After that experience, Facebook spent endless blood and treasure on identifying upstarts who came up with something that Facebook didn’t do, and then trying to buy them. Ironically, Zuckerberg found himself approaching founders with an eerily similar proposition that he had fiercely resisted himself in 2006—a ton of money in exchange for giving up the dream of growing into an independent power. He won over Instagram and WhatsApp by not only making huge preemptive offers but by promising that, while funneling resources into their operations to help them grow, he would grant them independence.
The antitrust filings charge that Zuckerberg made those purchases for defensive purposes, to prevent the aforementioned morphing that might one day challenge his flagship. Strikingly, after he bought them, he still didn’t want them to mess with Blue, even if it arguably would make the entire enterprise of Facebook more valuable and empower the founders to be as creative as possible. In that 2019 interview with me, he explained that he didn’t want his various properties to develop similar features.
Except, apparently, when it would help Facebook Blue, the one app that Zuckerberg wanted everyone in the world to use. When Instagram started its Stories feature (itself purloined from Snapchat, a company where Zuckerberg’s acquisition push failed), Zuckerberg was so impressed with its success that he built it into Facebook Blue. Meanwhile, even as Instagram and WhatsApp properties flourished under his ownership, Zuckerberg was reluctant to let them flower on their own. For instance, over the objection of the WhatsApp founders, he removed the service’s $1 a year subscription fee. Had he kept it, WhatsApp might have been able to help Facebook develop a paywall-style model as an alternative to its ad-model, which relies on compiling a scary dossier of data on its users.
The idea of having the other properties fulfill the lofty destinies of an independent leader wasn’t on the table. After the Instagram and WhatsApp founders left, Zuckerberg didn’t allow their successors to call themselves CEOs of those properties, a limitation that symbolized their bounded status.
Ironically, Zuckerberg’s strategy of buy and hobble has led Facebook to a point where government suits may breach his defenses. The FTC explicitly asked that Instagram and WhatsApp be removed from Facebook’s control. And even if that drastic remedy does not come to pass, it is almost certain that Facebook will be constrained in any attempt to buy the next hot social network. Under its current scrutiny there is no possible way that Facebook could ever get approval to buy its biggest current rival, TikTok, no matter the price.
Expect Zuckerberg and Facebook to fight until the end (or accept painful settlement terms) in order to keep Instagram and WhatsApp in-house. Not because he loves them. But because they are the moats that protect his once-impermeable castle, Facebook Blue.
In Facebook: The Inside Story, I write at length about Facebook’s efforts to buy potential rivals. (I suspect there are a few well-thumbed copies at the FTC and the office of the New York state attorney general.) One of the most dramatic interviews I conducted for the book was with WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton. Facebook’s purchase of his company made him fabulously rich—but he sees it now as a shameful capitulation: