Sometimes at night, when I can’t sleep, I think, shit, we are colder than they are.
—Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly
A year ago, in a charity shop on Capel Street, I found an expensive hoodie. Not expensive in terms of its current price—the Goodwill Thrift Shop was asking for €4—but its original one. The hoodie bore no outward sign of branding, but its design was strategically luxurious, sewn from the softest cotton and dyed to a muted, achromatic grey. It had been designed to include the kind of thoughtful details you only notice on second glance, when you realise the person wearing it is a little wealthier than they first appeared.
Second-hand shopping is unpredictable. For every miracle find—that ludicrous, beautiful thing which has found its way to the charity shop by chance—there’s the monkey’s paw, the dybbuk box, or the mysterious, probably-cursed item donated gladly by its former owner. There are broken electronics, outwardly-fine appliances which won’t switch on when you bring them home. There are shoes in your size, which will still pinch and leave your ankles blistered.
I might have laughed once at the idea of a designer hoodie, but touching its fabric I felt myself converted. I pulled the zipper, looked inside to read the label, and noticed spidery text across the back, on the inside lining. Making the world more open and connected.
It was a hoodie given to Facebook employees, likely donated to the shop by someone who had recently left the company. If walking around wearing Facebook’s mission statement was a squeamish thought, then walking around wearing it secretly, printed on the inside my clothes, made me feel even more uncomfortable. I put the hoodie back on the rail and moved on.
Late last year, a group of writers took Zuckerbergian semiotics—including the hoodies he wears for his public appearances—as the subject of a collection of essays. Volume One of The California Review of Images and Mark Zuckerberg was published in November 2017, edited by Tim Hwang, a fellow at NY research institute Data and Society whose CV also includes positions with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Creative Commons, a journal of essays on the cartoon Adventure Time, and 2015’s Kickstarter-funded The Container Guide, a field guide for spotting corporate shipping containers.
Each essay in The California Review of Images and Mark Zuckerberg addresses an image posted to Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook timeline, one pre-approved by the Facebook founder and his team before being published to his 101,047,691 followers. Zuckerberg’s carefully stage-managed presence runs through these essays as a common thread, prompting questions about mediation and identity—both Zuckerberg’s, and our own.
Mark Zuckerberg’s identity is directly linked to that of every Facebook user, because Facebook, his product, is an identity machine. The site feeds on our identities and all the ‘monetizable’ ad data they generate, even as it encourages us to manufacture new ones. More than any form of interactive media before it, Facebook foregrounds the ‘personal brand’, a public-facing online self.
Amid the noise, the emotional and visual clutter of the Facebook experience, Mark Zuckerberg is notable for his absence. While the founder has made occasional public appearances over the years, and routinely publishes Facebook posts addressing his followers, his public image is subdued, carefully curated, and so ordinary as to be inscrutable.
One essay, ‘Mark Zuckerberg’s Significant Insignificance’ by Dilara O’Neil, addresses this theme, using a 2013 Zuckerberg profile photo as its starting point: ‘Here is Mark Zuckerberg, our current tech dude of the moment who presents himself neither as a businessman or a thinker, but as a Normal Guy.’
The image, a little grainy, and likely taken on a now-outdated phone, features the Facebook founder standing against a landscape which might be the surface of a distant planet. Blank, wide-eyed Zuckerberg poses before blank and rolling hills, under the kind of sky artists in Hollywood were once paid to paint as background scenery. His appearance could be called ‘youthful’, but Zuckerberg has not noticeably aged in the last ten years. He appears, then, the same as he always has.
This picture might be a selfie. It might have originally included people who were cropped out. It might also be revealing, but it’s not: Zuckerberg’s expression is placid, impenetrable, generic like a child’s drawing of a human face. O’Neil looks for meaning in the landscape instead, casting Zuckerberg as its conqueror:
Facebook is not just a website like the ones that came before, which stayed stagnant until consumers grew bored and moved on. With its constant updates and algorithmic strategies to infiltrate user’s information, it unleashes onto untouched land and like nature, will continually evolve.
Mark Zuckerberg is defined by the community—the product—he has built. O’Neil compares Zuckerberg to ‘MySpace Tom’; everyone’s friend, the guiding figure who adds you on arrival on MySpace and leads you through the social media underworld. Certainly there are similarities; you get the sense that Zuckerberg would love to be everybody’s friend, if only he could make himself more likeable.
