Mark Zuckerberg’s Makeover Is a Political Campaign Without the Politics
Mark Zuckerberg’s likability blitz isn’t a presidential campaign, it’s a focus group for his 1.8 billion constituents, and part of a high-stakes campaign to win your likes.
Until recently, Mark Zuckerberg’s most iconic public appearance may have been the image of the young startup founder sweating through his hoodie onstage while journalist Kara Swisher grilled him at a tech conference in 2010. But Zuckerberg’s reputation as someone averse to the hot seat began a couple years earlier, on 60 Minutes.
In the segment, anchor Lesley Stahl tells a 23-year-old Zuckerberg he’s replaced Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin as the tech exec that “everyone is talking about.” In response, the CEO of Facebook says nothing, his face placid. “You’re just staring at me,” says Stahl. “Is that a question?” Zuckerberg shoots back. Cue the voiceover: “We were warned that he can be awkward and reluctant to talk about himself.”
Zuckerberg, now a 32-year-old dad with one daughter and another on the way, has evolved considerably in the intervening decade. He hired speechwriters. He spruced up his uniform from Valley schlub to monochrome minimalism. He took on a series of annual self-improvement challenges that made him into a “lifestyle guru” for some male tech workers, according to the New York Times Style section. (The paper said his announcements “sometimes have the feel of software upgrades,” but disciples admire Zuckerberg’s ability to reinvent himself “as a better human being.”)
“One of the things I’ve noticed over the years, he has improved his EQ,” Swisher told BuzzFeed News. (EQ is shorthand for emotional quotient, a popular rubric for measuring interpersonal skills in Silicon Valley.) “He was super, super awkward to talk to and he knew that he had a problem and he was fully aware. He cared about changing it.” He may even have challenged himself to improve. “I’m really shy, I should learn not to be so shy! I can see him saying that,” Swisher said.
Now, Zuckerberg is even leading the charge for Silicon Valley tech CEOs who, post-election, have committed to leaving their bubble and interacting with the American public. He’s actively inserting himself into unfamiliar situations. This time around, however, Zuckerberg has cut out the media middleman. He’s communicating with people through his own platform, where he has amassed 88 million Facebook followers. And he’s not just talking to them about Facebook — he’s talking to them about himself.
The most obvious example of the new and improved Zuckerberg is his 2017 personal challenge: to travel to all 50 states and talk to “folks” about their lives and concerns for the future. Four months in, he is making good time on his vow. He’s already visited an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, sampled BBQ in Baton Rouge, and petted a baby longhorn ("so cute") at a rodeo in Ft. Worth. Oftentimes the themes of these visits coincide with those in the 6,000-word letter that he posted in February arguing in favor of building a global community (and Facebook’s role as the “social infrastructure” underpinning all of it). After every trip, Zuckerberg posts earnest dispatches on his Facebook page, including images taken by the former Obama photographer who now accompanies Zuckerberg on his travels. A communications staffer also comes along to gather details, like the names and quotes that pepper the humanizing anecdotes that make up his posts. The whole thing makes for what one former Obama aide told BuzzFeed News is “definitely an Obama-esque approach.” (Jon Lovett, a former speechwriter for both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, went with a slightly different comparison onstage at South by Southwest last month: “I don’t understand why he sounds like a senator in his fourth term. Like, just talk, man! Don’t be so afraid.”)
It is indeed tempting to see Zuckerberg’s listening tour, manifesto, and newly folksy demeanor as an attempt to beta-test a presidential bid — perhaps for 2020, the same year he turns 35. After all, Facebook’s platform has been known to launch a political career or two. Denials from Zuckerberg — including telling BuzzFeed News in January that he had no plans to run for president — have been laughed off.
“I don’t understand why he sounds like a senator in his fourth term. Like, just talk, man! Don’t be so afraid.”
