Facebook and the Modern Art of Alchemy

You are Mark Zuckerberg. You are the CEO of Facebook. You are one of the most powerful people on earth.

You’re in control of the “Other Internet”, that popular personal information repository for millions of people around the world.

Your users spend, on average, an hour every day on your website. And, for some reason, they love to trust every intimate aspect of their lives to you.

You’re also morally on the hook for 10s of millions of investors’ dollars. And they’ll want it all back, with massive interest, very soon.

As a result, you’re responsible for perfecting the modern act of alchemy. You’ve got to transform all those baby pictures, love letters, and private conversations that people post to Facebook into gold for your investors. That’s your business model.

So here you are on June 2, 1010, sitting on a stage at the exclusive D8 Conference, in front of an audience of hundreds of the most powerful investors, technologists, politicians, and geeks. You’re here to make sure these people continue to believe in alchemy.

Unfortunately, two of the toughest journalists in the tech industry, Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, are there too, grilling you.

And suddenly, Swisher lobs this one at you: “Do you feel like you’re violating peoples’ privacy?”

Everybody knows that you don’t like to talk about privacy. Because you don’t believe in it. Because privacy is the enemy of success to you. If people want to protect their privacy, how can you turn their information into gold for your investors?

It’s why you and your cohorts have manufactured incomplete catchphrases like, “Making the world more open and connected…”.

It’s a sentence should finish with: “…so we can sell your privacy to the highest bidder.” But you don’t really want your users to hear that part.

So when the privacy bomb hits the stage, you choke.

The gruelling hours of special training with handlers and advisers that have gone into this exact moment suddenly evaporate.

And instead of your mouth opening with an answer, every skin pore on your body opens up with perspiration. Lots, and lots of it.

The sweat is pooling on your forehead. It’s dripping down your face. You can feel a drop dangling off of your chin. Then it drops and it seems like an eternity before you feel it hit your knee.

But you have to say something, so you start with a vague, “Yeah, you know, uh… A lot of stuff happened along the way…”

You stop and realize how moronic that sounded. So you try another angle: “…you know, there were real learning points and turning points along the way in terms of… uh… in terms of building things…”

Building things? What does that even mean? Now you’re stuck.

You realize what a knob you sound like, but you can’t stop thinking about the sweat pouring down your back.

You struggle to recall the instructions of your handlers. You pause, dart your eyes around the room like a frightened criminal, then continue with a story.

“You know, it really went from this position early on, where we were just in this college dorm room? To, we moved out to California, it was a few friends and me… and, um…”

You mange to evade the privacy subject entirely with your tried-and-true story about what a great guy you are for not having sold out to all those early purchase offers. You could tell this one in your sleep.

But, dammit, as your mouth goes on auto-pilot, all you can think about is the sweat soaking through your t-shirt into your thick hoodie.

You wrap up your spiel. You hope nobody notices that you’re literally drowning in sweat. You realize that’s delusional.

Mossberg, taking pity on your soaking wet state with paternalistic verve, patronizes you with a, “…I thought that was a fascinating answer.”

And Swisher quickly follows up with a motherly, “Wanna take off the hoodie?”

With teenage curtness, you blurt: “No, I never take off the hoodie.”

And you never do.

For all of your enthusiasm of openness, and connectedness, you keep your hoodie on.

As it is with every teenager or young adult who wears one, your hoodie is part armour, to defend yourself, and part shell, to hide within.

Your hoodie is your facade. And right now it holds and masks the nervous, sweating, scared you.

But today the surrogate parental pressures of Mossberg and Swisher combine with your lightheadedness to influence you. You take off the hoodie.

And as they examine what’s printed inside, you cower like a child naked under the harsh lights. You struggle to smile. Although your eyes are stinging with sweat, they still dart about the room in search of a new shell to crawl inside.

Yes, you have power, but it’s that of a young Elizabeth. Your mind and spirit are corseted with the views and influences of your handlers and advisers.

You haven’t decided yet who you most serve: the people who use Facebook and trust you with their information, or the investors who have enabled your fast ascent to stratospheric success.

And until you decide to take off that hoodie of your own volition – and put on some grown up clothes – you’ll never be a leader worthy of the position you now hold. You’ll just be a scared kid sweating on the stage under the hot lights.

And until that time, no Facebook user should feel safe sharing their information with you. Because not even you can be sure what you’re going to to with it.

[Note: Check out the video clip that I based this piece on: “D8 Video: What’s Under Mark Zuckerberg’s Hoodie?“.]

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, June 11, 2010.

3 thoughts on “Facebook and the Modern Art of Alchemy

  1. A perfect example of apathy….Question?? what’s the difference between ignorance and apathy??? answer..Don’t know and don’t care…

  2. Oh dear he is in charge of facebook! He looks like a teenager caught doing something wrong and trying to explain it to the grown ups. Very nervous guy

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