The Rise — And Stall — Of Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg

Apr 9, 2018
Originally published on April 11, 2018 1:16 pm

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is preparing to testify Tuesday and Wednesday before lawmakers on Capitol Hill. They'll ask him how Facebook let the data of up to 87 million unknowing users get into the hands of the political firm Cambridge Analytica.

Facebook began notifying those users Monday. But this is just the latest controversy for the social network, famously launched from Zuckerberg's Harvard dorm room.

"I think that he was [a] very smart, technically minded undergraduate with a lot of ability to code and a bunch of ideas to try things," Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor Mitch Kapor says of the 33-year-old billionaire. "The first of which was to scrape data from Harvard's servers without anybody's permission, and then asking other people at Harvard to rate the 'hotness' of student pictures."

That project eventually led to the creation of Facebook.

Kapor runs Kapor Capital and the Kapor Center for Social Impact with his wife, Freada Kapor Klein. He says this moment is an opportunity for Zuckerberg to become a leader driven by his obligation to Facebook's stakeholders, including its users. But he says it won't be easy.

"There'll be a loss of status and a loss of billions of dollars to do that, because their current business model is a devil's bargain that's based on exploiting Facebook users," Kapor says. "But the optimistic scenario is, he can rise to that occasion."


Interview Highlights

On how The Social Network affected the public's view of Zuckerberg

He became a kind of cultural icon as a result of the movie — and well, obviously, it wasn't entirely a flattering portrait. My sense is that the hero worship aspect of our culture fastened on to him even more tightly as a result of the exposure of the Zuckerberg character. ...

When you are the king — and he really is the king — it's very difficult for your subjects to speak the truth to you. By becoming so visible and so much out-there, I think it really made it even more difficult to have the kind of real internal dialogue that's needed to keep this hyper-growth company on some sort of track.

On Zuckerberg's 2015 promise to give away most of his wealth, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

I think he's been struggling to figure out what to do now that he's king. I will say that we have to distinguish between good intentions and what actually results.

For instance, on this pledge to give away the money: If you look at the details of that, in fact it's not going into a philanthropy, into a foundation — the way Bill Gates did with his money at Microsoft — it's going into a limited liability corporation. And they can do anything they want with that, and they have no accountability.

I don't doubt that he's sincere, but I certainly don't take it at face value — because what really matters is what Facebook actually does.

On whether Zuckerberg is part of a larger story about leadership, or lack thereof, in Silicon Valley

Oh absolutely. That Zuckerberg and Facebook story really exemplifies a great deal about how Silicon Valley operates. One thing I would point out is, all along, this wasn't a secret that they were engaging in various disreputable behaviors.

There were opportunities to speak up, but none of the investors who were on the Facebook gravy train wanted to do that, for fear of either being thrown out or not having access to the incredible half-trillion dollars of wealth that was being created. And so they remained silent and the silence of the investors in the board, I think, is also part of what is wrong with Silicon Valley.

The audio version of this story was produced and edited by Art Silverman and Emily Kopp. Sydnee Monday adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This week Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg tells Congress he's sorry.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

He'll testify twice about how Facebook let data on up to 87 million users get into the hands of the political firm Cambridge Analytica. In prepared remarks, Zuckerberg says the company did not take a broad enough view of its responsibility. He says that was his mistake because he started Facebook and he runs it.

CORNISH: But this is just the latest controversy for the 33-year-old billionaire who famously started the social network from his Harvard dorm room. For a look at Zuckerberg's trajectory we've called upon Mitch Kapor. He's a Silicon Valley entrepreneur himself. He now runs Kapor Capital and the Kapor Center for Social Impact with his wife Freada. Welcome to the program.

MITCH KAPOR: Pleasure to be here.

CORNISH: Now, Mark Zuckerberg in a way is like the original hoodie-wearing savant CEO. I mean, this was kind of the image of him when people talked about the Harvard dorm room.

KAPOR: Absolutely. yes.

CORNISH: Was it all that common, or was it even myth at the time?

KAPOR: No, I think that he was very smart, technically minded undergraduate with a lot of ability to code and a bunch of ideas to try things, the first of which was to scrape data from Harvard servers without anybody's permission, and then asking other people at Harvard to rate the hotness of student pictures.