Facebook declined repeated requests to interview Zuckerberg on this topic (no surprise given the company’s zero-tolerance policy on acknowledging its own self-interest). But the CEO of a $400 billion company doesn’t schedule 30 action-packed trips in one year, with a small content production staff in tow, just to lend folks an ear. Facebook is a leviathan and, as its leader, Zuckerberg has plenty of reasons to benefit from a whistlestop tour without ever running for office.
If you think of Zuckerberg as a startup CEO, positioning himself like a fourth-term senator doesn't make sense — but it does if you think of him as the head of a 14-year-old nation-state called Facebook. At a time when Silicon Valley’s influence rivals Washington, DC's, Zuckerberg is using the framework of a political campaign (and its mix of the personal and the professional) to build a playbook for the modern-day CEO-statesman.
“Every single wealthy business person or billionaire has got to be watching Trump and thinking, 'I can do that and I have a lot of good ideas,'” said Swisher. “I’m not sure [Zuckerberg] knows what he’s doing yet. He’s very very well meaning, at least compared to most people. He wants to find out if there’s some way to fix the damn thing.”
In classic Facebook fashion, however, Zuckerberg has launched this political campaign without really taking a political position. (How else did he become the new poster CEO for civic engagement without ever disclosing who he voted for?) Where candidates want to win over citizens to push through policies and ideologies, CEOs need soft power to smooth the way for their ideas and products. The listening tour and manifesto are an opportunity for Zuckerberg to strengthen his relationship with his 1.8 billion constituents.
“He wants to build social capital and he knows he can’t do that if he has the nerdy-guy track record,” a former Facebook executive told BuzzFeed News. A guiding phrase inside Facebook is “preserving optionality” — Stanford-speak for keeping your alternatives open. The same philosophy drove Facebook to place bets on every promising new technology platform from virtual reality to artificial intelligence: Zuckerberg has turned setting himself up to succeed into a science. And now, with the relatively recent formation of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative — the philanthropy-focused LLC to which he and his wife have pledged to donate 99% of their Facebook shares, worth an estimated $45 billion — he is at the apex of his influence, with few signs of stopping. Zuckerberg has every reason to win your likes, and he’s built a remarkable apparatus to do it.
Zuckerberg’s sprint across the United States comes at a portentous moment for tech, and for Facebook.
Katie Jacobs Stanton, a former Twitter executive who also worked as director of citizen participation under Obama, told BuzzFeed News that after years of measuring success on growth rates, monthly active users, and the efficiency of hiring fewer employees, the industry is looking around and wondering how it got here. “It’s Silicon Valley growing up. After 10 to 15 years of thinking we were making the world a better place, [the events of the past year] have brought about some soul searching. We're in our adolescence stage — optimistic, naive, and perhaps a bit awkward,” she said.
At Facebook in particular, “everyone at that company is stinging from the post-election fallout,” said the former Obama aide. “Not just sensationalism or hyper-partisanship, but mainstreaming the alt-right and right-wing populist resurgence.” Right now, Zuckerberg needs public goodwill to protect the idea that his product is a tool for connectivity and not misinformation, mass surveillance, or censorship. Add to that Facebook’s stranglehold on the media and the $18 billion online advertising market, and suddenly the term “antitrust regulation” sounds like more than just a quaint European custom. Lately, even the word “platform,” which once made it easy for tech companies to evade accountability, is starting to sound sinister. The New York Times recently argued that companies like Facebook, Google, and Uber are largely responsible for “rehabilitating the concept” of a monopoly in their endless drive to dominate.
At the same time, Silicon Valley’s pseudo-statesmen are coming to occupy an odd place in the cultural firmament as quasi-celebrities and sherpas to our uncertain future.
“Never before have we had a time when we are so viscerally connected to company leaders,” Brooke Hammerling, a high-profile public relations executive and the founder of Brew PR, told BuzzFeed News. “My parents were never like, ‘I love the founders of my refrigerator company!’” In this case, “people who have never met Mark Zuckerberg call him Zuck. They spend their lives in these platforms and apps. That’s why it’s so important for the success of that company. He’s their public face.”
