That matters because Facebook is in the attention business. Its revenue comes almost entirely from advertisements. The more ads it can show to users across its platforms, and the more money it can charge for those ads, the better its bottom line. Advertisers certainly haven’t abandoned Facebook and Instagram, but users are increasingly irritated by ads on those platforms. As the “Stories” format becomes more popular on both Instagram and Facebook, the company has to figure out how to deliver ads in a different context. And Facebook still hasn’t managed to figure out how to build an ad business in its other big property, WhatsApp, which boasts 1.5 billion users all on its own. Two of WhatsApp’s founders quit Facebook earlier this year, partly due to clashes with their parent company over the privacy compromises that would likely be required to make the service a viable ad platform.
Even so, there’s plenty of room for growth. Reaching more users who are already online but not using Facebook services is more complicated, and expensive, than reaching the ones who already are. But it’s certainly possible. GDPR and the new wave of privacy measures that might follow it are a setback, but they might introduce new opportunities for Facebook. The Bloomberg columnist Matt Levine even speculates that, in the West, users might be willing to spend $60 a year to use the “somewhat more chill version of Facebook” that regulation and scandal is ushering in. WhatsApp’s founders (and its users) may hate the idea of turning it into another advertising venue, too. But that doesn’t change the fact that there is a 1.5-billion-person market in that product that Facebook hasn’t activated at all.
There’s a danger in responding to financial news as if it’s news about technology, or news about culture. It’s easy to point to 20 percent drops in a stock, $100 billion losses to market capitalization, or $18.8 billion losses in net worth—that’s the hit Zuckerberg took personally today, at its worst—as if they mean more than they do. As if they portend the clear and obvious obliteration of a business or a sector. But Facebook is a giant enterprise, worth more than half a trillion dollars, whose products billions of people use every day. Most of those people don’t care a whit about the stock market, and they’ll tolerate any changes Facebook and its subsidiaries roll out as a result of pressure from Wall Street.
Even so, there is one place where that pressure might eventually make its way down to the users and products: the role of Mark Zuckerberg himself. After today’s rout, at least one large, institutional investor called for Zuckerberg to be ousted from the position of chairman, while retaining his role of CEO. It’s not the first time such an idea has come up, and Zuckerberg’s majority vote in corporate governance makes it hard to impose such a change. The company has long resisted it on the grounds that it would cause “uncertainty, confusion, and inefficiency.” But money talks, and sustained pain in the market, could convince the company to change its tune. Such a change would mark a new era for Facebook. Even if unlikely, it points to a remarkable meeting of the minds between ordinary people, media critics, and Wall Street insiders: If there’s a problem with Facebook, it’s not just hidden in the esoterica of financial fundamentals, or in the duplicity of messages shared on its platforms, or in the bad feelings its products sometime engender. It’s in the company’s very essence.