Forget The Cynicism, Mark Zuckerberg Is Making The World A Better Place

I don’t like to admit this, but I’m a cynic. So when I see that Mark Zuckerberg has given away a half billion dollars in stock and announced it on his Facebook page, there’s a part of me that wants to point out that this munificent gesture is conveniently timed to offset the recent spate of bad news about the bad behavior of Instagram (owned by Facebook); news that includes not only the uproar over the changes in its terms of service and Instagram’s selfish, user-hurting spat with Twitter but a far more damning story by Nick Bilton in the New York Times about Instagram’s lack of candor (the phrase “perjury risks” pops up) with federal regulators when the Facebook-Instagram acquisition was being reviewed.

The cynic in me would also point out that the last time Mark Zuckerberg made a big donation ($100 million in stock to the struggling schools in Newark, N.J.), it was September 2010 and Facebook and Zuckerberg were desperately in need of some favorable press. The company had just endured a rough spring and summer tamping down outrage among users and members of Congress alike over changes to its privacy policy. But the bigger problem was that Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network was about to open in theaters, and Facebook’s spin doctors were desperately worried that a damning movie that portrays Zuckerberg as a disloyal, dishonest, back-stabbing, sociopathic opportunist would not only hurt Zuck's tender feelings but also, more important, hurt Facebook's business and its upcoming initial public offering of stock. Billions were at stake.

Zuckerberg rarely speaks to the press, but in September 2010, two weeks before the movie opened, a huge and generally flattering profile of him appeared in the New Yorker, penned by Jose Antonio Vargas, a friendly journalist hand-picked by Zuckerberg and his team. That helped, but bigger news came a few days later, when on Sept. 22 the New York Times somehow, miraculously, learned that Zuck was about to make a big donation to Newark Schools. Two days later, on Sept. 24, Zuck made it official during an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show. So there was Zuck, sitting with Oprah, being lavished with praise by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and doing his best to look like the sweetest, kindest, most altruistic aw-shucks kid you'd ever want to meet -- at which point another round of favorable coverage hit.

For good measure, on Sept. 30 another Zuckerberg apologist, David Kirkpatrick, was trotted out on The Daily Beast to explain that The Social Network was incredibly inaccurate, and that the unflattering depiction of Zuckerberg was totally unrealistic since in real life Zuck is just a terrific young man.

Coincidence? Please. This campaign was perfectly timed and perfectly orchestrated. One had to admire the skills of the Facebook public relations team.

Let’s Not Be Cynical

Nevertheless - wait. I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to be the guy who says that people always have an ulterior motive, who suggests that Zuckerberg’s new announcement of the half-billion-dollar donation is some kind of PR ploy.

Because first of all, this donation probably didn’t happen overnight, and second, Facebook's latest issues aren't so bad as to reqiure a half-billion-dollar philanthropical whitewash. But the real point is, whatever Zuck's motives might be, does it matter? The money is being put toward health and education. People will benefit from this. Kids will benefit.

Like me, you may at times be uncomfortable with Facebook and the way it makes money. And like me, you might have been dismayed by Facebook's scuzzy IPO, where the company fought with the Securities and Exchange Commission to keep from having to disclose certain risks in its business, and at the last minute shared bad news with a handful of insiders while simultaneously raising the price of its shares and increasing the number to be sold -- to suckers who didn't get the memo about the weakness in Facebook's business. Those boosting their shares to be sold even included members of Facebook's board of directors, which was shocking enough that venture capitalist Roger McNamee, a Facebook shareholder, was prompted to complain about "self-dealing" that went on in the IPO. 

But maybe there is at least some comfort to be taken in the knowledge that some of Facebook’s wealth and market valuation, however it was generated, is being used as a force for good in this world.

The thing is, despite my cynicism, I want to believe that people really do care about each other, and that when rich people give away some or all of their fortune it’s because they believe it’s the right and decent thing to do. Sure, some of them no doubt also view philanthropy as a way to atone for past sins, and/or to feed their egos, and/or to get some favorable publicity to offset bad news. But again, does it matter?

Look at Bill Gates. I believe that he really did have an epiphany, that despite all the nasty things that Gates and Microsoft did to amass such a tremendous fortune, one day Bill Gates (probably with prodding from his amazing wife, Melinda) came to realize that the fortune he’d amassed put him in a unique position to change the world, a position that few people in history have had and which fewer still have used wisely. Probably he realized too that there are bigger, more important and more challenging goals than cranking out the next version of Windows.

Another Way To Look At This

So look at it this way — in the big picture, Microsoft becomes a conduit through which money has flowed from the IT departments of giant departments and the pockets of hedge funds and institutional investors to the poorest of the poor.

Maybe the same can be said about Facebook. Two years ago Mark Zuckerberg joined The Giving Pledge, an initiative led by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, and made a commitment to give away at least half of his fortune. This is a noble thing, and today’s gesture is part of it.

So forget the PR. Mark Zuckerberg’s gesture will make the world a better place. Step back, squint your eyes, and you can see what’s happening: Facebook takes our personal data, sells it to giant advertisers, a lot of money flows into Mark Zuckerberg’s pockets, but then some of it flows back out to help people who are less fortunate.

As much as I hate wading through all those crappy sponsored stories and promoted posts, as much as I hate the idea that dead people are being used to hawk products on Facebook, as much as I resent that live people are also being used to hawk products, sometimes without our knowledge or consent - well, today’s news almost makes me feel good about it. Plus, it's the holiday season. Peace on earth, good will to men. Yes, even billionaires. If you see Mark Zuckerberg, give him a hug.

Image courtesy of Reuters.