Margit Wennmachers, a PR guru and partner at Andreessen Horowitz, which is also an investor in BuzzFeed, said that Zuckerberg has to deal with an added layer of complexity because he’s synonymous with Facebook. “You end up being very associated with all the features and all the bugs,” she said. Thanks in part to Zuckerberg’s own creation, anyone with an online following can be a self-styled pundit. But unlike, say, a B-list actor tweeting about geopolitics, people actually want tech moguls to weigh in. Virtue signaling has become as much of a duty for a modern-day Silicon Valley CEO as writing a mission statement or releasing diversity numbers (even if the virtue is superficial and the diversity numbers are low).
That personal connection with chief executives of consumer-facing companies comes with higher expectations. Perhaps to preempt social media scrutiny, tech CEOs and venture capitalists have been eager to volunteer themselves as socially conscious tribute over the past few months, treating Trump’s presidency as a second chance to make a good impression. Zuckerberg’s contemporaries are already copying his moves: “Many of us leaders have been inspired to speak up more recently,” Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky told Forbes India during a recent trip to the subcontinent. “We preside over a huge community of people, and policies and the way people live together have an impact. When we design our community, we think like politicians legislating for their constituents.” Last month, John Zimmer, the CEO of Lyft, made the dynamic sound even more intimate, describing his ride-hailing software application as a “better boyfriend” to consumers. “We’re woke,” said Zimmer, whose company is financed by the venture capital fund founded by top Trump adviser Peter Thiel (who also happens to be a Facebook board member).
So before headlines accuse Zuckerberg of finally asphyxiating the media industry or dictating what your kid gets to learn in school (CZI is helping to build personalized learning software that's already being used by 20,000 students), why not bank some family-friendly pics of him posing with a shrimp boat captain or walking around the campus of a historically black college? Billionaires and tech titans “who successfully influence politics and policy have a public persona of being relatable and not seeming like they’re soulless,” the former Obama aide explained. It can only help Zuckerberg’s cause if he “doesn’t just seem like some automaton when he’s trying to lobby Congress, but has a family and beliefs.”
And as any modern influencer knows, there’s no better lobbyist for Mark Zuckerberg’s personal brand than those closest to him: his brilliant, compassionate wife Priscilla, his adorable daughter Max, and their mop of a dog, Beast. Much like a lifestyle blogger, Zuckerberg uses his Palo Alto home as the backdrop for his posts as often as his instantly recognizable glass-walled conference room at Facebook’s headquarters, referred to internally as the Aquarium. “People trust people more when they get a sense of them as human beings,” said Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn and a longtime friend and mentor of Zuckerberg’s.
It’s a new twist on the old saying: If the CEO is not (overtly) selling the product, he is the product.
Even his philanthropist buddy Bill Gates is participating in the performative fun. Zuckerberg recently posted a Saturday Night Live–style promo of himself and Gates in which Zuck aims to build up hype for his upcoming Harvard commencement speech. (“They know we didn’t actually graduate, right?” Zuckerberg quips, billionaire to billionaire, to lighten the mood.)
When this strategy is at its best, Zuckerberg conflates the personal and the professional seamlessly. It’s a new twist on the old saying: If the CEO is not (overtly) selling the product, he is the product.
At Facebook’s F8 developer conference in April 2016, Zuckerberg used his own life as a way to explain the importance of 360-degree video. “When I was a baby and I took my first steps, my parents wrote the date in a baby book,” he said. “And when my daughter Max takes her first steps hopefully later this year, I want to capture the whole scene with a 360 video.” Eight months later, in December, Zuckerberg posted a 360 video that he had teased of Max walking. “We’re connected to him on an emotional level,” said Hammerling of the video, adding of course that it “showcased the technology in such a beautiful way.”
