Facebook still testing users' patience, while rewarding patient investors

  • Facebook this week was still spamming users and forging ahead with an app for children after paying experts who blessed it.
  • A new securities filing also shows that CEO Mark Zuckerberg still has iron-clad control over the company.
  • So any reform to the company will remain voluntary -- and a work in progress.

Mark Zuckerberg
Getty Images
Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook is still requiring a lot of patience from some users, even after Mark Zuckerberg has pledged to make product changes amid the company's struggle to combat fake news, hate speech and Russian misinformation.

Within the last week, it was still flooding users' phones with annoying texts, in some cases in reply to a request related to an important security feature known as two-factor authentication.

Facebook also defended its decision to roll out Messenger Kids using testimonials from child experts that it had funded. The pharmaceutical industry has been doing the same thing for decades, of course, by paying researchers who tout its medical devices and drugs.

But many Facebook users-turned-critics — including early investors like Roger McNamee, former employees like Chamath Palihapitiya and even celebrities like comedian Jim Carrey — are demanding more accountability from Zuckerberg.

And perhaps they should, given that Zuckerberg said last summer that the company's mission is no longer to merely connect the world but to help build stronger communities.

He's also said Facebook has the potential to bind communities together as religion and Little League once did.

Those are grand ambitions from a powerful billionaire that could have big consequences for society, which helps explain the glaring attention, criticism and expectations directed at Zuckerberg.

Zuck holds all the cards

But other news this week reveals that Zuckerberg's pledge to reform Facebook is more than a work in progress. It's also a voluntary effort.

His latest securities filing shows that even after selling $942 million worth of stock last year, Zuckerberg still controlled 87.5 percent of the company's Class B shares as of Dec. 31. Those are shares with 10 times the voting power of Class A shares.

Jim Carrey recently called for activist shareholders to pressure the company, but even the company's largest institutional investors — financial behemoths Black Rock, Fidelity and Vanguard — couldn't do so even if they wanted to.

(And given that Facebook's stock surged 52 percent last year, why would they?)

While those three held an aggregate of 18.36 percent of the company's Class A shares as of Dec. 31, based on annual filings all three have made during the past seven days, their voting stake is a small fraction of that, since they own no Class B shares.

So, if Zuckerberg makes major changes at Facebook to improve users' well-being it won't be because shareholders are forcing him to change. The only external pressure that could matter will have to come from government regulators stepping in, or disaffected users leaving.

For now, there's no sign of the former in the U.S. — Europe is a different story — and no significant sign of the latter anywhere. (While Facebook's user numbers dropped slightly in North America, its overall growth was still healthy.)

Any ship's captain will tell you that it takes a long time to change the direction of a massive moving vessel. It's more about coaxing than turning.

For 14 years Facebook's business model has been increasing users and usage, so it could sell more ads and keep growing revenue.

Asking its employees to make their priority something as vague as boosting the emotional health of users will take time.

At least we know the company is starting to listen to users more, because it's now asking how they feel about the service.

And it's willing to apologize and reverse course, as when it reversed a block on Wednesday it had put on an Ethiopian activist's account, after his supporters spammed Zuckerberg's Valentine's Day post.

But as this past week shows, it's not clear how far Zuckerberg will take his newly stated mission to reform Facebook.