Tomorrow, Mark Zuckerberg will put on his man pants — in this case, trading his typical comfier jeans and a hoodie for a decidedly stricter dark suit — and face a pair of Senate hearings about the misbehavior of the company he founded.
What’s particularly irksome to me about the lead-up to this event is not its inevitability (was there any doubt this particular train was going to be barreling down on these well-worn tracks?) or its obvious building tension (fraught public face-offs are nothing new since, well, since forever) or even the likely kabuki-drama ending in which it is more noise than impact (do we imagine this appearance will solve all that is so very broken with the social media company that this boy genius has built).
In fact, it is that “boy” part that is my issue and, specifically, the way the journey of Zuckerberg — many call him Zuck, but I just can’t because I truly abhor kid nicknames for grown adults — is being covered as if he needs extra-special training due to his awkward geek manners. (For the record, I like to call him Mark.)
Leaning hard and very predictably into the jittery student metaphor, the New York Times likened his appearance to a “dreaded final exam,” noting:
In preparation for Mr. Zuckerberg’s testimony, his first such appearance, Facebook has spent the last couple of weeks trying to transform its public image from a defiant, secretive behemoth into a contrite paragon of openness, announcing a string of new privacy and anti-abuse measures and making company executives available for numerous interviews.
It has also hired a team of experts, including a former special assistant to President George W. Bush, to put Mr. Zuckerberg, 33, a cerebral coder who is uncomfortable speaking in public, through a crash course in humility and charm. The plan is that when he sits down before the Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees on Tuesday, Mr. Zuckerberg will have concrete changes to talk about, and no questions he can’t handle.
He hired Beltway advisers to give him a crash course in humility and charm? You’re kidding. No one ever does that, except everyone who has to visit the goat rodeo that is a Congressional hearing.
Much of the coverage of “Mr. Zuckerberg Goes to Washington” reads like this, as though he must be made of some delicate kind of digital paper mache that will surely wilt under the heat of D.C.’s gaudy klieg lights.
I know from that, being part of the duo who famously cemented into place the idea that Mark just cannot handle the pressure of tough questioning without coming off like a tongue-tied mess or an arrogant tech bro.
As you can see if you watch the video below with me and my longtime conference partner Walt Mossberg, that image of him happened in 2010 at our eighth D: All Things Digital conference. It was there a then much less powerful techie was speaking along with much brighter digital luminaries like the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs.
During his interview, Steve had gone on a fantastic and epic rant about privacy, seemingly aimed at Mark and Facebook, which was again in the middle of another of what had already been the umpteenth boneheaded privacy mishap for Facebook that were all more than just faint echoes of what is happening now. (Mark has forever been a “greedy thief” of information, joked one longtime observer of the social media kingpin.)
Well, yes, so that was precisely why Walt was drilling Mark on the issue during his session. Dressed in that same jeans-T-shirt-hoodie combo, it was clear the questions were challenging for Mark, who displayed what was a pretty blank expression and a stiff stance.
That was no surprise to Walt or me. After all, this was a big stage and Mark had made few public appearances — he was only 25 years old at the time. Remember, Facebook was still two years from going public and he was also in the throes of ugly publicity around “The Social Network,” a movie that unnerved him at the time, even though he was able to joke about it later.
What was a shock is what happened next as he began to develop a troubling flopsweat — first on his forehead and then everywhere else — that was initially slightly noticeable and then truly problematic.
I was sitting right next to Mark, so Walt did not immediately see what was quickly developing, which was to say pools of sweat dribbling down the young man’s ever-redder face that was simultaneously turning paler around the edges.
Mark later told me and Walt that he was sick at the time, suffering from what was the beginning of a flu, likely helped along by nervousness. I also had heard about his difficulty with public speaking from many inside the company and how it often manifested itself physically.
That is why my immediate and patently ridiculous thought was that he was going to faint away right there, falling out of our famous red chairs and tumbling onto the floor in front of the large audience. For a second, I flashed on the image of me hovering over him trying to revive him and I also blanched.
If any reporter tells you this situation is a good thing — possibly making one of your subjects utterly uncomfortable — it is a lie. It’s not even remotely a desired outcome and it is an inhuman impulse for any decent person to want that. Do I like to see some one of my interview subjects a tad squirmy now and again? Sure. In obvious distress? No, no, no.