But Zuckerberg is not likeable. He has middling-to-negative portrayals of himself to contend with: Kate Losse’s memoir of working at Facebook in its early days, The Boy Kings, portrays him as young, guileless, and more than little bit entitled, while David Fincher’s film biopic The Social Network casts him as inept, bordering on sociopathic. In interviews, Zuckerberg comes across as clear-eyed but lacking in self-awareness; another essay, Mél Hogan’s ‘Sweaty Zuckerberg and Cool Computing’, takes as its subject a video rather than a picture, discussing a somewhat notorious interview from 2010. At the Wall Street Journal’s D8, an ‘executive conference’ promising ‘straight-up, unvarnished conversations with the most influential figures in technology’, a twenty-six-year-old Zuckerberg is grilled by journalist Kara Swisher. Visibly sweating when asked about Facebook’s privacy settings, he refuses to take his hoodie off, displaying the awkwardness which has come to define his public persona.
Beyond the images discussed in these essays, what do we know about Mark Zuckerberg, the fifth-wealthiest person in the world? What does he stand for, apart from the cause of Facebook itself? This question might connect to a larger one: what does Facebook itself stand for? The hoodie’s slogan, ‘Making the world more open and connected’, has since been discarded as the company motto; in 2017 Facebook announced a new and equally innocuous intention to ‘Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together’.
The world was ‘open’ before Facebook, a time when communities existed just fine. It could even be argued, especially in light of the 2016 US election and its fallout, that services like Facebook actively narrow our perspectives on the world by only showing us what we want to see, reinforcing the effects of the internet’s ‘filter bubble’, named by Eli Pariser in his 2011 book of the same name.
In ‘Zuckerberg and the Imaginary Cosmopolitan’, Ethan Zuckerman argues that Facebook’s effects are, in fact, often the direct opposite of an expanded worldview:
Facebook welcomes us into its service by asking us about our past—our place of birth, our elementary and high schools, our colleges and jobs. For the 50% of Americans who live within 18 miles of their mothers, Facebook is more tool that deeply anchors us into our communities than connects us to distant ones.
Silicon Valley’s Big Five (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft) and their ‘disruptive’ heirs (Uber, AirBnB and others) share a common response when faced with criticism. If a violent, bigoted or otherwise objectionable video appears on YouTube, or a hate group forms on Facebook, or if your Uber driver tries to rape you, it is never the fault of the company. This is because the company does not ‘employ’ this driver, or ‘endorse’ any of the content its users create. They may not even be aware of it, because the ‘platform’ is too big. This system acts against its workers too: an Uber driver does not have the rights of an employee, because they are not technically an employee at all. Lacking the grassroots values of early internet culture (where users were relied on to police themselves, but retained some right to ownership of their content in return), ‘platform capitalism’ blames the user when anything goes wrong, mocking them for being misguided enough to trust the service in the first place.
The modern tech giant is more ‘platform’ than company; it is a blank, hungry canvas which swallows up and monetizes its users. Facebook has long exemplified this approach: while Facebook’s reps pressure media outlets into paying for more ‘native advertising’, the company denies that it is a media company itself.
Zuckerberg embodies this same absent quality, a resplendent blankness paired with power too prodigious to define. As instigator of an ‘open and connected’ world, little is known about his private life. We know that he dropped out of Harvard, where he took a joint-major in computer science and, interestingly, psychology. We know he has a wife, Priscilla, and two daughters named August and Max. We know he jogs regularly, because he posts photos of himself jogging on his Facebook page. We know that he worries about surveillance, because he covers the camera on his laptop with a sticker (it appears in the background of a 2016 photo posted to celebrate the acquisition of Instagram, discussed in the essay ‘Consequences of the Frame’ by Melissa Lo).
We know that Zuckerberg owns a 700-acre estate on the Hawaiian island of Kauai and has built a wall around it, one mile long and six feet high. We know he has filed lawsuits against hundreds of Hawaiians in order to settle disputes over land. We also know that Zuckerberg enjoys hunting his own meat, because he announced in 2011 that his new year’s resolution was to eat only what he hunted. Pictures followed, soon after, of Zuckerberg grilling shanks of beef on a barbecue and holding a dead chicken by its legs. Zuckerberg, apparently, is so fond of meat that for his birthday his employees gifted him a meat-shaped cake. In 2012, he announced that his hunting challenge was over, via a ‘connected steak’ app called iGrill.