It may be hard to remember this now, but Zuckerberg used to be a pretty private guy. The world didn’t know what his living room looked like, how many pull-ups he could do, or even what brand of gray T-shirt he wore. (The smart money’s on this $300 number from Italy.)
When Hoffman first met Zuckerberg more than a decade ago, the young startup founder was uncertain about putting himself out there. Zuckerberg wondered, “How much of my personal life should I share? Is it a useful thing for the kind of things I’m trying to do in the world?” Hoffman told BuzzFeed News. The chief executive was so camera-shy that one candid photo of the Zuckerberg clan — taken by his sister Randi, who didn’t understand Facebook’s privacy settings — prompted a ripple of schadenfreude across the blogosphere in 2012 when it was shared publicly.
Back then, Hoffman recalled, critics thought Zuckerberg was an “on-the-spectrum tech genius trying to kind of rule the world.” It didn’t help that for several months in 2010, Jesse Eisenberg’s sullen mug was staring into the middle distance on movie posters across America to hype Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network, the unauthorized biopic that introduced Zuckerberg to much of the world as a prickly lout. And early attempts to schedule positive PR to offset public embarrassments didn’t play out well — like Zuckerberg’s exhaustively orchestrated appearance on Oprah to announce a $100 million donation to the Newark schools, which not-so-coincidentally aired a week before the movie’s premiere.
But around the time that Zuckerberg and Chan were expecting their first child, things began to change. Many sources pointed to his announcement about their first daughter Max as a turning point in their impression of Zuckerberg. In the post, Zuckerberg discussed the trouble they had conceiving, a private struggle many couples are too ashamed to discuss publicly. (The post got more than 1.7 million likes and was shared more than 50,000 times.)
According to a source familiar with Facebook’s strategy, Zuckerberg’s more concerted embrace of social media came after that, in late 2015. When it began, the company had a few priorities in mind: to be perceived as a world-class tech company and not just a social media app, to demonstrate that Facebook is concerned about people, and to make Zuckerberg more likable.
That timeline lines up with a report in The Information that Facebook began closely tracking a metric called “Cares About Users,” or CAU (pronounced “cow” inside the company) in the winter of 2014. Two other carefully monitored metrics look at whether Facebook seems innovative and whether Facebook seems like a force for good.
But the best example of this shift toward social media psy-ops might be a series of slick videos about Jarvis, the digital butler that Zuckerberg coded from scratch for his 2016 personal challenge. The mini movie trailers touch on all those notes (likable, caring, innovative, good for humanity), but in a more subtle way than those overly cheery greetings that Facebook started serving at the top of your feed.
In the spots, Jarvis, voiced by Morgan Freeman, helps Zuckerberg make toast, let his parents in the front door, and teach his daughter Mandarin. The videos are selling a sentiment: Artificial intelligence is useful, personal, and safe to use at home. Mark Zuckerberg is an approachable, nerdy family man and kooky inventor. When you think of AI, think of Facebook. Shortly after the ad’s debut, Facebook posted a job listing for a video producer whose duties included helping Facebook’s CEO.
And it’s not incidental that many of the people contacted by BuzzFeed News seemed allergic to acknowledging that Zuckerberg’s transformation may have required help (or in some cases even that it took place). They will tell you, unprompted, that Mark is an incredible learner and an unparalleled listener. But ask what he learned from or who he listened to and they’ll tell you you’re missing the point. The point, you see, is that he learns and listens. People close to Zuckerberg are so deeply invested in Zuckerberg’s appearance of authenticity that you can practically hear them erasing themselves from the picture.
Which brings us to the listening tour and the manifesto. In both cases, Facebook seems to be capitalizing on something that Zuckerberg began organically. The manifesto started with the CEO himself, writing it on nights and weekends. (No comms team is going to ask for a 6,000-word treatise.) Then Facebook, a company obsessed with scale and infrastructure, seems to have grafted a promotional strategy on top of it. Zuckerberg has always argued that a for-profit company is the best way to do good in the world. And throughout both these efforts, the solution Zuckerberg suggests is often more Facebook, further centralizing his power.