CORNISH: It's interesting because when Facebook's origin story was then told in the 2010 film "The Social Network," that - (laughter) I think that very - there was a scene that spoke to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SOCIAL NETWORK")

JESSE EISENBERG: (As Mark Zuckerberg) The Kirkland Facebook is open on my desktop, and some of these people have pretty horrendous Facebook pics. Billy Olson's sitting here and had the idea of putting some of the pictures next to pictures of farm animals and have people vote on who's hotter.

CORNISH: Obviously this is not a documentary. But how did this change the way the public viewed Zuckerberg, do you think?

KAPOR: Well, he became a kind of cultural icon as a result of the movie. And while obviously it wasn't entirely a flattering portrait, my sense is that the hero worship aspect of our culture fastened onto him even more tightly as a result of the exposure of the Zuckerberg character.

CORNISH: There's also, as they say, some danger in believing your own press. And in the years after, we saw Mark Zuckerberg really seize the reins in terms of being the face of the company and embracing that role. Were there some pitfalls there?

KAPOR: I think so in that when you're the king - and he really is the king - it's very difficult for your subjects to speak the truth to you. By becoming so visible and so much out there, I think it really made it even more difficult to have the kind of real internal dialogue that's needed to keep this hypergrowth company on some sort of track.

CORNISH: Fast-forward a few years, and we have seen Mark Zuckerberg try to change the narrative - right? - around people. People stopped seeing him as so benevolent, frankly - right? - or as a naive kid, so to speak. And I remember when he and his wife promised to give away most of their wealth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK ZUCKERBERG: You know, what does it take to make it so that people don't get sick anymore? Can we build more inclusive and welcoming communities? Can people in the next generation learn and experience a hundred times more things than we can? I think the answer to that is yes.

CORNISH: How would you mark that moment in sort of the growth of a leader?

KAPOR: Well, I think he's been struggling to figure out what to do now that he's king. I will say that we have to distinguish between good intentions and what actually results. For instance, on this pledge to give away the money, if you look at the details of that, in fact, it's not going into a philanthropy, into a foundation the way Bill Gates did with his money at Microsoft. It's going into a limited liability corporation. And they can do anything they want with that. And they have no accountability. I don't doubt that he's sincere. But I certainly don't take it at face value because what really matters is what Facebook actually does doesn't have much to do with what he says.

CORNISH: Since the Cambridge Analytica story broke last month, we've seen different sides of Mark Zuckerberg. First there was silence. He waited a while before even speaking with his own employees. And then a kind of apology tour where he did interviews with a handful of news outlets. Here's part of a press call he made last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZUCKERBERG: I think the reality here is that we need to take a broader view of our responsibility rather than just the legal responsibilities. So, you know, we're focused on doing the right thing and making sure that people's information is protected. We're doing the investigations. We're locking down the platform, et cetera.

CORNISH: Again, looking at the arc of a leader, what kind of moment is this?

KAPOR: Well, what I would say is it's not his first apology. And so the thing that really matters is what happens next and what they actually do about all this.

CORNISH: Is Mark Zuckerberg part of a larger story about leadership in Silicon Valley, about an industry that hasn't been taking responsibility for its own power?

KAPOR: Oh, absolutely. That Zuckerberg and the Facebook story really exemplifies a great deal about how Silicon Valley operates. One thing I would point out is all along this wasn't a secret that they were engaging in various disreputable behaviors. There were opportunities to speak up. But none of the investors who were on the Facebook gravy train wanted to do that for fear of either being thrown out or not having access to the incredible half trillion dollars of wealth that was being created. And so they remained silent. And the silence of the investors and the board, I think, is also part of what is wrong with Silicon Valley.

CORNISH: So what is your let's say optimistic take on what Mark Zuckerberg will do next?

KAPOR: Well, the optimistic take is that this really becomes a crisis of spirit for him and leads to a kind of genuine and deep personal transformation. He becomes a leader that is more driven by some set of principles and values and sense of obligation to all of his stakeholders, including mostly the 2 billion users, and that he refocuses the company by taking a long-term view. I think that's going to be hard because there'll be a loss of status and a loss of billions of dollars to do that because their current business model is a devil's bargain that's based on exploiting Facebook users. But the optimistic scenario is he can rise to that occasion.

CORNISH: Tech entrepreneur and investor Mitch Kapor - he runs Kapor Capital and the Kapor Center for Social Impact. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KAPOR: Absolutely. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.