Tune in to “Facebook at 15: It’s Complicated,” airing on CNN at 9 p.m. on Sunday February 10.
It was August 17, 2018, and Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos and I were driving together to his last day of work. After three years at the company, much of it spent dealing with Russian meddling on the platform — and, reportedly, debating with others inside the company over how transparent it was being with the public about the issue — he was conflicted, but ready to move on.
“The company has grown by leaps and bounds over the last three years. I think it has more than doubled in size. … It’s strange, we had a company where three years makes you one of the more tenured people,” Stamos said at one point, reflecting on his time at Facebook (FB) from the driver’s seat. “It’s also a company, I think, that’s coming to grips with its importance in the world, right? What started as a fun dorm room project… people have realized it has an incredibly central geopolitical role that we can’t ignore. So it is definitely, I think, a more serious company than the one I started at.”
I thought about that for a minute, then prompted him, “If you could say, ‘Facebook is…’ just fill in the blank.”
“‘Facebook is growing up’ is probably what I’d say,” Stamos replied. Then he continued with a sigh, “There’s something about being faced with your impact in the world in a real black and white way that I think changes the way people address their work, right? I mean, every individual is thinking differently about that now.”
We drove along talking like that for a little while longer before getting to Facebook’s campus, where he dropped me off. Before he did, he pointed to the giant “Like” sign that stands at the entrance. On the back, the sign still says “Sun Microsystems,” for the Silicon Valley giant that once occupied the space — that is, before it slowly crumbled and (ORCL)_Sun/” target=”_blank”>eventually sold itself to Oracle (ORCL).
“They haven’t painted it yet,” he said. “It’s a bit of a reminder that companies come and go right? Like, what was one of the most powerful companies in the Valley – disappeared.”
At 15 years old, Facebook sits at a pivotal moment in its history. For many years, the company operated with a self-assurance that’s shaped many Silicon Valley companies over the last decade, a “trust us, we know what’s best” attitude. It’s an arrogance that led to innovation — Facebook arguably could not have become what it has without it — but also a hubris that has landed the company in the center of a debate about tech’s complicated role in shaping humanity. And the question always hangs: Will Facebook remain a giant of the Valley, dominating social networking? Or will its sign, too, get taken over one day?
Much of Facebook’s history has been shaped by bets that founder Mark Zuckerberg made which paid off, and by the company’s own faith in itself and what it is doing. Facebook and Zuckerberg launched News Feed over protests; it has now become central to the company. Zuckerberg turned down a billion dollar acquisition offer from Yahoo; the company is now worth almost 500 times that. People scoffed when Facebook bought Instagram; now that deal looks like a steal.