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Zuck Goes Back to School

The Facebook CEO made a very non-political-but-maybe-political speech at Harvard

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

On Thursday afternoon, Mark Zuckerberg took a break from his apolitical-but-probably-political tour of America to give the commencement speech to Harvard’s Class of 2017. Between safe, insidery jokes about campus geography and acknowledging the genius of Beyoncé, he spoke about the virtues of altruism, and — if you’re into reading the tea leaves — made his (hypothetical) intention to run as a Democratic candidate for president just a little bit clearer.

“Today, I want to talk about purpose,” he said. His face was red with excitement, and he wore an uncharacteristic blue suit against a backdrop of scholarly men. “But I’m not here to give you the standard commencement about finding your purpose. We’re millennials, we try to do that instinctively. Instead, I’m here to tell you that finding your purpose isn’t enough. The challenge for our generation is to create a world where everyone has a sense of purpose.”

Actually, it was all pretty standard material — for a politician. Most tech superstars tend to tell a story about what inspired their own creative genius (See: Steve Jobs’s 2005 Stanford address.) But instead, Zuckerberg touched ever so lightly on a little bit of everything: climate change, personalized education, worldwide pandemics, health care, the ability to vote in presidential elections online, and experimenting with concepts like universal basic income. He teared up over a story about the selflessness of an undocumented student he once taught. It’s cynical, sure, but it’s not like he’s the first person to make such a speech.

Zuckerberg also went out of his way to position himself as a generational insider, someone who is in the unique position to understand the challenges of a new economy that has been transformed by technology as well as his own company. But his underlying message echoed the same altruistic sentiment that many a Democrat has pushed before him. “When more people can turn their dreams into something great, we’re all better for it,” he said. It was a slightly more self-centered, millennial version of that famous John F. Kennedy quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” He even called out a few graduates in the crowd to demonstrate how their lives exemplified his own personal agenda, as he if were giving a State of the Union address.

You could chalk all of this up to a very elaborate marketing campaign to present Zuckerberg as a kind of global CEO, but consider the context. Since we last checked in with him, the man has met with a group of military officers at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island, bottle-fed milk to a calf on a Wisconsin farm, and traveled through Ohio to speak to recovering heroin addicts and a family of Obama-to-Trump voters. He (and what is likely to be a team of PR people) spent the past week hyping this speech by posting a #TBT video of him learning that he had been accepted to Harvard, and doing a Facebook Live video of a visit to his old dorm, where he spent a considerable amount of time accusing a former roommate of eating his Hot Pockets. Within an hour of the speech ending, its full transcript was posted on his profile page in the same way Obama used to push a new policy or idea with the help of his digital team.

Mark Zuckerberg wanted as many people as possible to see this speech, because he wants to win over as many people as possible. Why exactly he wants to win them over remains to be seen — but there will surely be more hints along the campaign — er, non-campaign — trail.