A couple months ago, I received a text message from a friend containing a brief video clip that caught me utterly by surprise. It depicted a man giving a rousing speech at Harvard in front of an audience of thousands, who listened rapturously despite the beating rain, as he enumerated the various policies that the average American needed to adapt in our increasingly volatile world. “We need affordable childcare,” the man said, before noting the plight of a younger generation who “will have to deal with tens of millions of jobs replaced by automation like self-driving cars and trucks.” It seemed less of a commencement address than a stump speech. A few seconds later, my friend texted me again to say, “I think he’s running for president.”
The man in the video was Mark Zuckerberg. And his oration at his old stomping grounds appeared to solidify a whole lot of political speculation and Internet gossip. A few months earlier, a whisper campaign began to mount regarding the Facebook C.E.O.’s potential political aspirations. Zuckerberg, after all, was sending out some strong signals: Facebook had updated the company’s proxy statement to allow him to run for office and still maintain control of his company. Then Zuckerberg, a former atheist, said that he believed religion is “very important.”. And then there was the most controversial intimation—Zuckerberg’s New Year’s resolution to meet “people in every state in the U.S.,” which spurred a series of bizarre campaign trail-style imagery. At the time, I wondered aloudif Zuckerberg, who turns 35 in two years, would indeed (try to) be our next president. In a funny way, it almost seemed like a demotion. Yet over and over again, various sources told me that Zuckerberg had grander plans in life and wanted to be “emperor.”
The reaction to the rumors, though, were sometimes stranger than the potential of a Zuckerberg presidency. On the left, a lot of people applauded the notion of a tech genius running for office, especially in the wake of an ignoramus like Donald Trump. Some in the alt-right reduced the prospect of Zuckerberg, who is of Jewish heritage, in the White House to horrifying racist screeds. And then there were those in Silicon Valley who momentarily wondered aloud about Zuck’s calculation before concluding—perhaps after back-channeling with Zuckerberg’s communications team—that there was absolutely no way he would run for president, that he was really just hauling across the country in order to get to know The People. Zuckerberg, meanwhile, has since taken to Facebook (where else) to deny that he’s running for office.
So, if he’s not running for president, what exactly is Zuckerberg doing? Nathan Hubbard, a former executive at Twitter, recently posted a series of tweets outlining his theory for what Zuckerberg has been up to during the last few months—and it’s a theory that a lot of people in Silicon Valley subscribe to. “Zuck isn’t running for President. He’s trying to understand the role the product he created played in getting this one elected,” Hubbard wrote on Twitter. “Zuck woke up on Nov 9th acutely aware that FB had facilitated a new shift he didn’t foresee or understand; that’s terrifying to a founder.”
I’ve spoken to several Silicon Valley executives and tech journalists about this theory, and it makes a fair amount of sense. People at Facebook have also privately told me how they were caught completely off guard by the role that the social network played in the election. But while this sounds entirely plausible, it doesn’t explain why Zuckerberg would amend Facebook’s proxy statement.
In the updated S-1 filing, this provision is invoked several times, explicating that Zuckerberg can take a “Pre-Approved Leave,” which translates as “any leave of absence or resignation of the Founder that is in connection with the Founder serving in a government position or office.” One person who interacts with Zuckerberg on a regular basis theorized that maybe Zuckerberg is leaving open the option to run for office one day in the very distant future, or that he could try running for lesser office to better understand how government works. But again, this is all just conjecture and speculation. No one really has the faintest clue what Zuckerberg is up to, which all amounts to fairly genius politicking for a political neophyte. Mike Pence, in fact, might want to give it a try.
So here's the exit question folks: which is more frightening?
One one hand there's the notion that Zuck wants to run the country like he's running Facebook, as the ultimate Silicon Valley dudebro who thinks tech can solve everything. On the other hand there's the notion that he's lost control of his social network behemoth and not even he knows how to fix the fake news spewing volcano that he's helped to unleash under the body politic.
Neither scenario exactly fills me with confidence.