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Story pick: The face behind Facebook

By Steve Hendrix

Presumably, it doesn't matter if you only have one good idea if that one makes you a multi-billionaire. You're a genius even if the intellectual bolt is shot forever after.

Mark Zuckerberg is a made guy. He's the genius behind Facebook, a kabillionaire awaiting only the IPO, a smart dude by any measure. He was a bona fide programming prodigy, the inventor of more than one novel communications program and game (and, quaintly, a classics scholar and a fencer). And he is the only thing better than being a Harvard grad; he's a Harvard dropout who left the ivy confines to found an Earth-changing enterprise.

And he is about to become of the Face of the Age. With the arrival next month of "The Social Network," a bio-tech-pic about the invention of Facebook, Zuckerberg will become the next icon of the digital era, joining the pallid Pantheon of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and those two guys who invented Google. Inevitably his image will be skewed by the Hollywood lens, so really curious readers will want and get more and better information by, as always, reading. In this case, reading a superb New Yorker piece on "Zuck" by Jose Antonio Vargas.

Vargas, a Washington Post alumnus, provides a detailed portrait of this Silicon Caesar who is methodically usurping the free time and personal space of a half a billion Facebook subscribers (one out of every 14 people on the planet have signed up). He's not particularly likeable, and much of the profile, like the movie, centers on the controversy over Facebook's provenance (Zuckerberg settled with two Harvard mates who claimed he stole the idea from them, although they are still fighting for a bigger share). And, surprise, he's an awkward geek who doesn't enjoy the spotlight as it zooms in on him.

He’s only around five feet eight, but he seems taller, because he stands with his chest out and his back straight, as if held up by a string. His standard attire is a gray T-shirt, bluejeans, and sneakers. His affect can be distant and disorienting, a strange mixture of shy and cocky. When he’s not interested in what someone is talking about, he’ll just look away and say, “Yeah, yeah.” Sometimes he pauses so long before he answers it’s as if he were ignoring the question altogether. The typical complaint about Zuckerberg is that he’s “a robot.” One of his closest friends told me, “He’s been overprogrammed.” Indeed, he sometimes talks like an Instant Message—brusque, flat as a dial tone—and he can come off as flip and condescending, as if he always knew something that you didn’t

But he won me over with one piece of wisdom: Faced with the media noise about a film on his life, Zuckerberg says simply that he doesn't plan to see it. Now that's a abstinence strategy for the age, one that I find it increasingly satisfying to apply to the bells and whistles of the online universe, where good tales are too often tarted up with empty gadgets and interactive gimmicks to satisfy some ill-defined notion of sizzle.

That Zuckerberg is a genius.

By Steve Hendrix  | September 14, 2010; 7:25 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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