In the months leading up to Meta’s Wednesday decision to lay off 11,000 employees, or about 13 percent of its workforce, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other top generals repeatedly made clear that at least some of the company’s issues related to the personal failings of its employees. “Realistically, there are probably a bunch of people at the company who shouldn’t be here,” Zuckerberg reportedly told his own employees at a company meeting in June.
The next month, Meta’s head of remote presence and engineering, Maher Saba, told managers to identify and root out those who weren’t pulling their weight.
“If a direct report is coasting or a low performer, they are not who we need; they are failing this company,” Saba said.
In both cases, what went unsaid was that a large part of the issue couldn’t be solved by rooting out the occasional lazy engineer here or there, because a large part of the issue was that the company’s leader, one of the richest people on Earth, had bet the farm on an almost fantastical belief that the future of the internet lay not only in the so-called metaverse, but in the sanitized, corporatized version of it he had become convinced was the future of his company.
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Like a lot of the tech sector, Zuckerberg had become convinced in the years since the start of the pandemic that the world had moved permanently online. Meta hired aggressively as a result, adding 27,000 workers in 2020 and 2021 and more than 15,000 this year, bringing the total workforce to roughly 87,000 by September.
But by the time Meta was starting to root out low bad apples, Meta’s share price had already dropped precipitously from the highs it enjoyed the previous year, a result not only of Zuckerberg’s metaverse bet, but also growing competition from TikTok, recession fears, a privacy decision by Apple that hurt businesses dependent on targeted ads, like Meta, and Facebook’s first-ever decline in total users.
In a note on Wednesday, Zuckerberg admitted he had been over optimistic about the future, suggesting that his major mistake had been not properly predicting a changing macroeconomic environment.
“I got this wrong, and I take responsibility for that,” he said.
But those are the sort of pressures that normal, non-monopolized businesses deal with all the time. What is less normal is making a $15 billion bet based on faith. That is the amount the company has spent since the beginning of 2021 on its metaverse and virtual- and augmented-reality efforts, and the costs will only rise from here on out. The company said in its earnings release last month that it expects Facebook Reality Labs—the metaverse lab, basically—to lose $10 billion this year, and that the company will increase its investments there “for the next several years” as the company remains “committed to bringing this long-term vision to life.”
Zuckerberg reiterated on Wednesday “our long-term vision for the metaverse” would remain one of a small number of “high priority growth areas” next year,” even if it meant that prolonging and hiring freeze and that some people would no longer have their own desk.
Our is the questionable word there, as oftentimes it seems like the vision is more Zuckerberg’s than Meta’s. According to a lengthy report in the New York Times last month, some Meta employees have taken to referring to metaverse projects as “M.M.H.” (“make Mark happy”), and one senior member of the team has said the money spent makes him “sick to my stomach.” Only 58 percent say they even understand the metaverse strategy, per an anonymous May poll of employees carried out by the social network Blind, and others have complained that the strategy appears “tied to Mr. Zuckerberg’s whims rather than a cohesive plan.”
The vice-president in charge of Meta’s metaverse project, Vishal Shah, even reportedly complained internally that so few people were spending time using Horizon Worlds, Meta's virtual reality video game. “The simple truth is, if we don’t love it, how can we expect our users to love it?” he asked. It’s a good question, but at least part of the reason is that Horizon Worlds remains so “buggy” that Meta’s has put it on “quality lockdown” for the rest of the year. That lack of quality might explain why under 200,000 people were using it as of a Wall Street Journal article last month.
Or it might be that not many people actually want the metaverse, including at least some shareholders, some of whom are already starting to complain about just how much money the company is spending on this faith-based bet.
One person who continues to want and believe in Meta’s metaverse is the only man that truly matters, Mark Zuckerbeg, a ruthless businessman except when it comes to his multi-billion dollar pet project. “This is not an investment that is going to be profitable for us anytime in the near future,” he said last year. Another way of saying that is: We must be ruthless across the company, except where it suits me.
What makes Zuckerberg unique in Silicon Valley is the individual control he wields over his vast organization, as he owns a controlling stake in the company. "There is no one currently holding Mark accountable but himself," whistleblower Frances Haugen told Congress last year. That largely includes his board, which has repeatedly rejected proposals to reduce his stranglehold on the organization he created.
And with that power he is pushing head first into the metaverse, never seeming to falter in his belief that the future is a headset strapped to your face so you can sit in a virtual conference room with colleagues you hate, even after his initial metaverse avatar was so roundly mocked that he was forced to essentially apologize, pull it, and then put out another version later on, which, unfortunately for him, was followed shortly thereafter by a Meta graphic designer saying that his team drafted 40 different versions of their glorious leader's new metaverse face over four weeks before one was finally approved, which was followed by the Meta graphic designer mysteriously deleting the post.
The layoffs today are the first significant and company-wide layoffs of Zuckerberg’s career. The decision is essentially a choice and an admission that Zuckerberg believes the metaverse is more important than the livelihoods of the people he let go. This is how it often goes: make a bad bet, shame the people below you for not making it work, and then let them go without admitting fault. Rarely, however, has it been done as expensively, epically, or single-mindedly as Zuckerberg is doing it.