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Mark Zuckerberg Isn’t Always a Colorless Automaton

Shira Ovide
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Mark Zuckerberg Isn’t Always a Colorless Automaton

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I now have low expectations when Mark Zuckerberg writes a manifesto, gives a speech, grants media interviews or fields questions from lawmakers.

In these settings, and particularly on questions about how the world should or does work, Facebook Inc.’s chief executive officer can seem over-rehearsed, scarily superficial, cravenly political, evasive — or all of the above. 

But in less-scripted moments, or when the world isn’t watching, Zuckerberg is often clear-eyed about where the internet is going and articulate about Facebook’s strategy. Fifteen years after Zuckerberg started Facebook in his college dorm room — maybe you’ve heard that story before? — that scary-smart version of Zuckerberg remains the internet executive I want to hear from the most. 

Don’t believe me?

Check out the transcript the Verge published in October of two meetings between Zuckerberg and employees. Most of the attention focused on his forceful push back to Elizabeth Warren and others who want to break up Facebook. But I was more interested in Zuckerberg’s astute explanation of how TikTok, the short-video app from China’s Bytedance Inc., is a distilled, video-focused version of Instagram’s “explore” section. He is not wrong.

With those employees, Zuckerberg also talked in more nuanced ways than he has in public about the novelty of a Chinese internet app gaining traction outside its home country, how Facebook was trying to copy elements of TikTok and why TikTok was vulnerable. This was the opposite of the thousand-yard-stare Zuckerberg the public sees in media interviews. This was Zuckerberg in his element as a skilled and confident internet diagnostician and tactician.

That Zuckerberg may not be the likable Everyman who pets a calf, but I wish we got to see more of him. Repeatedly in Facebook’s quarterly earnings calls over the years, Zuckerberg has given moments of insight that distill Facebook’s playbook or explain what trends such as online video, the Snapchat app and the Pokemon Go mobile game show about the future of technology.

You get a likewise incisive, perhaps cutthroat, version of Zuckerberg from reading Facebook internal emails that come out in occasional lawsuits or investigations. Those glimpses are of a ruthless and savvy executive trying to undermine rivals and devise partnerships that would make people more loyal to Facebook. You might read those selective disclosures and feel Zuckerberg is unethical and selling out people who use Facebook. You might be right. But he is also astute about what works on the internet and how to position Facebook for success.

And if Facebook was the mystery bidder for wearable gadget company Fitbit Inc., Zuckerberg refused to get involved in a conventional corporate acquisition process and basically nagged Fitbit’s CEO to make a deal on his terms. It was kooky, and the CEO of the unidentified suitor seemed like a loose cannon, at least in the one-sided telling of this Fitbit securities document. It’s also true that Zuckerberg’s personal involvement and unconventional personal persuasion helped Facebook acquire Instagram, which likely added more value to Facebook than anything else the company did this decade. 

Look, even the savvy tactician Zuckerberg can be horribly wrong. He brushed off the effects of misinformation spreading on Facebook around the 2016 U.S. presidential election. He plunged his company rashly into live video, a feature that is rife with risks and one that has not taken over the internet as Zuckerberg once predicted.

Maybe Zuckerberg is just like the rest of us. When he’s talking out of the glare of shouting members of Congress and engaging on topics he feels confident about, he’s like a different person. Today, though, more is expected. Leaders — particularly those like Zuckerberg whose products are so widely used and influential — are expected to be capable of thinking deeply about problems in the world, not only to devise clever product and business strategies.

The people who lead large companies must play many roles: diplomat, policy maker, motivational captain of their employees and an assuring public face to customers. It’s a nearly impossible assignment, but that doesn’t mean we should lower the bar for these executives. 

A version of this column originally appeared in Bloomberg’s Fully Charged technology newsletter. You can sign up here.

To contact the author of this story: Shira Ovide at sovide@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

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