By Dilara O’Neil, from The California Review of Images and Mark Zuckerberg, which was published last year.
In Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook profile photo uploaded during the summer of 2013, he presents himself neither as a businessman nor as a thinker but as a Normal Guy. He is wearing one of his signature gray T-shirts beneath a matching gray hoodie. He is neither smiling nor frowning, and the picture is cropped close to his face, so close that we are unsure whether he posed and took the photo himself, whether someone else took it on the spur of the moment, whether there were others originally in the picture. The scenery behind him is nondescript—there are no landmarks or recognizable clues to his location. We can see the slope of his shoulders and his neck, but otherwise his pose lacks physical agency. The photo is maddeningly neutral.
The image of neutrality is deceptive, of course. Zuck’s T-shirts, which he stocks in bulk, reportedly cost $400 each. (Visibly expensive clothing used to distinguish the wealthy from the nonwealthy, but now we have normcore.) Just as Zuck’s uniform is inspired by the middle and lower classes, so too is his professional conduct. He interacts with his users, or at least makes them feel like they can interact with him. We don’t see his body in photos, not even his hands, because unlike Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, who often held up their products for pictures, Zuck has nothing to hold up. Facebook is too vast, too connected to other parts of the internet to be defined. Rather than presenting himself as a public figure or a celebrity, Zuck presents himself as a face on a screen—the profile photo is both approachable and terrifyingly distant, bodiless and omniscient, looming at us blankly. As one Facebook user commented, “Your eyes look like they’ve been hacked by an electromagnetic pulse machine.”
The message in this picture is that Zuck, and all of Facebook, is everywhere. We may not have realized that in 2013, but we certainly do now. A year after the photo was posted, we discovered that Facebook was experimenting with news feeds to hack our moods and emotions. Four years later, Facebook was accused of disseminating fake news and enabling Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Unlike websites that remain static until consumers grow bored and move on, Facebook is always evolving.
Many tech leaders have an identifiable persona. For Bill Gates, it is his clunky glasses, neatly combed hair, and sweater. Steve Jobs had his signature black turtleneck and light-wash jeans. Zuck’s image is one of nondescript youth. It is identical to the profile pictures of many men I grew up with. He could be a boy on my college improv team. Most photos of him before 2016 look like this one: nonthreatening and approachable. He is not a CEO; he is a self-made entrepreneur. The picture is not early Mark Zuckerberg (he’s been on Facebook since 2004), but it is Zuck before children, marriage, and politics. Now Zuck employs a professional photographer to shoot his tours of the United States.
Hierarchies of power look different these days than they used to. The picture represents how fully integrated the powerful appear to be among the masses of their software users. Just as Zuck’s plain-color T-shirts are indistinguishable from any T-shirt, Facebook’s algorithms appear organic instead of strategic. Invisible money drives the advertisements and sponsored posts that populate our news feeds. This is the shifting form of commodity exchange on social media. In a post last year, Zuck wrote, “Trump says Facebook is against him. Liberals say we helped Trump. Both sides are upset about ideas and content they don’t like. That’s what running a platform for all ideas looks like.” A neutral presence is Zuck’s public image, and Facebook’s. Zuck’s underwhelming profile picture reminds us that the appearance of neutrality masks a deliberate naturalization of monetary power.
The profile pic may not be the most lasting image of Zuck. But before candid pictures were published of him walking his dog, exercising with his daughter, feeding a calf in Ohio from a bottle, or leaning on a beige table in a beige room livestreaming his solution to Russia’s interference in the election, this picture attempted a democratic vision of what a CEO could be. Unlike the tech innovators that came before him, Zuck does not have a defined point of view. His image is malleable. It seeks to accommodate his followers. We’ve watched Zuck mature as we’ve watched Facebook solidify. There will likely never be a single iconic image to symbolize Mark Zuckerberg’s career; his image is a gradual becoming.