Why we can't help liking Mark Zuckerberg

"The Social Network" portrayed him as a narcissistic jerk. But the Facebook CEO hit back with awkward charm

Mary Elizabeth Williams
January 31, 2011 8:32PM (UTC)

When you're rich and famous, you have to get used to a degree of unwanted attention. You may have to suffer the indignity of an "E! True Hollywood Story" here and there. Maybe, if you're especially notorious, there's a Lifetime television movie in your future wherein Tori Spelling woodenly acts out your early exploits. But how many people know what it feels like to see their not-so-long-ago college years turned into an Oscar-nominated box office hit? For that kind of treatment, you've got to be Mark Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg, the man whose brainchild Facebook has single-handedly sucked more productivity out of America than porn and Angry Birds combined, has made no secret of his discomfort with director David Fincher's chilling corporate drama "The Social Network" or the book that inspired it, Ben Mezrich's "The Accidental Billionaires." But as the tag line for the movie says, you don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies -- and we're not just talking Paul Ceglia here. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who's ever been on Facebook who doesn't have a gripe about it, and, by extension, a gripe about its wunderkind CEO and president. Irked that they're trying to sell your privacy -- again?  Or that they're being absurdly puritanical about mothers and babies?  Or maybe you're just sick of all those Mob Wars requests. In light of all of Facebook's shady practices and generally high irritation level, who could begrudge the world a little malice toward its young bazillionaire honcho?


Yet as much pleasure as there may be in tearing down a hoodie-wearing geek who owns half the planet, there's something irresistible about a nerd who's revolutionized social media. And when "Social Network" star Jesse Eisenberg hosted "Saturday Night Live" this weekend, it was Zuckerberg's charmingly deer-in-the-headlights appearance that made for even better viral gold than his 2010 "Simpsons" cameo. There's just something about the guy who invented poking flatly, unconvincingly declaring, "Come on, I invented poking!" that's incredibly humanizing. And his teleprompter-glazed performance took on a very believable note when Eisenberg joshingly asked, "Did you see the movie?" Zuckerberg looked like he could barely muster that mortified sigh, "It was interesting."

Maybe at night, when he feels the world is being too mean to him on his Facebook fan page, when the pokes of outrageous fortune seem too much, Mark Zuckerberg just rolls around in the $50 billion his company is valued at and pays his lickspittles to laugh it off for him. But the slightly nefarious dork of Aaron Sorkin films is also a real man, a guy whose awards-flaunting biopic is also, as a colleague recently described, pretty much a massive character assassination. The dweeb who's pimping out your preferences is also the guy who gave a hundred million bucks to the beleaguered Newark public schools system. As they say, it's complicated.

It turns out it takes an awkward guy to change the Internet, because who understands social networking better than a guy who struggles so much in social situations? That's what made his "SNL" appearance real and vulnerable and little bit heartbreaking. It's the recognition that, give or take a few billion, Mark Zuckerberg, at heart, is just another easily embarrassed nerd like the rest of us. And though Time's 2010 Man of the Year expressed last year that, "I just wished that nobody made a movie of me while I was still alive," sorry, dude, you're only 26 -- and the rest of us can't wait that long. Besides, at the rate Mark Zuckerberg is going, there are plenty more stories about him yet to be written. Maybe even one that will earn his "like."

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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