Feb 20, 2017 ยท 8 minutes

The Mark Zuckerberg I knew in Facebook’s early days was not someone who snowed reporters, mostly because he didn’t know how.

He’d answer questions in single words, or sometimes not at all. PR handlers were almost never in the room. But he knew-- even then-- press was something he needed to get better at.

So, like the disciplined, self-learning organism he is, he crunching up input on how to get better.

Handlers started to appear in meetings. He was coached into doing better keynotes and kept doing them and doing them until it started to take.

Remember his early scandals around privacy? He made the mistake of responding rationally and honestly. But if people were willingly sharing this info with us, how can they be angry that our algorithm is simply surfacing it? If people are using the newsfeed to rally against the newsfeed, doesn’t that prove to them it is valuable?

That calm down, “breathe…” memo was heartfelt. He wanted the hysteria around the newsfeed to calm down so people could actually, rationally, think about what Facebook was doing here, why it was so innovative, and why the company wasn’t going to move backwards no matter how pissed users were.

It was received poorly, coming across as distant and arrogant.

More input. Crunch, crunch, crunch.

According to people I’ve spoken with, Zuckerberg at times has been so direct, so unguarded, that he’s told close friends that while he values their friendship, he won’t be able to stay friends with them if their companies ever become more highly valued than his own. It may sound petty, but Zuckerberg also knows himself. He’s competitive and determined that Facebook become the first $1 trillion company. He was being honest. Something we don’t really allow leaders to be in Silicon Valley. (Remember when Marissa Mayer overslept for a meeting while jetlagged?)

Zuckerberg seems to have learned from the last decade of all of these inputs, that honest and direct views of how he sees the world can only get him in trouble. And that happens at a time when he continues to build a company that he wants to more than double in market cap and is running out of new groups of people to appeal to, and now finds itself in a very different America and increasingly a different world when it comes to truth and the role that social media is playing.

For a man like Mark Zuckerberg, hell bent on continuous self improvement, that means change.

All of this-- these years of inputs and the change in reality he’s operating in-- has changed the person who used to be incapable of giving canned, media trained answers.

The Mark Zuckerberg of today presents as a loving father, an empathetic leader, and a savvy politician. I am not saying he isn’t all three of those things. The point is I no longer know what Zuckerberg is or what he believes by looking at his Facebook feed -- which is carefully managed and choreographed by a team of people-- or listening to his words.

Kevin Kelleher put his finger on this chimera Facebook and Zuckerberg have become in a piece last month when he wrote about Zuckerberg saying in a courtroom it didn’t really move fast and break things anymore, but posting on his page that the company still lived by those words.

This is classic Zuckerberg, wanting it both ways. Facebook breaks things. No, Facebook builds stable infrastructure. Facebook cares more about building services than making money. No, Facebook has a fiduciary duty to shareholders. Facebook is a floor wax. No, Facebook is a dessert topping.

I thought I knew what he believed a few years ago. I though he believed in making life easier for immigrants, believed it so much he took a stand when he started Fwd.us with $100 million of his own money, and made sure all immigrants-- not just the ones who could help his company-- were included. There were heartfelt stories about the impact people like Jose Vargas had on his life; about the impact meeting undocumented children had on his life.

But after widespread criticism when he obliquely referenced an unnamed Donald Trump building walls in a keynote last fall and an ensuing scandal about whether or not conservative points of view were de-emphasized on the site, he took a very different tack after the election. He said nothing on immigration until forced to by his employees.

Input, input, input.

I genuinely don’t know what he believes on the issue now. Was it a carefully devised stunt then? Or simply a luxury of values he could only have during the President Obama era?

He was saluted by some Valley leaders like Paul Graham for not attending Trump’s big tech meeting. But he also managed not to snub the then President Elect in anyway by sending Sheryl Sandberg, who was typically the one to attend meetings like that under Obama.

What does he actually stand for? At one time, Sandberg used to be the one who looked political and controlled. She has become more genuine, as Zuckerberg has become vaguer, and more political in recent years. And that’s likely fueled speculation that it will be him-- not her, as everyone expected-- that runs for office one day.

To be clear, I have a lot of admiration and warm feelings personally for Zuckerberg. This post isn’t meant to depict him into some Travis Kalanick-like Valley super villain. I believe he is mostly a good person with good intentions. But increasingly, I have no idea if that’s true or that’s the chimera. What has made him so effective, one of the best CEOs in Silicon Valley history, is that rapid, computer-like self-learning and self-improvement. It’s worked so well when it comes to his image, his communication-style that I no longer have any idea what the man stands for.

His image has become what people like Snap’s Evan Spiegel critique about Facebook itself: A watered, down projected ideal of what we want people to think we are. And because Zuckerberg has to keep billions of people all over the world happy, that’s no small task. That he’s pulled off that level of a Rorschach test is actually impressive. But, maybe because my own inclination is to probe what tech giants are trying to hide, I also see it as terrifying.

In many ways, getting straight answers out of Mark Zuckerberg is every bit as hard as it was the first time I interviewed him when he spoke in single words. He just has a carefully constructed new user interface.

I explain all this to say why we may have been the only news outlet that didn’t write about his 6,000 word manifesto last week. While I love parsing the here’s-what-they-really-meant out of CEO communications, in this case, I’m genuinely flummoxed.

While a lot of people saw signs in a retrenchment from the uglier sides of Facebook in it, and others saw signs of a darker world where the news media is even more destabilized, every time I sat down to read it, I saw a conference room with a team of people parsing every word to make sure it would appeal to everyone, not fence the company in too much, and continue that impression of loving father, empathetic leader, and a savvy statesman.

It was a political speech, and should be taken as such. Something that could be flip-flopped on if views change, subject to horse-trading should needs arise, and constructed to appeal to the equivalent of the polls.  

Read this quote. Presidential candidate or CEO?

Our greatest opportunities are now global -- like spreading prosperity and freedom, promoting peace and understanding, lifting people out of poverty, and accelerating science. Our greatest challenges also need global responses -- like ending terrorism, fighting climate change, and preventing pandemics. Progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.

Also, how many different things could it mean? It could be read to be vaguely anti-Trump, in defense of science, in defense of being a part of the world, not apart from the world. But the nods to safety and terrorism, shore up those same Trump anxieties. And there’s a hint of “only we can fix” this without saying it anywhere near as explicitly as Trump did.

In releasing this, Zuckerberg did something he hasn’t done of late: Did a presumptive series of interviews with handpicked journalists before it came out. He effectively lead each of them in the direction he intended.

To Kara Swisher, it was a reversal of what’s bothered people in Silicon Valley and within Facebook in a Trump America. To Steven Levy, who is currently roaming Facebook with near-unfettered access for his authorized book on Facebook, it was a blueprint for “[fixing] humanity.” To Slate it was “inherently political.” To the Atlantic it was a “blueprint for destroying journalism.” Redef collected the panoply of takes here.

None of those reporters are wrong. Those 6,000 words amazingly back-up each of those arguments.

Final badge unlocked, Mark Zuckerberg. A man who once struggled to answer with more than a few words, a man whose posts were frequently twisted into something he didn’t mean, has now become a man who can write 6,000 words that mean whatever people need them to mean. And at the same time, nothing at all he’ll be called upon to answer for later.