In fact, the listening tour is looking less like a presidential gambit and more like a focus group. Zuckerberg is not talking to military spouses about the defense budget or veterans affairs. He’s not talking to Mother Emanuel church congregants about domestic terrorists and hate crimes. He’s talking to them about the importance of community and, by extension, about Facebook. After lunch with military spouses in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he noted that they use “a combination of Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, and Skype” to stay connected with deployed family members. (Zuckerberg’s corporation owns three of the four technologies he named.)
Zuckerberg's listening tour is less a presidential gambit than a focus group with Facebook users.
There are easier ways to appear woke than traveling across the country to talk about Facebook’s weak spots. By the same token, the 6,000-word manifesto shows Zuckerberg beginning to grapple with Facebook’s responsibility. But the letter was also widely interpreted as a public stand against nativism. (The New York Times said it “comes close to a political statement.") When boiled down, however, it read more like a product road map. Each section starts at 20,000 feet, but dwindles down to an upcoming Facebook feature — a feature that, if launched, will now get swept up into Zuckerberg’s “globalization” crusade, instead of an aging platform’s attempt to drive user engagement. Perhaps purposefully, Zuckerberg overshot his mark: Facebook users were asking him to fix fake news, and he responded with plans to fix global society.
The social network’s top brass has used this antiseptic approach before, during the campaign around Lean In, the self-help book for working women written by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who is fending off her own rumors about running for president. Both Lean In and the listening tour appear to engage with a controversial issue, while glossing over Facebook’s role (in the lack of diversity in tech and the lack of diversity of news information, respectively). Sandberg supported feminism the way Zuckerberg supports globalization: from so high in the clouds you can barely see if anything’s changing on the ground.
“They’re very careful, very studious, they don’t wanna rock the boat, like when they met with conservatives,” Swisher said. “Some people might say, ‘Oh, just tell them to shut up!’ But they couldn’t do that when, you know, all of them are Democrats and all of them are very liberal.”
“At the same time, you’re this rich and this famous, you might want to stand for something.”
Maciej Cegłowski, a tech CEO and critic who has been hosting Tech Solidarity meetups with industry employees around the country, said this approach is disingenuous considering all the data Facebook is sitting on, like information about micro-targeted campaigns that were run during the election to suppress African-American voters. “There’s so much duplicity in how he writes about connecting the world,” said Cegłowski. “He has a really rich trove of data on people and he’s still arguing from general principles about what is community.”
Facebook vice president Elliot Schrage, who, along with Sandberg, is one of Zuckerberg’s advisers, laid out the strategy behind this in emails about the Oprah appearance that were obtained through public record requests. “Employ language that resonates well with a mass audience, without alienating potential adversaries,” he wrote in 2010. “Our goal is to better explain objectives and avoid hot-button words if we can.”
When you’re trying to appease American conservatives and Chinese officials at the same time, it’s safer to throw out anodyne terms. “Advancing human potential” is less likely to raise hackles than “advancing charter schools,” a cause that Zuckerberg has supported in the past, just as “globalization” is safer than “democracy” or “free trade” and “sensationalism” has more gravitas than “fake news.” The CEO of Facebook doesn’t need to run for office to benefit from the public perception that he’s a thoughtful, politically engaged innovator building the scaffolding for the future of the global community.