While I knew calling attention to the sweating issue might be the wrong move, it was impossible not to do so, especially as the perspiration became a flood. So, I spoke up and asked Mark if he were okay and if he might want to at least remove his hoodie. He declined at first — out of, I assume, embarrassment; then, after Walt and I pressed, he finally agreed.
Luckily, inside the hoodie was a strange symbol thingamabob that included pyramids and more, since it was part of some team swag at Facebook. That oddity — which is actually common in Silicon Valley — gave me the chance to hold it up and make a joke about finding the Illuminati, the secret sect made famous by the Dan Brown book “The Da Vinci Code.”
My actual goal was to take the focus off of Mark and give him a literal minute to breathe, which he clearly needed. And, just as quickly as the incident began, it was over and we were on to other things. Incredibly, Mark answered all the following questions perfectly well.
And, afterwards, he wrote both Walt and me an exceptionally cordial thank you note, which was the mature thing to do given how much attention the sweating had gotten. There was no question it was a traffic accident of an interview for him, but — to my mind — he handled it very well.
Fast-forward to today, when the same questions are being raised about his appearance Tuesday and Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees. Can he handle it? Will he be rattled? And, most critically, does a bad performance here by Mark put Facebook’s fate on the line?
Fuck yes. Fuck no. And WTF, of course not — and I don’t even get what line that would be.
The whole premise is absurd. Mark is now an adult man with two children and a longtime partner who took his company public and runs what is now one of the most powerful companies in tech. He is one of the richest people on the planet. He has met kings and queens, world leaders and potentates across the globe (as well as a whole lot of livestock on his odd trip across the U.S. in the last year). He has started a massive foundation, he has made a clutch of major acquisitions and he has rewarded his shareholders many times over.
So, my guess — even if he is attacked badly by an attention-seeking politician, as Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang was when he was called a “moral pygmy” in 2007 — is that he can handle it. More to the point, he has to because, and I will try to say this slowly for those who do not get it: It. Is. His. Job. As. CEO. Of. Facebook.
It’s a job he has also clearly fallen down on from a management point of view, allowing the platform he built to be misused and abused by bad actors by his lack of policing the system he put in place. Mark screwed up here, that much is clear, and he now needs to both atone and fix it.
The so-so-sorry part is what he and other Facebook execs have been rolling out over the last week, after an initial bizarre period of silence that made the company look feckless. But those first apologies contained — including in an interview with me and Kurt Wagner last week on Recode — an odd mention that he did not want to sit at his desk in California and make rules for the community of Facebook, even though he made Facebook.
It was akin to Dr. Frankenstein saying “my bad” for making the monster and then insisting that he was really not the one responsible for the mess that resulted. That was followed by another PR miss with Mark’s needless smack back at Apple CEO Tim Cook, who told me in an interview last week when I asked him about what he would do if he were Mark, “I wouldn’t be in this situation.”
Zing. But the Apple leader said more than that and, aside from the clever dig, it was a pretty clear-cut explanation of the inherent problems of the data-gobbling advertising platform that Mark has built. Like it or not, Facebook’s business trades on using personal information of its users. As Tim correctly noted, even if it were in Apple’s self interest to say so, Facebook’s users were its products.
And while the remarks were quite pointed, Mark hamhandedly jumped on them by calling them “extremely glib” and harping on how pricey Apple products are. This has almost nothing to do with the situation at hand, which is about the loose rules concerning privacy on the Facebook platform and not that Apple makes high-end goods (alert the media on that juicy scoop!).
But, as he is wont to do, Mark has learned quickly to focus on the real point, releasing a raft of long-needed changes to the Facebook platform, some minor and some major, along with admitting that some regulation is needed.
And, in the prepared testimony released ahead of the hearing and in his visits to various congressional leaders today, he was about as apologetic as it gets: “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.”
Damn right he is, and that’s why I know that he will perform — and has to — in the hearings. It most certainly is crunch time, but Mark is a grown-up human being and we should expect that is the person who will show up. If we keep anticipating a coddled robot child instead, then that’s our own mistake and we are the ones who should be sorry.
In that vein, that’s why I have invited Mark back to our conference, now called Code, after eight years for one more interview if he can stand it. I believe he can. Obvi, if he agrees to come, cold drinks on me.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.