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How Mark Zuckerberg Became the Most Reviled Man in Tech

For years, Zuckerberg was perceived in Silicon Valley as a bold and erudite leader who could outmaneuver anyone. Now the tables have turned—but not for the reasons you might think.

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Mark Zuckerberg

By Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

It’s funny how you can leave a place, like your hometown, or the city where you went to college, and when you return, so much is as you left it. The bar where you ordered your first drink with a fake I.D. has barely changed. The postman who drops mail at your parents’ house is still driving the same route. Your high school chemistry teacher never left. Not so in the Bay Area, where the future seems to be advancing at 10 times the speed as the rest of America. There are new drones and A.I.-powered delivery services everywhere, electric scooters and semiautonomous cars and tech workers sporting wristbands that monitor every breath, step, REM cycle, bowel movement, and friend request—years before similar technologies hit the local Best Buy in a typical city.

The only thing about San Francisco that changes faster than technology itself is the opinions that techies hold about one another. One day Elon Musk is a brilliant inventor; the next, he’s a pot-smoking jerk who attacks a cave rescuer. Wait another day, when he releases a new Tesla vehicle (or SpaceX rocket), and he’ll be a genius once again. Vipassanā master Jack Dorsey is a monster for letting Donald Trump break the terms of service on Twitter; then suddenly he’s the greatest guy in the world for banning political ads and making fun of Facebook’s new logo. Even former Uber executive Travis Kalanick, who left the company amid a maelstrom of controversy, still has countless fans in the tech world who are rooting for his latest venture (“cloud kitchens”) to succeed. Perhaps the only person who is now consistently persona non grata, no matter whom you ask, is Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg—and not necessarily for the reasons you might think.

For years, Zuckerberg was largely perceived in Silicon Valley as a bold and erudite leader who could outmaneuver anyone, no matter their age or business acumen. Sure, he made some juvenile moves early in his career—from his adolescent prank on Sequoia Capital, when he showed up to a pitch meeting in his pajamas and presented a PowerPoint deck that made fun of his own start-up, to one of his first Facebook business cards, which read, “I’m CEO, Bitch.” But venture capitalists, founders, even a number of tech journalists, still viewed him as a savant—someone who not only built the biggest social network in the world, but had the precognition to secure total control of his company in the process, solidifying his power with a dual-class stock structure that gives Zuckerberg majority voting rights, ensuring he can never be fired (if only Steve Jobs had had such foresight). You had to appreciate the chutzpah.

Not anymore. On my last couple trips up to San Francisco, not one person I spoke to had anything good to say about Facebook, a company that minted hundreds of Bay Area millionaires when it went public in 2012. (Facebook, which once offered one of the most coveted jobs in the United States, has since fallen from being the number one “best place to work,” according to the job-survey site Glassdoor, to seventh place.) The list of reasons for the fall from grace are endless. There were the data breaches and privacy scandals, the Cambridge Analytica fiasco, and the Russian hacking of the 2016 election. Facebook monopolized the digital-advertising market, got media companies hooked on its traffic pipeline, then destroyed careers when it pulled the plug. Along the way, Zuckerberg was slow to acknowledge Facebook’s impact on the world, dismissing any complicity in election meddling (a “pretty crazy idea”) or Facebook’s responsibilities as a media platform (“We are a tech company, not a media company”) or an arbiter of hate speech (“I don’t believe that our platform should take [Holocaust denials] down”). Perhaps most offensive to his well-heeled neighbors, Zuckerberg was ruthless in crushing the competition, acquiring rivals or copying their features with single-minded purpose.

These were among the litany of complaints I heard when, on my most recent trip to Silicon Valley, I met a local venture capitalist for coffee. In the past, he had projected a rosy outlook on the tech world. But when I asked about Zuckerberg, he laid into the Facebook founder as if he had been cuckolded.

“He’s fucking destroyed this town,” the V.C. said over a macchiato at one of the many trendy coffee shops that only accept payment via smartphone or, if you must, a credit card. “Any time there’s an inkling of innovation here, any time a new idea comes up, Zuckerberg either buys it and shuts it down, or copies it and shuts it down anyway.” The venture capitalist, who has known Zuckerberg for more than a decade, said the problem with Facebook goes far beyond fake news. It’s as if the company has sucked the air out of Silicon Valley itself.