If anything, Zuckerberg’s political agenda has been hiding in plain sight. He wants to win over the world to help his philanthropic interests. In an email to Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta that was later published by WikiLeaks, Sandberg — who was expected to serve as Hillary Clinton’s treasury secretary if the election went a different way — implored Podesta to advise Zuckerberg on the best way to build “effective political operations” in order to advance public policy goals in areas like “immigration, education or basic scientific research.” Zuckerberg’s first foray into politics was an immigration advocacy super PAC called FWD.us, which he mentioned in a recent Facebook post about Trump’s immigration order; CZI’s top priorities include changing policy in education and science. In January, the initiative announced that it hired former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe as “political muscle” for its advocacy goals. (Ken Mehlman, who managed George W. Bush’s re-election campaign, will sit on CZI’s advisory board.) In an interview with the New York Times, Zuckerberg argued that bipartisan political operatives were necessary for CZI to do its good work: “You can make change, but in order for it to be sustainable, you need to build a movement to support it.”
A job application for CZI’s director of advocacy says candidates must be as comfortable in a room full of engineers as they are “in the basement of a church rallying people to organize on behalf of criminal justice reform."
Zuckerberg is far from the first capitalist to switch gears from showing no mercy in the public markets to launching a massive foundation. “Some people choose to focus on building their business before turning to philanthropy in a big way,” Microsoft founder Bill Gates wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. “But it’s exciting and inspiring to see younger people like Mark and Priscilla realize that they can do both — they can make an incredible impact on the world through philanthropy and Mark can continue to build and lead Facebook to new heights.”
That desire to “do both” helps explain why Zuckerberg might need the brownie points. Uber’s downward spiral over the past few months is ample evidence of how much a company’s bottom line can rest on the public’s impression of its CEO. Likability is an asset when it comes to backlash from Facebook’s disillusioned workforce, populist backlash against Silicon Valley, even faith in the free market itself. (After the launch of CZI, The New Yorker wrote that charitable giving on this scale makes the inequalities of modern capitalism “seem somewhat more defensible.” Tech columnist David Pogue shared a similar sentiment, except a decade earlier, declaring that he could no longer consider the founder of Microsoft a ruthless monopolist after he donated 95% of his fortune: “Mr. Gates’s entire life arc suddenly looks like a 35-year game of Robin Hood.”
In interviews with BuzzFeed News, Zuckerberg’s mentors — including Hoffman, SV Angel founder Ron Conway, and early Facebook employee Matt Cohler, who is now a partner at Benchmark Capital — all argued that Zuckerberg’s recent likability blitz is genuine, part of a continuous evolution brought on by increased maturity, acceptance of responsibility, and becoming a dad. As Hoffman — who recently announced a $20 million donation to CZI’s Biohub — said, if in 2010 Zuckerberg’s public perception was as a hoodie-wearing creep with poor social skills, now there’s a realization that “in addition to a super smart, super capable guy, he is also is a loving father, he has kind of a personal voice, he has emotional vibrancy.”
“Do I think it’s calculated? Absolutely, but that doesn’t mean calculated in a bad way.”
“Do I think it’s calculated?” Hammerling asked. “Absolutely, but that doesn’t mean calculated in a bad way. He’s testing his comfort level.”
Hoffman stressed that the newfound personal transparency isn’t a PR ploy. “It’s substantive. It’s not like marketing, brand image, ‘Oh, I’m gonna do the cute dog pictures because everybody likes cute dog pictures and letters to children.’” In his view, Zuckerberg is “working aggressively to have a bunch of power in order to move the world the right way” and is earnestly committed to his mission.
It may look like he’s power hungry, but Zuckerberg simply trusts himself, and with good reason. Historically, a former executive said, Zuckerberg's "long-term decision-making worked out better than instincts of other people who may have influenced him, like Wall Street.” When Facebook first launched, it had a tagline across the bottom of the page that said “a Mark Zuckerberg production”; perhaps that’s still the case.
The same former Facebook executive described Zuckerberg as a genuinely curious person who wants to understand the world. Like many other Americans, elites or otherwise, Zuckerberg is trying to get out of his filter bubble.
“People can make fun of him going around the country and visiting diners, but they’re all sitting in their little homes trying to one up each other,” said Swisher, “At least someone is trying, even if it seems like French King visiting the countryside.”
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