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Facebook lost daily users for the first time ever. Should Zuckerberg care?

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To lose one Daily Active User may be regarded as a misfortune, as a 21st century Oscar Wilde might put it. To lose half a million looks like carelessness.

That was the drop in Facebook usage in the late fall and winter of 2021, the first quarterly decline in the 18-year history of this world-conquering social media giant. But 500,000 DAUs wasn’t the only thing Mark Zuckerberg has lost lately. The CEO and founder’s virtual reality “metaverse” push, one reason for Facebook the company rebranding as Meta, has blown through $10 billion in a year with little to show for it. Zuckerberg has lost a lot of potential targeted advertising on iPhones, thanks to an Apple user privacy crackdown. And as Meta’s market value tumbled by $200 billion Thursday — a one-day record for any U.S. company, ever — Zuckerberg also lost a cool $29 billion in his own net worth.

Does that make Zuckerberg a loser? Is Facebook toast? Not in the slightest. We may be primed by centuries of storytelling to expect the company’s longstanding hubris to send it crashing to the ground like Icarus, eventually, but that’s not the case yet (if ever). Zuckerberg is in fact in a much, much stronger position than the tale of Wednesday and Thursday’s numbers suggest. As maddening as it is for those of us who would love to see the social network regulated, or at least humbled in some way, Zuckerberg can afford to brush off the bad news with his usual carefree honey badger impression. Let’s list the reasons.

1. He’s in charge.

When discussing the future of Meta and Facebook, never forget that Zuckerberg has stacked the deck. He has just 19 percent of the shares, but those shares control 58 percent of the voting rights. The Facebook board, stacked with his allies, has repeatedly refused shareholder requests to made the company more democratic. In other words, Facebook doesn’t just prop up autocratic governments, it is one. And as the most recent heavily-reported Facebook narrative showed, COO Sheryl Sandberg has far less power to rein her boss in than was widely thought.

Like a certain kind of tech founder these days — looking at you, Elon Musk and Spotify’s Daniel Ek — Zuckerberg has successfully insulated himself from criticism to the point where he can simply ignore public outrage and tumbling share prices. At least for the foreseeable future.

2. The active user drop isn’t as bad as it sounds.

Half a million users lost would shutter many smaller services. For a behemoth like Facebook, it was like shedding a few flakes of skin: from 1.93 billion daily users down to 1.929 billion. At that rate of decline, it would take more than 900 years for Facebook to be used by no one.

True, it could be a harbinger of a steeper rate of decline. Perhaps the #deleteFacebook movement is just getting started. But consider this: the drop in users came during a quarter when the company was wrestling with an unprecedented double threat. A prominent whistleblower’s revelations were followed by a major outage that angered millions around the planet who rely on Facebook (according to Meta’s earnings report, most of the drop in users came from outside the U.S. and Europe).

The company looked as troubled as it’s ever been during the quarter in question, and it only lost half a million users? If I were Zuck, I wouldn’t start to sweat unless this happens for two quarters in a row. Even then, peak Facebook may prove to be as elusive as peak oil production or peak CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. In each instance, the numbers still seem to keep rising long-term, despite our best efforts and the obvious harm to the planet.

3. Facebook is being propped up by the rest of Meta.

Throw in Instagram and WhatsApp figures, and Meta’s DAUs actually grew from 2.81 billion to 2.82 billion users. Neither Meta-owned service is expected to shrink any time soon. Put it in terms of monthly users, and the news is better: Facebook has 2.912 billion who check in monthly, and a healthy 20 million more than in the last quarter of 2020.

Bottom line: More of us are using Facebook products, and using them more frequently, than when the pandemic began — even if slightly fewer of us are checking in daily than we did in early fall.

4. Meta is minting money.

The company’s revenue was $33.7 billion for the quarter, slightly more than analysts expected. That’s a huge chunk of change! Sure, the $10 billion metaverse spend is concerning for investors, as is the $10 billion the company expects to lose in targeted ad revenue thanks to the Apple feature that lets users insist that apps not track them. And yes, Google is gaining on Facebook when it comes to advertising on the internet in general.

But that doesn’t mean the fundamentals of Meta’s business are going away, even if the social network at the center of it is becoming a more mature product. Advertisers are spending around $100 billion a year on Facebook, more than the GDP of most countries. And no wonder; where else are you going to find a service that has such a stranglehold on the friendships and feeds of 2.9 billion people?

5. Where’s the rival, really?

Much is being made of TikTok’s growth. It was the most downloaded app in the world (and in the U.S.) in 2021, and boasts a billion monthly active users around the world as of September 2021. TikTok’s endless stream of short video entertainment caused Instagram to respond with its similar service, Reels.

But there the similarity ends. Because as much fun as TikTok is, it’s no Facebook replacement. Where are the events? Where’s the Marketplace? The chat service? The business pages? The birthday reminders? TikTok can’t simply add the features of a social network, even if it wanted to, without diluting the enjoyment that won it a billion users in the first place. And if it starts beating Facebook in the user rankings — which would require another two billion TikTok users — then more of those users would start to pay attention to its complicity in censoring Chinese dissidents.

At the end of the day, ByteDance, the Chinese company behind TikTok, seems about as likely to kill Facebook as Twitter does. (Which is to say, not at all.) There is certainly a hunger for a replacement social network, one that Facebook users could all simply port over to en masse. But first we’d need a sense that the replacement would be better, that the port would be easy, and that all our friends would be there on the other side.

That seems like a challenge for Silicon Valley veterans with access to the vast amounts of venture capital and engineering talent that would be necessary for any Facebook killer. Sooner or later, history suggests, Zuckerberg’s hubris will lead to an Icarus-like reckoning. But there’s really no sign yet that his wings are even slightly flammable.

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