Facebook CEO has a reputation that has led his company to a crossroads. Picture: Mladen Antonov
Facebook CEO has a reputation that has led his company to a crossroads. Picture: Mladen Antonov

The ‘megalomaniac’ behind the mask

THEY say you can't make an omelette without cracking a few eggs.

Something tells me Mark Zuckerberg would be a fan of this metaphor. The Facebook founder is the fifth richest person in the world - an astounding achievement for a 33-year-old (the only other person in the top ten under the age of 60 is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos).

But you certainly don't get to that level of personal wealth without cracking a few eggs.

Born in New York, the computer programmer shot to notoriety after building a social network with his buddies at Harvard University that grew to eclipse all others in the West, and in the process he has gained a reputation for a ruthlessness not uncommon among titans of industry.

Author Nick Bilton has covered some big names in tech and recently wrote about Zuckerberg and the impending "downward spiral" of Facebook - an assertion that now looks decidedly more prophetic after this week.

"As Facebook has grown into a global colossus that connects about a third of the globe, Zuckerberg has subsequently assumed a reputation as an aloof megalomaniac deeply out of touch with the people who use his product," he wrote for Vanity Fair in January.

According to him, stories about Facebook's ruthlessness are legend in Silicon Valley, New York, and Hollywood. He himself had a close friend who was burned by the Facebook CEO.

The friend had his own social media enterprise in the very early days of Facebook when Zuckerberg took him for a walk in the woods - something he liked to do for business meetings - and offered the chance to collaborate.

After the friend rebuffed a takeover offer he agreed to work with Facebook and shared his start-up company's road map. A few weeks later Facebook brought out a new product that copied the smaller rival's idea.

Zuckerberg would go on to repeat this tactic throughout Facebook's ascendancy.

MORE: Nick Bilton talk to news.com.au about his book on Silk Road founder

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When he tried to take over Snapchat, Zuckerberg attempted to staunch the company's founders by telling them that Facebook planned to release a nearly identical app a few days later.

"It was basically like, 'we're going to crush you,'" Snap CEO Evan Spiegel told Forbes about the confrontational meeting.

That app was called Facebook Poke and ended up being a huge flop but since then Facebook's Instagram has gone out of its way to copy Snapchat's popular features in an effort to squeeze its rival.

As Nick Bilton put it, "from a business standpoint, Facebook's barbarism seemed to work out well for the company".

Far from being the mild mannered computer geek he appears at first glance, there are notorious stories of Zuckerberg giving rousing Braveheart-esque speeches to Facebook employees. Sometimes he even does it in Latin.

 

Despite showing a flagrant nonchalance for the privacy of more than 2 billion people, Zuckerberg has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect his own. In 2016 in an apparent bid to ensure his privacy he bought the four properties surrounding his Palo Alto home in California and tore them down to later build smaller houses.

He has an army of handlers (which he doesn't like people talking about) and often goes for runs with a serious number of body guards. Perhaps he's practising for the days when he's president?

There has been plenty of speculation that the social media mogul harbours such political ambitions - a potential scenario that has seen him labelled "the most dangerous presidential candidate who isn't yet".

Zuckerberg went for a run with heavy security in Berlin after being threatened by Islamic State.
Zuckerberg went for a run with heavy security in Berlin after being threatened by Islamic State.

MOVE FAST AND BREAK THINGS

In the early days of the company's ascendancy, Facebook's motto was "move fast and break things". The style arguably allowed the company to evade regulators who often took a long time to catch up and understand what Facebook was doing and the power it had accumulated.

But the approach has also resulted in a very long list of public apologies being issued by its CEO, culminating in the most recent.

On Thursday, Mark Zuckerberg finally faced the music amid anger over the manner in which his company sat by while a shady data mining firm acquired the personal data of 50 million Facebook users to profile them and bombard them with political messages to sway elections.

Zuckerberg tentatively agreed to answer calls to face the US congress and said he welcomed a certain level of regulation - but not everyone was convinced by his effort.

Mark Zuckerberg sat down for an interview with CNN after four days of silence following the scandal.
Mark Zuckerberg sat down for an interview with CNN after four days of silence following the scandal.

Facebook's No. 2 executive Sheryl Sandberg said in an interview on CNBC on Friday (AEDT) that the incident was a "huge breach of trust". She said she was sorry the company let so many people down.

Facebook has opted to take baby steps to rectify the situation that led to the latest scandal limiting how it shares user data with third party developers - the source of the latest drama.

From the company's perspective, the baby steps make perfect sense.

Stronger safeguards on user data might damage Facebook's core business: using what it knows about you to sell ads that target your interests. Something it has been desperately fighting against in Europe.

As pressure to impose more controls on influential tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon grow, Sandberg said: "it's not a question of 'if' it's a question of what type."

AUSTRALIANS ARE 'A LITTLE NAIVE'

Australians may be accustomed to living their lives online but experts say the Facebook data-mining scandal shows we need to be more cautious about targeted political content based on psychological profiling.

Professor Moira Paterson from Monash University says despite a level of awareness about privacy settings, Australians can be "a little bit naive" when it comes to online content.

"Using different forms of social media has become a way of life, but I think people need to exercise some caution and be very aware," the privacy and surveillance researcher told AAP on Thursday.

University of Sydney Associate Professor Timothy Dwyer also believes social media users should more actively question whether the content they see is attempting to manipulate their vote.

"One interpretation of these developments is that basically political content on social media is just another form of advertising in the sense that you might assume you're being manipulated by some political group," he said.

Will Easton, the head of Facebook in Australia and New Zealand, hasn't been able to say whether Australians' data was involved in the data mining.

ACCC chairman Rod Sims has said the incident will be part of an upcoming inquiry into how Facebook and Google use our data in the commercial world.

- With AAP

A lit sign is seen at the entrance to Facebook's corporate headquarters location in Menlo Park, California on March 21, 2018.
A lit sign is seen at the entrance to Facebook's corporate headquarters location in Menlo Park, California on March 21, 2018.


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