We also know—or, at least, I know, and believe that it will eventually be universally acknowledged—that Mark Zuckerberg is the progenitor of normcore. Normcore, the millennial fashion trend, is what it sounds like: a celebration of mundanity in all its wearable forms. It involves ill-fitting denim, clumpy orthopaedic trainers, and oversized machine-worn cotton sweatshirts with ill-chosen fonts and dodgy graphics. First identified in 2012 by trend-forecasting group K-Hole, in their paper Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom, normcore involves wearing clothing so cartoonishly basic as to resemble a character from Seinfeld, or from Microsoft’s 90s IRC client ‘Comic Chat’.
Normcore is the look of an ordinary, gormless, apparently decent person— someone so generic as to not show up on CCTV. Normcore is at least in part a response to criticism of millennials as decadent, self-involved and lazy, because no one whose style is this utilitarian and bland could possibly be a bad person. Zuckerberg’s style is normcore at its purest: he wears fleeces, hoodies, dad jeans and Adidas sandals, christened the ‘fuck-you flip-flops’ in The Social Network. His apparently unintentional personal brand slots into an emerging archetype, that of the self-neglecting, socially inept Silicon Valley wunderkind. The idea is to dress like a slob, because you have no one to impress except other (invariably young, white, male) coders, who pride themselves on their ability to sit in darkened rooms for days on end typing and drinking Monster Energy.
Mark Zuckerberg spent the better part of his first decade in the public eye wearing those same ‘fuck-you flip-flops’, and managed to get away with it without attracting too much scrutiny. His normality placed him beyond surveillance: he dresses in the same grey t-shirt and Facebook company hoodie every day, though in recent years the sandals have been replaced with trainers.
K-Hole describe normcore as ‘Youth Mode’, the infinite newness of a world where history has been flattened by capitalism and the internet; where everything has been made ‘open and connected’ and has already been seen. Facebook, as a service, enacts a similar effect: the user is fixed in eternal distraction, present and past joined together on an ever-scrolling timeline which appears to stretch back, beyond the year you first joined Facebook, following its users into the womb. Facebook’s algorithmic timeline means you digest ‘news’ and ‘updates’ on a timeline but not in chronological order; instead, Facebook calculates what you are most likely to want to see, and shows you this first.
‘Fake news’ breeds in these echo chambers, where stories too outlandish for the mainstream spring up again and again. They never fall down the Timeline, and they have no sell-by date, because they never occured in the first place. Confused, we return to Facebook looking for answers, scrolling and scrolling without satisfaction. Facebook lulls us into dependence on the very service which keeps us in the dark.
With Facebook facing scrutiny for its influence over politics, truth-telling and human behaviour in general, the blankness of Mark Zuckerberg becomes a model of millennial blamelessness. Like historical normcore (and tech) icons Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Zuckerberg appears visionary, but not so idealistic as to hold political opinions anyone could disagree with. As a celebrity he tolerates a degree of surveillance, but his genius is that he is so fundamentally bland and uninteresting that we pay very little attention.
As of 2017’s third quarter, Facebook had 2.07 billion users, easily enough to form a continent. In July last year, Facebook even started to make their virtual ‘community’ a physical reality, announcing plans to develop a 1500-unit social housing scheme in Silicon Valley. In his book Move Fast and Break Things, Jonathan Taplin identifies user ‘interactions’ as work performed on behalf of Facebook HQ, calculating an average 39,757 years of time spent on the network in a single day. He adds, ‘That’s almost fifteen million years of free labor per year. Karl Marx would have been totally mystified.’ (This estimate is now outdated, based on figures from 2014, when the network had only 1.23 billion users).
Few of the writers in the California Review of Images and Mark Zuckerberg name Zuckerberg as Facebook’s body politic, a boy king guarding the networks and collective memory of billions. But this medieval implication is what the collection seems to grasp at as a whole, by deeming pictures of Mark Zuckerberg worthy of study. Only ‘Sweaty Zuckerberg and Cool Computing’ speaks directly to the theme, likening Zuckerberg’s on-stage sweat during an interview to a data leak, or to the mechanically-cooled servers which host Facebook’s data in centres around the world. Hogan also discusses Zuckerberg’s hoodie, which, like the one I found on Capel Street, conceals Facebook’s mission statement in its lining:
It’s lost on nobody that this mission statement about openness is intentionally hidden from view, or that Zuckerberg is trying to hide his discomfort inside that hoodie. In fact, hoodies are wearable hiding places by design.
In 2010, in an interview conducted with David Kirkpatrick for his book The Facebook Effect, Zuckerberg made perhaps his most infamous public statement, saying ‘Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity’. This occurred shortly before the company rolled out its Timeline feature, which streamlines individual user activity into a single scrolling feed. The Timeline is curiously, yet satisfyingly simplistic: it presents identity as a straight line with no complications, a self forged in loyalty to Facebook, over a lifetime.
