Wednesday 18 September 2019

The reinvention of Mark Zuckerberg

The Facebook founder was once Silicon Valley’s flawed genius. But he’s gradually transformed into a very modern hero

New beginnings: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla show off newborn daughter Max this week
New beginnings: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla show off newborn daughter Max this week

Ed Power

From creep-in-a-hoodie to one of the great philanthropists of the age, the reinvention of Mark Zuckerberg has been astonishing to behold.

It is a makeover which seemed to reach its logical conclusion yesterday as it was announced that, by way of celebrating the birth of baby daughter Max, the 31-year-old Facebook founder would bequeath the majority of his estimated 45 billion paper fortune to charity.

The chorus of ‘like’ clicks around the world was almost deafening.

By any standards, this has been a remarkable turnaround. Just five years ago, the Facebook boss was technology’s jerk-in-chief. In David Fincher’s 2010 biopic The Social Network, Zuckerberg had been convincingly, and it appeared definitively, caricatured as the epitome of flawed genius — a gawky overachiever with brain cells to burn but apparently lacking a soul. 

By the movie’s telling, Zuckerberg had betrayed Eduardo Saverin, the bro with whom he founded Facebook, while displaying distinctly iffy attitudes toward women and those born into privilege (not that this son of a prosperous

New York state dentist had exactly grown on the wrong side of the tracks).

As portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg, Zuckerberg suggested an unpleasant archetype: the resentful, frustrated nerd who had inherited the earth — a rejected “nice guy” determined to have his revenge.

“Zuckerberg is a modern, white-collar version of a horror movie monster — a Lecter, a Freddy Krueger; a force against which the other characters are tested,” went one review, fairly recoiling in horror “a being whose relentlessness and technical genius overwhelm, and in some cases destroy, the lives they touch.”

Behold, in other words, the uber-jerk.

Jump forward half a decade, and perceptions of Zuckerberg could not be more different. The unease we felt over the privacy compromises that seemed an innate part of the Facebook “experience” have, for instance, been thoroughly eclipsed by revelations that the American government was all the while quietly snooping on our emails, text messages and heaven knows what else.

Meanwhile, Zuckerberg has increasingly started to resemble an actual human being. Not only has he put his wallet where his mouth is with dizzying donations to charity — beginning with a $100 million bequeath to public schools in the troubled New Jersey City of Newark, he has also raised the bar for in touch-with-your-feelings masculinity, speaking movingly about the pain he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, went through trying to start a family.

In a remarkable statement, this summer Zuckerberg revealed that Chan had suffered through three miscarriages — a brave and unprecedented confession in light of the stigma that still surrounds early pregnancy loss (of which there are more than one million in the United States alone every year).

This was more than stereotypical Gen Y touchey-feeliness. Zuckerberg has lived his life by the mantra the information should be freely available unless there is a compelling reason to the contrary. In honestly and openly discussing miscarriage not only did he hold true to those beliefs — he also gave voice to the silent suffering of all of those who had similarly lost an unborn child.

Also significant was his announcement that he would take two months paternity leave following the birth of his daughter — a declaration accompanied by news that Facebook would henceforth offer four months paid paternity leave to new dads.

Again the reverberations went beyond the CEO’s personal circumstances, with Zuckerberg demonstrating that seeking a sensible work-life balance was not a weakness and might in fact be a strength. 

Without question, Zuckerberg has had to do a lot of growing up in the past decade. He was just 19 when, mostly on a lark, he created “The Facebook” in his Harvard dorm. As the website he designed on a whim — and, it was rumoured, to help Zuckerberg meet girls — became a phenomenon practically overnight, the introverted “Zuck” was required to step into the adult world arguably before he was ready.

Initially, he did not appear cut out for the position for tech messiah. As a public speaker, he was a work in progress, with little of the charisma of gurus such as Steve Jobs and a tendency to communicate in mumbled banalities that made it sound as if he was hiding something.

Then there was the accusation, as laid out forensically in The Social Network, that Facebook was inspired by fellow Harvard undergraduates the Winklevoss twins, who claimed they had hired Zuckerberg to help them build a social network of their own (a dispute since settled out of court).

Inarticulate, ungainly and allegedly not to be trusted, Zuckerberg struck many as a straight up villain — a dweeb with a chip on his shoulder and a vengeful glimmer in his eyes.

Only an inveterate cynic would claim that Zuckerberg’s recent selflessness was intended to rehabilitate an image thoroughly besmirched by The Social Network.

Nonetheless, it is beyond dispute that the CEO’s gestures have changed the way people talk about him — and about Facebook also.

Just a few years ago, Facebook hate was unquestionably a thing. Nowadays, we regard the world’s most popular social network essentially as a utility — neither innately good nor bad, just there.

Among Zuckerberg’s many achievements, in the long-run that may turn out to the most impressive of all.

Irish Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Life