Commentary

The Big Idea, Revisited

It was two hours past midnight, now 2019, and the CEO of the biggest social media company in the world was sitting quietly at home, staring into the fire. He was very aware that all was not well with his “big idea.” Sure, there had been challenges before, but now it was under attack on several fronts.

He thought back to the humble beginnings of what would ultimately become his big idea. Back then, it had all been a bit of student fun, creating a “hot or not” ratings site. It was interesting how popular that idea became among his fellow male students in a very short time. In hindsight, it was also telling that the site was shut down because of how it used people’s pictures and information without their and Harvard’s consent. In fact, he almost got expelled for it.

But from that idea came the big one: Why not use some of the code to replace the paper version of Harvard’s face book directory with an online version? He coded it together in six days, and then set it free to students.

The rest, as they say, is history. He got investors and partners, and it grew and grew and grew. More hires, and now also acquisitions, and it grew even more. His big idea became a global phenomenon listed on the stock exchange. it reached billions of people and made billions of dollars through advertising.

His network was one of the biggest in absolute user numbers, in ad revenue, in growth, and other metrics. But, just like his first humble platform, this big idea began having its fair share of scandals and issues. There were those pesky twin brothers, there were issues with copyright, there were issues with who was held responsibility for what was posted (it wasn’t him, that was certain!). And now there are issues with data leaks and political gamesmanship.

His core team had always told the world that what they had created was benevolent and altruistic. There were, indeed, wonderful stories about adoptees finding their long-lost birth parents, about family members reuniting after having been separated by war or disasters, about organ donors and people with failing organs finding each other. The big idea also set off the Arab Spring movement and helped a young black President to win.

But when ad dollars started rolling in and hungry investors received big returns, that became all that mattered. Yes, he had had more enlightened moments, like the pivot to mobile and some of his acquisitions. But those had never been altruistic nor benevolent either. If they weren’t driven by an opportunity to open another source of ad dollars, then it was to try and kill a competitor before they could eat away at his ad dollars. It had never been about anything else but proving he could be successful — and showing the finger to those who had perhaps questioned or tried to stop him.

And now it was 2019, and his big idea would turn 15 years old. Because of his smarts, he understood how the addiction to growth without any interest for the consequences could potentially spiral out of control. Staring into the fireplace, he pondered what he should do. It was, after all, his big idea.

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