Brunswick Review The Predictions Issue

The man who mentored Zuckerberg

Criticism of Facebook policies turned into personal attacks on Mark Zuckerberg following the use of user data by external firm Cambridge Analytica

On April 9, former Washington Post Chairman Don Graham posted a long note on Facebook, just ahead of the congressional appearance of Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg. The context of the post was the ongoing debate about social media and data privacy. But no knowledge of that issue is required to appreciate the story told here of an inter-generational friendship, one that developed between Mr. Graham and a 20-year-old college student named Mark Zuckerberg. 
This post is reprinted with the permission of Mr. Graham, now the Chairman of Graham Holdings Company.

 

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This week's hearings are a serious time for Facebook and for Mark Zuckerberg. I assume that everyone reading this has questions about the role technology companies have come to play in our lives. You certainly should.

I want to talk to a different group: those who have come to believe that Mark Zuckerberg is himself a bad person. People like the very important Senator I sat next to some years ago who said a home-state nonprofit executive had told him she knew that “Zuckerberg is a creep.” Or people who believe that Mark is more interested in profits than in the interests of the people who use Facebook.

I know I can't persuade you, but I would like to tell you otherwise. Watching him close up, I came to believe he is someone of great decency and good character. In a most unfavorable setting, what he says to members of Congress will be, within the limits of legal advice and courtesy, what he believes. And if he says that Facebook will do something, the company will do it (or at least, will try as hard as it can).

I met the 20-year-old Mark Zuckerberg in January, 2005. Facebook was nine months old and I had never seen the site—it was only open to college students.

The youngest of my four children was two years older than Mark; through my kids and their friends, I had an extensive experience of shy, awkward 20-year olds. Mark was, by a mile, the shyest, most awkward 20-year-old I had ever met.

When I asked a question, there was sometimes a long, long pause before he answered. I wondered: had I somehow offended him? Did he not hear?

Actually, he was thinking. I'm from Washington, where opinions are on the tip of people's tongues. Listening—and thinking before answering--wasn't something I was used to seeing.

I had been at Harvard exactly 40 years before Mark and spent most of my time on the newspaper there. When Mark told me 95% of Harvard students were on Facebook, I said “There goes the Crimson”—Facebook would be a better advertising medium, so the newspaper would lose its revenues.

Mark, wiser than I, laughed and said yes, Facebook could pause and pick up some ad revenue in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But it was much, much more important to reach other colleges before similar products could arise there and get entrenched. Users before revenue.

We talked a little bit about Facebook as a business. The future tech titan did not then know the difference between revenues and profits.

Like many, many people before and since, I offered to invest in Facebook. Mark considered it for some weeks, and chose to go with a much higher offer. When he called to tell me, he said he was having a “moral dilemma” because he worried he had been too encouraging in our earlier conversations. I was disappointed but quite impressed by the maturity with which he handled the matter—pretty good for a 20-year old.

Two years later, I was in Palo Alto and called on Mark. We met at his apartment, in which there were four pieces of furniture: a mattress (on the floor), a kitchen table and two wooden chairs. It was about at this time that Mark turned down a billion-dollar offer for Facebook. I noted that he wasn't letting success go to his head.

When I asked a question, there was sometimes a long, long pause before he answered. I wondered: had I somehow offended him? Did he not hear? Actually, he was thinking.

In 2008, at least one large public company was trying to hire the 38-year-old Sheryl Sandberg, a Silicon Valley star who was responsible for much of the ad revenue at Google. Sheryl, who literally knew the top people at every big advertiser in the world, could have gone to work at any company in media, and could have run many of them.

A reasonably astute judge of character, she chose to go to work for a 23-year-old. That she is still there speaks greatly to Facebook's success, but also to Mark's decency. The team they have put together—brilliant, optimistic, young—have worked together a long time.

In those days, the caricature of Mark came from the movie The Social Network—quite a cruel movie about a 26-year old, even a very successful one. The movie takes the premise that Mark invented Facebook to get dates with girls and to get into a snobby Harvard “final club.” The movie begins and ends with women calling him an asshole.

A guy like that could date a lot of models and movie stars if he became a billionaire, right? Since I first knew him (a few months after the time shown in the movie), Mark has been together with Priscilla Chan, his sophomore-year girlfriend. After graduating, Priscilla became a teacher in Palo Alto. Today she is a pediatrician, the founder of a great and innovative school in East Palo Alto, and the co-leader of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (the entity she and Mark founded to give away 99% of their net worth). She is smart, impressive, humble, and kind. She and Mark married five years ago and have two daughters.

I served on the board of Facebook for six years, retiring at the mandatory age of 70 in 2015. I don't believe it violates board privacy to say: I was a constant prod for more investment in advertising staff and products. I thought the early Facebook advertising products were hideous. I wasn't alone. I was pushing against Mark, whose priority was always growth and the best experience for users, not revenue. He is as long-term minded as the best CEO's.

It is true that Mark and Facebook seem destined to be at the center of an unending series of controversies. One of the biggest I witnessed close-up surrounded Facebook's 2012 IPO. After months of build-up and excitement about the offering, NASDAQ's systems crashed because so many people wanted to buy stock. More seriously, in subsequent quarters, Facebook's ad revenue lagged because the company had been slow in adapting to its users' rapid shift to mobile devices. Facebook had no mobile advertising products. Had the company properly informed investors about this problem?

Others solved the lawsuits; Mark solved the problem. He took some of Facebook's most-respected developers and assigned them to mobile ads. And he and the team rewrote the mobile app from the ground up, knowing that users had to have a good experience before the ads would work. Facebook's mobile audience, and its revenues, exploded.

And this is his pattern. When daunting challenges arise at Facebook, Mark still listens and still thinks. He worked his way through a long, long list of product and privacy challenges, all of which aroused people greatly at the time, most of which you have now forgotten (your Facebook page, and its “news feed” aroused enormous controversy when first created).

Today the charges against Mark and Facebook are graver still. Did Russian ads and posts of false news sway the 2016 election (If you believe this, I REALLY want to talk to you)? Why was Cambridge Analytica permitted to make off with so much user data? Does Facebook tilt us towards polarization and political intransigence? There's much more. Slowly and patiently, Mark, Sheryl and their team will make Facebook much better. Should they have acted sooner? Of course. Do they understand how angry many of their users are? I would bet a lot that the answer is yes. Watch the changes they will make.

We don't allow public hangings or bear-baiting in the United States any more. Congressional hearings like this one, with lots of Senators badgering an unpopular CEO, are a substitute. For some Senators—not all—the idea is to ask the nastiest, most hostile questions, thereby earning the prize: time on television. The witness's replies won't get much air time.

Those of us in the audience, might take a tip from the still-young man (he's 33) behind the witness table.

Listen.