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Finding the Real Mark Zuckerberg in His 2016 Facebook Posts

Poring over hundreds of humblebrags for a kernel of truth

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Like many of us, Mark Zuckerberg once used Facebook as a repository for his spontaneous thoughts. He posted Andy Samberg SNL videos, conducted polls about Rihanna’s songwriting, and asked pseudoscientific questions that really served as pleas for human connection (“Does anyone else think it’s weird that the sky is red at 2am?”). Somewhere back in his Timeline, he’s probably got some song lyrics aimed at an unnamed ex and punctuated by ellipses.

But times have changed. The man himself, now 32, is one of the richest people on the planet and has pledged to use the vast majority of his wealth to advance humanity in realms beyond social media. Facebook, now the seventh-most valuable company in the U.S., has become an apparatus for influencing human emotion and shaping how vital information is disseminated, roles Zuckerberg must answer for regularly. But on an individual level, Facebook is different too. It’s less about connecting than it is about signaling: These are the societal issues that are important to me, these are the key accomplishments in my personal and professional life, these are the most important Friends I’ve collected so far. Who has time to stare in wonder at the red sky when here on Earth, there are Likes just waiting to be accrued?

With these changes in mind, the evolution of Zuckerberg’s personal Facebook use makes sense. It’s now an expertly curated mix of corporate announcements, public policy activism, ambitious scientific research, and ain’t-that-cute Dad high jinks (Zuck and his wife, Priscilla Chan, had a daughter in 2015). He’s not offering us an actual window into his world, but he is supplying a lot of details about the frame through which he’d prefer to be viewed. This doesn’t make Zuck dishonest — it makes him the most adept user of Facebook in 2016.

So what do Zuckerberg’s posts tell us about his world and his worldview? Here are five key takeaways I had combing through the hundreds of messages he sent this year.

He Has an Astonishing Work Ethic

While the rest of us are rationalizing our way out of New Year’s resolutions by MLK Day, Zuck now uses Facebook to catalog his progress on ambitious resolutions throughout the year. This year he had two: build an AI assistant for his home and run at least 365 miles during the year. The now-completed AI, named Jarvis, can do things like use facial recognition to identify visitors at the front door, launch T-shirts out of a cannon, and prep dry toast for Zuckerberg to robotically shove into his facial orifice. This is the nerd equivalent of Coach Bombay lacing up his skates again to take on Wolf Stansson — Zuck is showing his employees, and Silicon Valley in general, that he’s still got coding chops. Just don’t expect to get your own personal, Facebook-powered Jarvis anytime soon. It’s actually easier to build a hyperpersonal AI suited to individual needs than a scalable, general-use product.

When he wasn’t coding (or spending time with his family or running Facebook or chilling with the pope or playing Civilization VI), Zuckerberg was running. He completed his 365-mile goal halfway through the year and also managed to run a mile in under six minutes. That Zuck is able to excel at so many endeavors is inspiring because it proves that daunting goals can be achieved through hard work, not just preternatural talent. But it’s also frustrating because working hard sucks, and none of us need our parents/bosses/significant others pulling the “Well, if Mark Zuckerberg could find the time …” card.

He Is Headed for a Clash With Trump

In his Facebook posts, Zuckerberg has empathized with the refugee crisis and backed Obama’s executive actions protecting undocumented immigrants. Donald Trump has been actively combative toward these groups for more than a year. Though no one is quite sure what Trump’s specific immigration policies will be as president, they won’t align with the ones Zuckerberg has been advocating for through his lobbying group for several years.

The question will be how Zuckerberg chooses to use his influence in 2017 in the face of adversity. He found an easy ally in Obama, but he likely won’t in Trump. To paraphrase some probably fake news about Michael Jordan, though, “Republicans use Facebook, too.” Ever since the social network’s Trending box controversy in May, Zuckerberg has been careful to avoid treading into explicitly political waters to avoid angering conservative users. Next year we’ll find out whether his business interests or his political ones are more important to him.

He Has a Top Bro and a Father Figure

By most measures of Facebook friendship, Vin Diesel is Mark Zuckerberg’s Top Bro. Zuck congratulated him on gaining 100 million followers by posting a picture of the first time they met. He held a livestream in which they discussed the Facebook CEO’s weird obsession with the film franchise xXx (which Vin is reviving for Zuck, as a loyal bro should). Theirs is a friendship so surprising that it feels like it must be authentic.

But — and this is very important — Zuckerberg wished Bill Gates happy birthday in a public Facebook post. The only other human beings whose birthdays Zuckerberg acknowledged in this way were his wife’s and his daughter’s! Writing happy birthday on someone’s Wall is one thing, but to alert everyone in your social orbit that it is your buddy’s birthday and they better celebrate his life is a cherished act of (yes, performative) love. Next year I expect to see quality posts of this May-December couple going fishing, throwing the old ball around in the park, or just sitting on the back porch, sipping beer and sharing (technologically mediated) memories.

His Brand Is “Relentless Optimism”

A lot of awful things happened in 2016, and Zuckerberg acknowledged many of the biggest ones in his posts. But he always managed to find a silver lining, which is a very useful trait for a man whose website is specifically engineered to encourage positive feedback. The killing of Philando Castile, recorded on Facebook Live, was a reminder of “why coming together to build a more open and connected world is so important.” “Empathy, not violence, is the path to greater understanding and peace,” he said after a terrorist attack in Istanbul. “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it,” he wrote after the election of Trump.

If Zuckerberg has specific opinions about these issues, he’s not offering them for mass consumption (immigration is the one hot-button topic where he’s been more direct). His public persona is a soothing one that manages to be engaged with the news of the moment without ruffling any feathers (again, this guy really gets how to win at Facebook). Often, when Zuck does give a real opinion about something — like when he said it was “pretty crazy” to think that fake news on Facebook influenced the election — he gets a negative news cycle for his trouble. Expect him to stick to the platitudes for the most part. Unless it’s about SpaceX. Zuck will happily drag SpaceX.

His Ambitions Are Bigger Than Social Media

Sometimes Zuckerberg writes about Facebook’s user metrics or new features like 360-degree video, but many of his posts are looking a century into the future. He regularly insists humans can eliminate disease within his daughter’s lifetime, an aim his Chan Zuckerberg Initiative aims to help achieve. Affordable housing and personalized learning are also regular topics of concern. Zuckerberg is still young, he’s passionate about a lot of things, and he’s tactically avoiding accusations of political partisanship. It’s quite possible Facebook will ultimately be just one thing we remember him for. Bill Gates was the cutthroat CEO of a tech empire before he was a big-hearted philanthropist. Steve Jobs was a brash, financially incompetent hippy before he was a beloved creative genius. After 2016, the phrase “stay in your lane” will never again be taken seriously. And Zuck, well, he’s already cleared the path to a potential run for political office.