Sometimes I fantasise about interviewing Mark Zuckerberg. I would ask him the questions Facebook began asking me from the moment I first signed up. What films have you watched? What make you happy? Add your relationship status. Add a life event.
What we know of Zuckerberg himself is hardly enough to constitute a single identity. We know him purely by his luxurious blandness, his posed photographs and his lengthy, ultimately meaningless statements about ‘community building’. We also know, if we read Kate Losse’s The Boy Kings, that Zuckerberg used to work in a glass office, in the name of radical transparency, but kept a secret private meeting room in the back.
Where does the wunderkind go, when he gets older? Does he settle into public life? Does he save the world? Or does he disappear entirely?
Rumours abound that Mark Zuckerberg might one day run for US president. By touring America in 2017 and having photographers capture his visits with the ordinary people (posted regularly to Zuckerberg’s Facebook page) he already appears to be moving in this direction. Li Cornfield’s essay ‘Fireside Chats, Tech Spectacle, and the Making of Mark Zuckerberg’, brings Zuckerberg’s presidential posturing full circle, comparing the ‘fireside chats’ staged at tech conferences to those by the originator of the trend, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who made regular radio broadcasts throughout the Great Depression and the Second World War.
Adopted by tech conferences like TechCrunch’s Disrupt or SXSW, the fireside chat becomes a way to venerate powerful, fundamentally unknowable leaders while appearing to humanise them. The fireside chat is rarely revelatory, because those judged important enough to merit fireside chats are inherently protected from difficult questions. As an interviewing format, it conjures mediated intimacy, yet it takes place on a stage in front of thousands.
What Zuckerberg represents, then, is a hive of connections, a cybernetic black hole which swallows up human behaviour and regurgitates it as ad revenue. He is a seer, a keeper of memories. He pressures us to share, then ostracises those who refuse. He encourages us to watch each other, the way he watches us. In 2012 Facebook even instituted a ‘snitch list’, asking users to inform on friends who might be operating profiles under fake names (Salman Rushdie was targeted by the ‘real-name’ policy, along with a number of San Francisco-based drag queens who later took Facebook to court and won).
Writing in the London Review of Books about Facebook and its use of ‘retargeted ads’, a marketing tactic which follows individual users through physical space using geolocation on their phones, John Lancaster concludes:
…what this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance based enterprise in the history of mankind… that’s why the impulse to growth has been so fundamental to the company, which is in many respects more like a virus than it is like a business. Grow and multiply and monetise. Why? There is no why. Because.
Neither Lancaster nor anyone writing for the California Review of Images and Mark Zuckerberg will go so far as to compare Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook to a Lovecraftian monster, so it falls to me to argue the case. Zuckerberg represents the familiar—we know his face, and we deal with his product every day—but also the sublime, the unfathomable, the potentially horrifying. Who can fully comprehend how well Facebook knows us, and how little we know of Facebook? In my relatively short career as a tech writer, I have personally approached Facebook for comment on a number of occasions. I’ve even taken part in conference panels where a representative of Facebook was expected to appear. The reps did not attend, and Facebook HQ never replied to my emails. Facebook operates as a multinational Wonka factory; limitless information goes in and nothing comes out, apart from quarterly profit reports.
Facebook’s earnings come from our ‘likes’ and dislikes, our relationships and behaviours and connections. In this sense, Facebook is a machine which traffics in the things which make us human, and to understand its workings in full would mean seeing ourselves sold as bulk humanity. To understand in full the scope of Mark Zuckerberg’s vision, his plan to mediate every moment of existence, would surely inspire bafflement or horror in the average user, or perhaps a Scanners-style explosion of the head.
One cannot understand Mark Zuckerberg by seeing him. It’s necessary, instead, to see what he sees. This brings to mind the ‘God View’ enjoyed by many tech CEOs, the view of your users from behind a screen in the war room. In 2010, Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt described Google’s God View in a speech delivered at the Washington Ideas Forum: ‘We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.’ Uber, a more recent arrival in the pantheon of panoptic tech companies, agreed to submit to two decades of Federal Trade Commission audits last year after facing criticism for showing off their own God View of drivers and users on a giant screen at a party (reportedly, Uber management were also using it to spy in real time on politicians, celebrities and ex-partners).
Facebook has yet to face accusations that its employees spy on users directly, though the company has been criticised for emotional manipulation—in 2014, a team from Facebook published a study detailing how they had actively manipulated users with sad or uplifting posts, in order to study their reactions. The company also came under fire for a leaked pitch to advertisers offering the option to target users when they felt ‘worthless’, ‘insecure’, ‘stressed’ and ‘defeated’.