Zuckerberg isn’t the only merciless tech mogul who has tarnished the industry’s once-positive reputation in the press. Pretty much anyone who works in the area has played a role in that. But unlike some of his peers, who occasionally show some contrition, Zuckerberg comes across as a know-it-all. When Musk was caught up in the cave-diver debacle, he later admitted, “I’m a fucking idiot.” Kalanick quite literally rolled around on the floor and said “I’m a terrible person” when a video surfaced of him yelling at an Uber driver. Yet when Aaron Sorkin wrote an open letter to Zuckerberg in 2019, pleading with the subject of his film The Social Network to rethink his stance on allowing fabricated political ads to be hosted on the site, Zuckerberg had to have the last word. He posted a quote to his Facebook page, from the Sorkin film The American President, defending free speech.

These moments may be cathartic for Zuckerberg, but they don’t play well in the court of public opinion. Another investor described Zuckerberg and Facebook in their current instantiation as “frightening.” Still another said Zuckerberg shows “no self-awareness.” Even one of Zuckerberg’s senior-level employees confided in me recently that their boss shows little emotion and sometimes comes across as robotic. As tech journalist Charlie Warzel once observed, “He’s CEO of Facebook and his political party is achieving sustained growth in active users, ad revenue, and market share...at basically whatever cost.”

In Silicon Valley, as in life, there can be second acts. If you were to pick up a newspaper two decades ago, you would have inevitably come across a story about Bill Gates that portrayed the youngish Microsoft cofounder in much the same light as Zuckerberg: flouting regulators and trouncing any competitors who got in his way. Like Zuckerberg, Gates showed contempt for Congress, and went to the mat to fight the U.S. government when Microsoft was accused of antitrust violations in 1998. But then something about Gates changed. Maybe it was the government cracking down on him, or just the realization that there is more to life than winning, but something seemed to humble Gates. He got older and wiser. In 2000, he handed the reins to Steve Ballmer and focused on philanthropy. Within a decade, the CEO who was once the personification of tech’s evils had become one of the best-liked corporate leaders in the world. There’s even a documentary, released in September: Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates. Could Zuck undergo a similar transformation?

Setting aside whether Facebook suffers Microsoft’s fate (personally, I think it gets broken up—eventually—or regulated in one form or another), there are structural reasons why it’s unlikely that Zuckerberg will face a Gates-like humbling. For one, Facebook’s stock keeps rising, and the board has no reason to take a stand against him. Zuckerberg continues to have complete control over his company, and appears to be growing more defiant, not less. While Dorsey has worked to gain favor with colleagues in Silicon Valley, Zuckerberg has doubled down.

My guess is that Zuckerberg is too far down the road to turn back. Even if he follows the Bill Gates path, one day quits running the company he started, and spends every waking hour taking on the world’s biggest challenges, I doubt anyone will want to watch Inside Mark’s Brain: Decoding Mark Zuckerberg. Unlike Gates, who reached a crescendo and then seemed to spiritually evolve as a human being, Zuckerberg still seems laser-focused on growing Facebook’s bottom line—no matter the social cost. As someone who once worked with Zuckerberg at Facebook told me, this is just who he is. “Zuck is the most driven person I have ever met. No matter what he decides to do, he will be the absolute number one at it; it’s just the way he’s built,” the person said. “He could be in charge of a nonprofit, and it would be the biggest nonprofit in the world. It just so happens that he started Facebook.”

Nick Bilton is a special correspondent for Vanity Fair, covering technology, business, politics, and culture. Previously a columnist for The New York Times, his articles have led to government investigations and congressional hearings and his writing was the basis for overturning the longtime ban of cell phones, Kindles, and iPads on airplanes. He is also the NYT best-selling author of the books, Hatching Twitter and American Kingpin, and the writer and director of Fake Famous, a documentary on HBO. You can follow him on Twitter.

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This post originally appeared on Vanity Fair and was published November 6, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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