a close and chaotic election with many foreign interference campaigns on social media, the electoral college is deadlocked, and the House’s majority of GOP delegations gives the edge to Trump. A sharply divided populace explodes in fury, inching ever closer to civil war. Many demons are unleashed in a second Trump term, not least of them the darker side of Facebook.
Sheryl Sandberg resigns, in sympathy with dozens of the company’s best engineers who fear that they have unleashed a monster. Authoritarianism is ascendant around the world, and the evidence points to Facebook manipulation as a major factor. Rather than denying it, increasingly, Zuckerberg leans in. He curries favor with populist leaders clinging to power everywhere, disgusting millions who rage-quit the service. Zuckerberg, still the ultimate honey badger, doesn’t care.
In Sandberg’s absence, Zuckerberg gets more of his advice from conservative and vindictive Facebook board member Peter Thiel. Now Trump doesn’t even have to dangle the threat of government regulation. Zuckerberg has effectively been redpilled. Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller continues its dubious “fact-checking” of liberal opinions. Commentators complain that this is censorship by another name. Their articles are not often spotted by the Facebook algorithm. As was often true in 2020, the most popular stories on the service are always from right-leaning sites.
Facebook’s user base declines as Democrats desert the echo chamber. Advertising boycotts begin to bite. The stock starts to tumble. Still Zuckerberg won’t give up his iron grip on those voting shares. To make up for lost ad revenue, he milks his MAGA user base. Trump’s regulators, at the very least, look the other way.
The indignity could be worth it to Facebook in the long run if its association with Trump make its bitcoin alternative Libra look like a government-sanctioned cryptocurrency. There’s also the hope that Trump abandons the “very unfair” Twitter, vowing to make all his pronouncements from Facebook from now on. He could also announce support for a potential cryptocurrency venture after his own heart: Facebook Casino.
4. Facebook is God
Less regulation, more popularity
Using the results of the 2020 election to prove it can coexist with a democratic society after all, Facebook embarks on a major charm offensive. Step one: Sheryl Sandberg becomes CEO, vowing to make a fresh start, even though Zuckerberg retains his voting share and is still rumored to pull strings behind the scenes.
There’s one exception to Sandberg’s time in the limelight. In a lengthy televised mea culpa, Priscilla standing by his side, Zuckerberg reveals how Trump threatened him with investigations during their secret dinner in 2019. This becomes one of the largest of many post-presidency Trump scandals. As a result, regulation of social media is seen as a Trumpian tactic. Biden has positioned himself as a president who will do the literal opposite of his predecessor in everything.
So antitrust regulation dies on the vine, especially after Sandberg pledges that WhatsApp and Instagram will be run as independent entities for the next decade. Meanwhile, Facebook keeps the media sweet by unilaterally offering small payments for each time a user clicks on a story. It isn’t as much as media entities would get if the Australia rule had been more than a threat, but it’s enough to keep them afloat. Facebook is to journalists what Spotify is to musicians: Stingy yet indispensable.
This new broom atmosphere allows Facebook’s purchase of TikTok to sail past regulators. Sandberg plays up the patriotic angle and the safety angle. New Facebook privacy tools are introduced to great fanfare. More and more users choose to opt out of targeted advertising. Facebook takes the hit because it’s playing the long game: If it’s trusted by everyone, the advertisers will come.
By 2025, Facebook celebrates its six billionth monthly active user. It has integrated itself into every aspect of our daily lives, from its popular bitcoin alternative Libra to Oculus’ AR glasses to Facebook’s vast entertainment division. The company soon has enough cash on hand for a takeover of AT&T’s media empire, positioning itself as a strong bulwark against the power of Disney.
Like Disney, however, Facebook has learned how to look benign and happy on the surface while it sucks dollars from our wallets. When a new app garners the interest of teens, it’s just a given that Facebook will buy it, but at least we don’t have to worry that it will sell quite so much of our data. We recognize Facebook is unassailable. We just stop minding.