Last May, after a decade of uncommon stability in his executive ranks, Mark Zuckerberg announced a series of dramatic changes. He moved two top executives to create a new blockchain division, and installed new leaders at WhatsApp and the News Feed. (He also appointed someone to run a new group focused on privacy initiatives, which was never heard from again.) And for Chris Cox, the company’s chief product officer and one of Zuckerberg’s most trusted lieutenants, the move represented a consolidation of power: Leaders of the Facebook app, Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger would now all report to him.
Zuckerberg, who has become known in latter months for his epic-length blog posts, was uncharacteristically quiet about the strategic thinking behind these moves. But at some point, another strategy began to percolate: the one he unveiled last week, which promised to shift the company toward a future dominated not by public feeds but by private, encrypted messaging. And today, with that new strategy ascendant, Zuckerberg announced another series of dramatic changes. Chris Cox is leaving the company after more than a decade. And the shift in direction appears to be a big reason why. (See Ryan Mac for some further reporting on this.)
Here’s how Cox described the reasons for his departure, as noted by Nick Thompson and Fred Vogelstein in Wired:
“As Mark has outlined, we are turning a new page in our product direction, focused on an encrypted, interoperable, messaging network. It’s a product vision attuned to the subject matter of today: a modern communications platform that balances expression, safety, security, and privacy. This will be a big project and we will need leaders who are excited to see the new direction through.”
I wrote this on a plane back from South by Southwest, where I interviewed Facebook’s former chief security officer, Alex Stamos, about Facebook’s planned shift to private messaging. (Podcast forthcoming!) Stamos said that, in his view, Zuckerberg’s memo was a burn the boats moment — a symbolic point of no return intended to rally the company around a new existential imperative. Zuckerberg has more data than anyone else from which to gauge the health of the News Feed and Instagram, Stamos said — and so we should understand the pivot to privacy as a signal that both have already peaked, or will soon.
Looking at the road ahead, it’s hard not to be sympathetic to Cox’s decision to leave. In a farewell post, Zuckerberg said Cox had hoped to leave “a few years ago,” but then the aftermath of the 2016 election came along and made that infeasible. (No top executive wants to be seen running out the door during the worst crisis in company history.) Cox oversaw the creation of one of the most successful tech products in history, from a growth and revenue standpoint, and who can blame him for not being excited to go try it all again?
At the same time, the move is likely to be bad for morale. Cox has long been among the most popular executives in the company, as a longtime leader of new employee orientations and vocal cheerleader for Facebook internally. (The movie-star good looks help, too.) It seems fair to say that the cultural reckoning over social media caught him (like me, and many others) off guard — he has given far fewer interviews since 2016 than he did in the years prior, when he was still game to talk to folks like me for product launches.
Cox may have waited more than two years to write his farewell blog post, but he still leaves at an awkward time for Facebook — as a new criminal investigation swirls in New York over data sharing practices, and a day after the longest site outage in memory. Sure, there’s never a good time to leave a job like this — but there also almost certainly could have been a better one.
Zuckerberg said today that he won’t appoint a replacement for Cox as chief product officer. Instead, Javier Olivan, who ran a division called “central product services,” will take over the task of further homogenizing Facebook’s family of apps, while their individual leaders will report to Zuckerberg himself.
Elsewhere in the company:
Chris Daniels is out at WhatsApp. Daniels, who previously ran Internet.org, made few public remarks in the 10 months he ran WhatsApp. On one hand, the company continued to grow, especially in its core markets like Brazil and India; on the other hand, it triggered a near-constant series of public relations crises, as it was used to spread misinformation and hate speech around the world. Fairly or not, Daniels made a powerful enemy in the Indian government, and I imagine Zuckerberg sees some upside in wiping the slate clean again.
Will Cathcart is taking over for Daniels. Cathcart is a sharp, thoughtful leader who previously oversaw the News Feed. To get a sense of how he thinks, you check out this long, productive chat I had with him in 2016 about Facebook’s role in journalism. My only quibble with this move is the optics. The leader of WhatsApp is, among other things, a diplomat. I wonder if Zuckerberg wouldn’t be better served by someone with credibility in India, Brazil, or another top WhatsApp market. Which is to say: not another white guy from Menlo Park.
Fidji Simo is taking over the Facebook app. Simo is a dynamic speaker, a good product mind, and — still way too rare in Facebook’s top ranks — a woman. It’s not great that she’s being handed the reins to Big Blue the month that Zuckerberg designates it as yesterday’s news feed. But the past year has shown us that this is the top spot on Facebook’s bench. Adam Mosseri, who had it until last May, now runs Instagram; Cathcart, who had it until today, now runs WhatsApp. So expect Simo’s star to keep rising.
Two final notes: one, when the history of Facebook is written, mark down March 14th, 2019 as the end of the News Feed era. Cox helped design the first iterations of the News Feed and oversaw it during its most successful phase. It will not disappear overnight, and at its enormous scale may demonstrate a Yahoo-like endurance. But with Cox’s departure, its days as the central organizing principle of Facebook are now officially behind it.
Two, multiple sources have told me that Cox has a secret Twitter account, and used it to keep abreast of commentary about Facebook while he worked. Now that he’s out of the company, with countless millions to invest and the rest of his career in front of him, I hope that Twitter account will come out of hiding.
Benedict Evans has a really good companion piece on Facebook’s pivot to privacy in which he describes it as an attempt to solve the platform’s most pressing problems by making part of the platform irrelevant. I agree with Evans: this is the most likely way that Facebook actually “solves” any of the problems it has focused on since 2016.
Much like moving from Windows to cloud and ChromeOS, you could see this as an attempt to remove the problem rather than patch it. Russians can’t go viral in your news feed if there is no news feed. ‘Researchers’ can’t scrape your data if Facebook doesn’t have your data. You solve the problem by making it irrelevant.
And finally ...
At some point I am going to write the history of Twitter as a season of Veep that never ends. Favorite episodes would include Twitter accidentally suspending Jack Dorsey’s account; Dorsey triggering an international incident by holding up a sign someone handed to him in India; and triggering a second international incident by taking a meditation retreat to a country where social networks had contributed to genocide.
Anyway, in this week’s episode of Twitter-as-Veep, Dorsey went on yet another freaking podcast and … oops, the podcaster is an anti-vaccine nut! I’d like to request a shot myself now, doctor … something that knocks me out for the rest of the flight.
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and your best recommendations for Chris Cox’s next move: firstname.lastname@example.org.