It’s a challenge to imagine Facebook’s God View in full. Certainly it would include our physical locations, along with our web of relationships, our place in the ‘community’ Facebook claims to facilitate and build. But a map of what Facebook knows about us might also branch into the metaphysical; it might include our hopes, our fears and uncertainties, and the secrets which play out between ourselves and our screens. Their map would stretch into the past and future, reaching both ends of the user’s mortal timeline, and beyond.
We may never know how much Facebook sees of us, but the site placates us with a miniature God View of our own, every time we log in. Facebook’s UX is an overview of our lives: along the left hand side are our groups and events, the centre is a news feed, and the right hand column is a buffet of our friendships. Facebook imparts its dehumanisation of its users to its users in turn, encouraging us to view our social life as a game of alerts and dialogue boxes. Facebook breeds solipsism in the user. Everything is arranged for you to ‘like’ and acknowledge and comment on: everything is happening to you. You can pick up conversations with people and drop them again in seconds. You will never see yourself on a list, as part of someone else’s menu: you will always be the centre of your own world.
Bearing in mind his God View over 2.07 billion people, perhaps it is useful to think of Mark Zuckerberg himself as a kind of god. Certainly there are those who already treat him this way; each of Zuckerberg’s Facebook pictures, including those discussed in the California Review of Images and Mark Zuckerberg, attract thousands of adoring comments. The team of twelve employees who manage his public profile have likely filtered out all the negative ones. Those which remain are so adoring and supplicant and effusive that they make for uncomfortable reading. In one picture, taken during his much-publicised 2017 tour of America, Zuckerberg eats pie a la mode alongside truckers at a diner in Iowa. A comment, one of 310 posted below, reads ‘Mark Zuckerberg you are such a down to earth & amazing person. That explains why God blessed you with so many things. Please stop by at North Platte, Nebraska. Take care.’
To ‘see’ Facebook one must register for an account, and eventually be owned in some small way by the service. For every image posted, or comment made on Facebook, the service claims you for itself. This kind of surveillance can’t be negotiated in pieces; you’re either in completely, or you’re out.
What will happen when Facebook runs out of new users to convert? What will happen when Facebook’s filter bubble begins to work against itself, when – accustomed to copying each other and ‘liking’ the same things as the rest – we stop demonstrating the unique behaviours and interests which once made us useful as ad data? What about when we have nothing to offer, when we – like Zuckerberg – become so bland, so beaten down by peer pressure, as to be ‘normcore’ and beyond surveillance?
Is Zuckerberg himself an augury of this future? Is he a benevolent god, a genius, or a warning? Is he Moby-Dick, a sprawling white void of American power? (‘Is it that by its indefiniteness’, Melville asks, ‘it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation… a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows…?’). Might it be that Zuckerberg is not white, but ‘cosmic latte’, the distilled hue of the universe?
It’s painful to think of an ordinary young man having so much power, and money, and information. Easier to think of him as a robot, a savant, or a meat-hunting superhero. Easier to conceive of Mark Zuckerberg as a machine.
To build a relationship with someone online is to draw them into a web of self-fashioning, and to consent to mutual surveillance. With Facebook, this has happened in reverse: Facebook has seduced us, and encouraged us rebuild ourselves. We’ve been welcomed into a placid blue-and-white world where someone is silently watching, organising our lives, making us feel like we deserve their attentions. It is as though Mark Zuckerberg loves us, more than anyone else ever will.
Perhaps this is why we tolerate the figure of Mark Zuckerberg. He will always be more boring than we are. He makes us feel like we are worthy of surveillance.
We accept the friendship of MySpace Tom, the all-seeing eyes of Zuckerberg, and the promise that Elon Musk will someday find a home for us on Mars. We sell our lives to Google, because in return they make life easier by breaking it into actions and data segments. There are those among us who bask in surveillance, who dream of an NSA agent out there watching, checking in on us from time to time.
A passage in The Boy Kings comes to mind here, written not about Zuckerberg himself, but about a video chat conversation between the author and someone she cared about. On screen the feelings are simpler, easier to access, and more readily extreme. It becomes difficult to separate human from machine, mediation from emotion, selfishness from love:
I think we could tell him we love him because he was so far away, and to love him is to love the technology that allows us to speak to him anyway, safely, intimately, from afar. Our technology, ourselves: For us, at the heart of this revolution, they were increasingly the same.