Nota bene: How Mark Zuckerberg should change the world, again

Mark Zuckerberg has changed the world once, and he wants to do so again. Right now, his plan for doing so is to sell billions of dollars’ worth of Facebook stock, funnel the proceeds to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and, um, well, after that it gets a bit vague, but somehow, by the time it’s all said and done, we’ll have cured all diseases, just for starters.

There’s no lack of ambition here, but there is a lack of what Silicon Valley types like to call “product-market fit”. What makes Mark Zuckerberg’s billions uniquely capable of curing all disease? Many people have billions of dollars; only one person singlehandedly controls Facebook, which is one of the most powerful corporations the world has ever seen. If Mark Zuckerberg really wants to change the world again, he should use Facebook to do so, rather than simply reducing his stake to a fungible commodity like dollars.

There is one thing Zuckerberg could do in particular: He could end all targeted advertising on Facebook (and Instagram, too). No one else on the planet is capable of doing this, not even Zuckerberg’s successor as Facebook CEO. Facebook made $40 billion in advertising revenue in 2017, all of it from advertisers who love to be able to buy narrowly-targeted ads. If anybody other than Zuckerberg tried to kill that golden goose, the board would fire them on the spot. But Zuckerberg can’t be fired. In fact, he can singlehandedly fire the entire board, if he wants, and if they don’t get behind his vision.

To be clear: The no-targeted-ads vision would certainly mean vaporizing billions of dollars in revenue, and also in market capitalization. Tens of thousands of jobs would be lost, both in Facebook and in the broader adtech universe. But those are all highly employable people, who will be just fine.

And even if Facebook ended targeted advertising on its own platform, Zuckerberg can’t uninvent the idea. Publications like, say, the Financial Times, which harvests detailed data on exactly who its subscribers are, will still be able to sell an ad seen by a CEO for much more money than the same ad seen by a student using a university subscription.

But Facebook has an ad-targeting business unmatched by anybody else, and if they turned it off, there would be huge positive externalities in the rest of the world. Companies like Cambridge Analytica could no longer use their databases to skew elections; politics around the world would become much more transparent and democratic; and, of course, media companies would be able to compete in the advertising market again, after years of being marginalized by the Facebook-Google duopoly. The news would send up the mother of all cheers in newsrooms around the planet.

This move would, to be sure, cost Zuckerberg much of his fortune. He has made billions from building up Facebook’s advertising machine; he would lose billions by tearing it down. But remember that he has already said that he wants to give away 99% of his wealth before he dies. One way to do that is to sell stock and then spend the proceeds; another is to simply drive the stock back down towards zero.

Zuckerberg can (and would probably have to, for legal reasons) make the case that abandoning targeted advertising was in the long-term best interest of the company, but I’m sure he could manage that if he tried, given the demonstrated harm that targeted advertising has already caused and the risk it poses to Facebook in terms of heavy-handed regulation from any number of governments. This move would make Facebook the good tech giant overnight, and would help lay the path for a freemium strategy where most of Facebook was free for most people, but some users paid a subscription fee for premium features. Facebook might lose a lot of its revenues, but it wouldn’t lose its enviable user base, and it’s almost impossible to imagine that a service as big as Facebook couldn’t make a lot of money doing just about anything.

In recent days, Zuckerberg has been talking about the Facebook he set up in his dorm room in 2004, and how he never could have imagined, back then, being in the kind of position he finds himself in today. Well, Mark, here’s your opportunity to go back to your dorm-room ideals. Connect the world; do it at scale; and monetize it by non-evil means. You alone can make that change. Instead of funding medical moonshots with a low probability of success, do something dramatic where you have complete control of the outcome. It’s a far more effective intervention, and the world will applaud you for it greatly.